There are two great culinary battlefields where New York and Chicago have been duking it out for decades, with still no end in sight: who makes the best pizza, and who makes the best hot dogs. In the spirit of full disclosure, let me just say that I’m firmly on the NY side of the fence on both of these issues. I’ve never had the opportunity to try Chicago-style pizza IN Chicago, but what I’ve had around here hasn’t impressed me much (this puts me squarely at odds with my sister, her boyfriend and my roommate). The hot dog issue isn’t as clear cut.
You see, though I do consider the hot dog to be a kind of watered-down version of a sausage, it doesn’t stop me from loving them. Give me a pile of pulverized meat and spices in a casing, and I’m a pretty happy guy, especially if I didn’t have to watch it being made. I’m also pretty equal opportunity when it comes to my hot dogs; boiled, sliced down the middle and fried, grilled, held over a campfire at the end of a stick, wrapped in dough and baked in the oven…it’s all fine with me. Now for nostalgic reasons, when I’ve got a hot dog craving and I don’t want to do the work myself, I usually hit up Stan’s on Vista Avenue in Boise. I lived in Buffalo for a couple of years, so the hot dogs he imports from there and the way he chars the hell out of them really hit home for me (not to mention the amazing frozen custard and the delicious onion rings…can’t wait to try the beef on weck!), but we’re not here to talk about Stan’s right now, or even NY-style hot dogs in general. Let’s spend some time on the other side of the fence, shall we?
Taste of Chicago has been sharing their wares from their limited menu (not a bad thing) from a little spot next to Rite Aid on Main Street in Meridian during their very limited hours (bad thing) for about seven years now. I had only been there once before, and it had been several years prior. After that visit, I kept thinking that I needed to return and try some of the other options, but every time I’ve driven past the place it’s been closed, which is a hazard of being open only four and a half hours a day five days a week, four of which I’m working too far away to make a lunch run to Meridian in the time allotted. Recently though, I finally found myself in the right area of Meridian at the right time of day on the right day of the week. Most importantly, I had nobody with me whose tastes I had to take into consideration when choosing a lunch spot. So, I parked the car in one of the spaces designated for Taste of Chicago customers, approached, and ordered the “Daily Special”.
|Taste of Chicago menu|
The Daily Special consists of two Chicago-style dogs, fries, and a drink, and while I had vowed to try something other than the Chicago hot dog when I returned, it had been so long that I figured I should start back at square one. Personally, there are a few ways I like my hot dogs finished off. If it’s a flavorful or really high quality one like a Nathan’s (which you can get at Fred Meyer‘s deli right now for a buck, interestingly enough), a squirt of mustard will suffice. Otherwise, I like mustard, onions and relish (sweet or dill, doesn’t matter). On rare occasions sauerkraut appeals to me, and other times I’ll go the whole chili, onion and cheese route. The Chicago method of preparing a hot dog is, much like their pizza, to go completely overboard. We start with a poppy seed bun, which is a little unusual outside the Chicago area, but still fine. Into this bun is put, as I understand it, a kosher pure beef hot dog imported directly from Chicago itself, obviously fine with me. Added to this mix is mustard and onion, and we’re still doing just fine. Then comes the relish. Yes, I’ve pointed out that I’m not discriminatory when it comes to relish, so it’s not the fact that the relish is sweet that’s a little off-putting so much as the fact that it’s a garish, 80’s horror movie nuclear green color. Then, as if to make up for using the sweet relish, a dill pickle spear is laid on top, joined by fresh tomatoes and sport peppers. Finally the whole mess is crowned with a sprinkle of celery salt.
|Bobbing for hot dogs…|
About the time I finished examining the menu, trying to decide if I would try the Italian Beef Sandwich, The Italian Sausage Sandwich, the Meatball Sandwich or maybe even just the B.L.T. Hot Dog net time, my order was finished. The menu isn’t that long, so I’m guessing the dogs are kept in hot water or something (this of course is classic street food method) and that the fries are frozen. The fries were a more or less a throwaway item to me anyway, as I just wanted the hot dogs. Still, the proprietor handed out a take-out container so full that the lid would barely stay closed, advising me that he may have put too many fries in. Bearing that in mind, I ponied up the extra eighty cents for a tub of fry sauce and went on my merry way. I snacked on some of the fries in the car, partly because frozen or not (and I don’t discriminate here either as both have their merits), fries are best when they’re hot, crispy and salty, and partly to attempt to uncover at least one of my hot dogs before I reached my destination. Alas, there were so many fries that I was unsuccessful, and had to finish excavating when I arrived.
|Chicago-style hot dogs|
The first thing I did after digging out my main course was to chuck the sport peppers. Sorry, I know it’s part of the whole traditional thing, but the evil little buggers give me hiccups. Let’s just get out of the way that the ingredients are all top-notch, from the delicious and juicy hot dog itself all the way to ripe tomatoes. I’m not accustomed to tasting both sweet and dill pickles on the same item, so that’s a little odd to me but it still works. The onions had a nice and thankfully not obnoxious flavor, and the mustard was used judiciously. The whole package is rather messy when eaten together, and while I found myself wishing that larger tomatoes had been used so they could have been cut into wedges that might have stayed in place better, on the whole I don’t think it would have mattered much.
In the end, I still consider myself a NY hot dog loyalist. When I crave a hot dog, Taste of Chicago probably won’t immediately pop into my mind, but it’s not because the food isn’t good. Not by a long shot. You see, I just can’t think of what Chicago puts out as a hot dog, any more than I think of a Torta Cubana as a hot dog just because that’s one of the ingredients. No my friends, to me this is a sandwich. A really tasty freaking sandwich. And speaking of sandwiches, what to try next time? Beef? Sausage? Meatball? Decisions, decisions…
Final Grade: B+