Once upon a time, man ate plants.
Then he got diarrhea and constipation. He also looked pasty, had a tough time building muscle mass, and he got crabby every two hours he went without chomping on a celery stick. This made man, in his irritability, kill a dumb animal. Fortunately, this proverbial man knew not to waste the opportunity to try something knew, and he ate the animal. He ate the meat.
Man tasted the meat, and it was good. He got buff, he had the energy to go out and kill more animals, and his hair became shinier and more healthy. Plus, he got heart attacks to break up the monotony of getting older.
As man turned the dumb animals into meat, there were bits that were not good. Hooves, tongues, junk, and other gibby bits. These were not tasty, and the fact that they still resembled their original parts made them all the less appetizing. If only he could get around these parts' individual tastes and looks, there'd be more meat to eat.
So man made the hot dog. The tube steak. The particle board of meat. It was good, didn't even remotely resemble any of its constituent parts, and it used up most of the stuff eating meat had leftover as 'garbage'.
Man put the hot dog in a bun, and he instantly redeemed the bread. He did not put ketchup on it, though, because that's gross. But otherwise the hot dog was very forgiving when it came to toppings: mustard, chili, cheese, onions, and more could be slathered on the dog in turn to make a superior meal. A cheap meal, too.
"Man tasted the meat, and it was good."
And then, in Chicago, a great man decided to make the best iteration of the hot dog. It began with a Vienna Beef hot dog in a poppy seed bun. Mustard was then applied as mortar for the rest of the toppings. The toppings were a consolation prize to the plants that supported man before the glorious advent of meat: onions, tomato, pickle, hot peppers, relish, celery salt, and--on divine occasions--cucumber.
This hot dog was an immediate success. He lured the heads of the other hot dog iterations into a national strategy meeting, where he tommy-gunned them into submission and earned the title Chicago Dog.
The Chicago Dog is a one-handed meal, a sublime mix of nameless meats and half a flora biome. It will keep you going through a long Illinois summer afternoon--or, if you hail from elsewhere, a summer day with a damp electric blanket wrapped around your head. The taste is like a compression of a multi-course meal, complete with the savory, the salty, and the veggies you'd require for a complete palette you'd expect from a nice dinner.
In praise of the Chicago Dog, and to equip you readers for the upcoming holiday weekend, the following entries in the Week of Chicago Dogs will feature and review the signature dog of some of my favorite places in the immediate area. For those of you out of driving distance of my twenty mile hot dog radius, feel free to compare my descriptions to the sorry hot dogs you're eating and marvel at the majesty of the Chicago Dog.
I said marvel!
Sammie's Chicago Style Sandwiches
This place is a legacy in the Northern Illinois area. I grew up going to Sammie's on at least a monthly basis, sometimes much more when my mom worked a lot of weekends. Sammie's is always a staple at the Lake County Fair, and in high school it was my favorite pit-stop after class. Nowadays I only get the occasional chance to visit, but when I do, it's always a treat. My staple is always two Chicago Dogs and a side of mozzarella sticks that I split with my father, who also gets a pair of dogs, for a total cost of around thirteen dollars.
Dog: Of course I wouldn't tolerate a Chicago Dog from the same establishment for so long if they didn't use Vienna Beef. Sammie's also has the noble distinction of being recently inducted into the Vienna Beef Hall of Fame for long-term independent vendors, so there's that, too. On the continuum of hot dogs I've eaten over the years, I'd say that the average Sammie's Chicago Dog has a medium skin texture, just enough that your teeth do some legitimate work tearing into the delicious dog, but not enough that you perceive the satisfying (for some) snap with each bite. This means that the hot dog itself has a nice firmness to differentiate its texture from the rest of the toppings, but is soft enough that the dog is homogeneous relative to the rest of the toppings.
Bun: The Sammie's bun is covered in poppy seeds and thick, and sometimes just a little on the dry side. Their ingredients are generally thicker than your average Chicago Dog's, so it fits that they have a bun that is almost inflated compared to most places. It's good, though, and the poppy seeds are dense enough on the bun's flank that picking up your meal to take a bite out of it elicits a soft sprinkling of seeds on your plate.
Toppings: Sammie's Chicago Dog is a decadent fat-boy when it comes to the toppings. It has the ridiculous(ly awesome) distinction of being one of the only Chicago Dog places that regularly includes a slice of cucumber on their hot dogs. It's a great addition to the standard palette, giving a watery counter to the savory goodness of the ensemble. When they include hot peppers, the Sammie's Chicago Dog is lined with green fire--where most places include only two or three per hot dog, Sammie's includes four at minimum. While some appreciate this, it's a little much for me, so I usually pass on the peppers, though the taste is not otherwise dominated by the peppers. The Sammie's pickle spear is at least twice the thickness of most other places, as are the full, fresh tomato slices that help to give a wholesome tang to the savory hot dog. They go fairly light on the celery salt, leaving it as a subtle bitter accent to go hand in hand with the smooth mustard. Finally, the cast is rounded off with some dark green relish. Overall, the Sammie's Chicago Dog is a jaw-extending experience that challenges you to fit all the elements in your mouth at once. When you're successful, you get a fireworks' display of distinctly savory, spicy, and salty tastes. Otherwise, you pick one slant to each nibble as you chip away at this filling dog.
Side: There's only one hot dog place I usually get mozzarella sticks from, and that's Sammie's. Full of thick cheese, these are firm, solid 'mozzo sticks'--not those hollow things that crumble as you pick them up you get at some places. The breading is good and evenly spiced, with very little superfluous stuff crumbling off as you dip your side into a nice marinara sauce. Their red sauce is the weak point: it is often a little bit on the fluid side. It's great for dipping, but good luck finding any rewarding chunks to lift out with your mozzarella stick.
Venue: There are few places so inherently soothing to me as a good hot dog place, and I think that began with Sammie's. Each of their three locations have a clean, cozy atmosphere, with trademark booths of curved particle wood with laminate that is comfy and simple at the same time. Each shop has a couple of old analog TVs slung up in the far corners of the ceiling, with a Chicago ball game of some kind playing whenever there's one to be seen. Decorations are pretty spare, but each shop features one or more of those classic Vienna Beef posters. I must say I'm a fan of those posters, as I have one in a place of honor in my game room.