This story is part of a two-part series about the evolving Chicago food scene. For the actual interview with Doug Sohn and part two, head here.
It’s a typically warm Chicago afternoon as we walk around Grant Park for the annual Taste of Chicago. I’m here with my friend Peter, who lives in town with his fiancé, and we’re taking a lap to see what foods we’re interested in trying later. I’d come to town to spend some time grazing (like we’ve done in Queens) through the vast, updated food scene that is modern day Chicago. But, as luck would have it, I reached out to Legendary Hot Dog Man, Doug Sohn, about speaking with him, and he was coincidentally recording a podcast at Taste, so we decided to meet up mid day to chat about his eponymous Hot Doug’s, the new Chicago food scene, and baseball.
Chicago is a place that I’ve always known about, but never really known. My parents and their families are from The Windy City, but mom and dad packed up for the perpetually sunny skies of California long before I was born. I’ve been to Chicago once or twice with them, but have never spent any extended amount of time here. In my adult life I’ve only been here twice, so when it comes to the Chicago food scene I basically think of three things: hot dogs, Italian Beef, and deep-dish pizza.
As I find myself visiting Chicago twice in the last 16 months, it’s hard to break away from what’s always been the classics of a trip through the culinary world in Chicago. My parents have their “places,” so I’ve been to Gene and Jude’s, their local hot dog stand from the days when they lived in River Grove. I’ve been to the original, hyper-touristy location of Pizzeria Uno’s downtown, and Peter and I shared the classic pie from Lou Malnatti’s on this trip. I’ve also done two trips to Portillo’s for their take on a Chicagodog and the ever-classic, Italian beef. At this point, I think I have a reasonable grasp on the Holy Trinity of Chicago foods.
But Chicago’s changing, and that’s thanks in part to someone like Doug Sohn.
If you’re not familiar with the Chicago hot dog culture, there are a few key things you should know. A Chicagodog always has Vienna beef because it has "a unique snap" to it. A Chicagodog is served with neon-green relish and a dill pickle spear. And a Chicagodog is never, ever, ever served with ketchup. There are variations around this (Gene and Jude’s, for example, serves there’s with a pile of fries on top), but for the most part things haven’t really changed.
So when Sohn opened Hot Doug’s in 2001 — with its nontraditional, high quality, premium hot dogs —people noticed, and the small hotdog shop in Avondale was no stranger to long lines. He basically dominated the forefront of a changing Chicago food scene.
I think if you were to talk to anyone that grew up in the 50s and 60s in Chicago, they'd say that hot dogs were a mainstay. "Hot dogs were always on the lunch menu at my home when I was growing up. They were prepared [stuffed with cheese], then wrapped in a slice of bacon and broiled, served in a hot dog bun with Jay's chips," My dad recently told me. Sohn had a similar memory. "Growing up here, it was not a food city. It was hot dogs, Italian, deep dish pizza. I remember the days the days of fine continental dining that include a pineapple and a wedge salad."
My dad was introduced to his "spot" Gene and Jude's through a friend that lived around the corner, then into adulthood, he'd stop by after his shifts at The Thirsty Whale. As for what makes the Chicagodog unique? "I think the Chicago style dog that is a unique icon not associated with any particular group. The Italian beef sandwich or the gyro sandwich have their roots in Italian and Greek cuisines, but Chicago has it's dogs, and other cities have theirs." And that's a similar thought to how my [half] Italian mom grew up. "The only thing my mom cooked was Sunday sauce and meatballs. Hotdogs and pizza were for eating out," she explains.
And that's the thing about Chicago. It's a place that is rich in the traditions of immigrant communities from all over the world, but their old school food conventions are quintessentially American feeling. But as more restaurants like Hot Doug's show up, they're pushing the food landscape forward into a territory that can handily compete with the likes of San Francisco and New York. "I think the places that were already open, I don't think they cared," Sohn says as I ask about how his store changed Chicago's food scene, "But there are definitely places that opened up that were trying to do better food."
Even standard baseball fare in Chicago has taken the slow step into the world of higher-end dining with the help of Sohn. "At Wrigley, you'd have 30k tickets sold, but if you looked around the stadium was empty the first few innings because people were out eating and drinking elsewhere," Sohn says. And my mom had the same memory. "When the Cubs were home we'd go to the games with my dad, and as a treat we would go to Murphy's behind the park and bring them into the park and eat them at our seats. Once you discover Murphy’s you will never have another dog at the actual park." As part of their multi-year makeover, Wrigley is focusing on local vendors to serve better ball park food, and that includes the bleachers-only Hot Doug's, with a rotating menu every home game.
As for how the Chicago food scene looks now, it's in stark contrast from the world that my parents and Sohn grew up with in Chicago. Now, there are Michelin-starred restaurants, relevant (and delicious) BBQ joints, and top-notch food from previously under-appreciated cuisines like Ethiopian, Middle Eastern, or Vietnamese, present right alongside those historic hot dog stands. When participating in a changing food culture, you don't have to let the old traditions go, but instead look to how they can incorporated into a more modern conversation about food. "One of the nice things about what’s happened in Chicago is that you don’t have to go downtown anymore," explains Sohn, "I like to eat at neighborhood-y independent places. I live on the Northwest side and I live by Fat Rice and Yusho which are just outstanding."
And what's happening in Chicago is happening in other cities, and not just the major ones. From Dollywood to San Diego Sohn reminded me, "Almost everywhere, I have found something worth eating."
Brianna is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Hook & Blade Mag. She is based out of New York City where she enjoys exploring the city, trying new foods, and people watching. She works as an Email Marketing Manager at General Assembly, and tries to travel as much as she can.