When I left Chicago for a 10-month stay in rural Oregon back in 2010, my second-to-last meal here in the Windy City was a Chicago hot dog, something that is simply not available more than 20 miles or so outside the city borders. Oddly, though, when I returned in 2011, I didn't immediately seek out red hots. Instead, I focused on the glories of upscale wine bars, dives that offer great live music with no cover, and even fresh, creative vegan food.
I love hot dogs dearly, but would rather spend my calories on more nutritious fare. Still, Susie's caught my eye when I moved into the neighborhood and I made my first visit a few months ago. I've been back a couple of times, drawn in by convenience, low prices and the alcohol-absorbing properties of fresh cut fries. Like most such establishments, Susie's isn't perfect, but it does have the essence of a traditional, independent Chicago hot dog stand.
It is also worthy of your patronage.
Situated on the Old Irving Park / Mayfair border, Susie's Drive-In is a neon encrusted establishment just west of the Elston/Keystone/Montrose intersection. The neighborhood is safe enough by day, though there have been occasional reports of gang violence on the intersection at night.
I've read some complaints about Susie's service, but I've never had a major problem. Keep in mind that this joint is open 24/7, which means that staff members have to deal with a lot of drunks. I suppose that a certain ennui has set in among long-time staff, but I've never been treated with anything but courtesy. Smile and employees will usually smile back.
Service can be somewhat slow, particularly during busy times, but this is often a blessing in disguise, as constant orders equal freshly cooked food. There are two drive-through windows, an outdoor walk-up window, and an indoor counter. Step or drive right up to place your order and you will, eventually, get your food.
You're joking, right? Seriously, this is a hot dog stand, so while you can eat at the tiny counter at the front of the store, you are better off consuming your greasy comestibles in your car, at Susie's picnic table, or at home.
Prices run the gamut, though most people should be able to find something that suits both tummy and wallet. A hot dog with fries is $3.34 plus tax and a tamale will set you back $1.47. At $9.99, the most expensive menu item is The Extreme, a Philly cheese steak with chicken. Cheese fries range from 4.24 to 7.42 depending on size and configuration. Shakes run $3.22 to $6.55.
Budget-conscious diners will appreciate Susie's paper menu, available at the counter, listing items by price in ascending order.
Susie's has a huge menu that includes subs, salads, burgers and Italian beef sandwiches along with various soft drinks, milk shakes and deep-fried appetizers. None of it is very healthy, but you don't typically go to a hot dog stand on your doctor's recommendation, do you?
The hot dogs at Susie's are tasty, though not spectacular. The dogs are skinless, lacking the snap that only a natural casing can give, and Susie's serves them on buns that are sadly devoid of poppy seeds. Standard toppings include mustard, relish, pickle, cucumber, tomato, raw onion and celery salt. Sport peppers are available upon request.
- Double your hot dog, not your carbs
Incidentally, the dogs are somewhat small, so if you are hungry, get a double dog.
The Ketchup Problem
- Susie's urges a light touch at the ketchup pump.
Susie's is a bulwark of traditional values, which means that hot dogs do not come with ketchup. For those who do want ketchup on their dogs or fries, there is a there is a DIY ketchup pump available, along with little white paper cups. The cups are fine if you are eating at Susie's, but impractical for travel. Sadly, the stand doesn't offer sealed packets of ketchup, so if you plan to take your meal home, make sure you have a bottle of Heinz in your fridge.
While certainly not gourmet, Susie's hamburgers are very good. A medium-sized patty served on a fresh sesame seed bun is just the ticket for those who prefer a more substantial sandwich.
When Susie's fries are good, they are very, very good. These are house-cut, skin-on fries that, when fresh, are initially wonderfully crisp and then melt in your mouth. Susie's serves them on their own and as cheese fries with various configurations of cheese, meat, and condiments, such as gyros cheese fries and bacon cheese fries, all served in a crispy, deep-fried, edible bowl.
The trouble is that if you show up during a slow period, you risk getting fries that are stale. While they aren't entirely bad, they are a severe disappointment for those who know how good they can be. I've heard others say that if you are concerned about the quality of fries during your visit, ask for them "extra crispy," which may inspire the staff to prepare a fresh batch.
Resurrecting Susie's Fries
- Bringing soggy fries back to life.
If you end up with a less-than-stellar batch of fries from Susie's, you can resurrect them at home. Take out frying pan or skillet and add a small amount of oil (I favor expeller pressed coconut oil, myself). Heat the oil and add the fries, being careful to not overload the pan. Turn the potatoes frequently until crispy. Drain on paper towels.
Susie's is famous for its 65+ flavors of milkshake. You can, of course, enjoy standard flavors such as chocolate, vanilla and fresh banana, but if you have exotic tendencies, go for the "cherry coconut," "Bermuda Triangle," or "Witches Brew." In keeping with the eccentric pricing policies that govern many a classic Chicago hot dog stand, Susie's lets you turn any shake into a malt for a mere 28 cents.
- Pick a flavor, any flavor.
I've only tried a chocolate malt here, but found it to be quite tasty for a fast food offering. It wouldn't stand up to a proper ice-cream parlor shake, such as can be had at Margie's, but it does quite nicely for washing down a hot dog, tamale or cheese fries.
- Adventures in fried foods.
Along with many other Chicago hot dog stands, Susie's offer a motley assortment of deep-fried oddities, including the now-classic Pizza Puff, jalapeno poppers and "sweet corn nuggets." While I thought that the sweet corn nuggets might be corn fritters, I found out that they are instead deep-fried balls of creamed corn. While I can't say that I actually enjoyed them, I admire the tenacity of the person who figured out how both nuggetize and batter the creamy foodstuff.
Location & Hours
4126 West Montrose Avenue Chicago, IL 60641
The Montrose 78 bus runs past Susie's Drive-In.