If any place in Chicago can be described as having a “cult following,” it’s Hot Doug’s. Even before being shown to the general public on both Check, Please! and No Reservations, a wait for a dog at this place has been reported to exceed two-and-a-half hours. And, as my Dad and I would come to find out, the waiting was for good reason.
I urged my Dad to be there no later than 10:30 when they open. Sure enough, we showed up at around 10:25 and there were already about 10-15 people in line. At 10:30, the doors opened up, the grills sizzled, and the aroma of various encased sausages and duck fat fries filled the air. The line moved surprisingly quick, and we soon approached Doug Sohn, who is there nearly every day taking orders. Being the good food-o-philes we are, we had already picked out our sausages days in advance. Furthermore, we went with an order of duck fat fries and two t-shirts with the famous and oh-so correct quotation “There are no two finer words in the English language than “encased meats,” my friend.” Those final two words were what struck my Dad and I the most: My friend. Those two words epitomize the philosophy of Doug Sohn and Hot Doug’s. Serving hundreds of people every day 6 days a week must get exhausting after a while, but Doug showed nothing but incredible hospitality and an almost sense of excitement as he took our order. Quite simply, we felt welcome – like we were among friends.
We were served our encased meats within five minutes of being seated. We ordered 4 different sausages, and seeing them all before me filled me with glee. I first dug into the much talked about Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Aioli, Foie Gras Mousse and Sel Gris ($9). This was sinfully rich and - I never thought I would say this about a sausage – melted in my mouth. The creamy foie gras mousse gave way to the snap of the casing. Surprisingly, the duck flavor of the sausage was not lost amongst the other strong notes of this sausage. What surprised me most about it was both the earthiness of the truffle aioli and a hint of garlic – both of which paired wonderfully with the duck. Next, I tried the game of the week: Antelope Sausage with Berry-Cherry-Rum Sauce and Sartori Raspberry Cheese ($8). I always think it is a delicious idea to pair fruit with game, and this sausage held true to my belief. Antelope is a lean meat, so I was somewhat worried that it would make a dry sausage. Surprisingly, the sausage was somewhat moist and not as gamey as I expected. Though this was my least favorite sausage because of that fact. Out of the 4 we tasted, I felt this had the most muted flavors. The cherry sauce and raspberry cheese were fine additions, but I felt they overshadowed what should have been the start of the dish – the sausage.
My next bite took me back up north to my home state of Wisconsin - The Bacon and Cheddar Elk Sausage with Bacon-Garlic Mayonnaise and Beer-Washed Truckle Cheese ($8). How can one go wrong with such things as bacon-garlic mayonnaise and bacon and cheddar inside a sausage? This sausage tasted of brat cookouts in our backyard. The sausage itself had the fattiness of the bacon and the gaminess of the elk (I found it to be more present than in the antelope), with random nibs of cheddar in the background. Both the mayonnaise and the cheese all stayed in theme and were great additions to this sausage. My only complaint would be that everything in this sausage was so bold that I felt each flavor competing to be in the forefront instead of working together in one composed dish. Regardless, this was a great sausage that I would definitely have again. I finished my sausage eating tour with the Cognac-Infused Lamb and Pork Sausage with Spinach Raita and Pecorino Pepato Cheese ($8). To me, this was the most interesting in terms of flavor of all the sausages we tried. Like in all the other sausages we tried, the alcohol in the sausage was well balanced, and the lamb flavor was certainly noticeable. Raita, an Indian yogurt condiment, was refreshing and went well with the pepato cheese (basically a romano cheese with black peppercorns). In fact, this sausage had my favorite cheese of all that we had. I found it to be the most prominent tasting, as it added a secondary taste to the sausage as opposed to simply a smooth texture contrast. The duck fat fries were great. I’m not sure if I would be able to tell you they were made with duck fat unless I was told, but there was a certain lushness about them that elevated them above any fried I have had in recent memory.
All in all, though it is a bit outside the city itself, Hot Doug’s is a must-stop for anyone wanting to try something found not many other places I can name. Doug is ridiculously friendly, and the place has a certain vibe that is difficult to explain. When you see people from all different parts of life – businessmen, teenagers, families, etc. – sitting down and enjoying the same food in one area, it really shows the power of good sausages. A few notes about our trip: (1) No, I did not eat 4 whole sausages – my Dad and I split each sausage and had the equivalent of two. (2) Eat everything on the sausage all in one bite to get the full flavor profile of the sausage. I found that when I dissected the sausage to taste each component individually, it really took away from the concept. (3) Come early. Even on weekdays, the line around lunch time can stretch around the block.