Every major U.S. city is known for a certain type of food, and Chicago is no different. We actually have many culinary claims to fame: steakhouses, Italian beef, deep-dish pizza, and the one we are possibly the most protective and particular about: the Chicago-style hot dog.
While the origins of the Chicago-style hot dog are not fully understood, the Vienna Beef hot dog company explains that the roots are Depression-era, an entire meal encased in a bun for just a nickel. Others believe it came from a pair of immigrants who introduced it in the 1893 World’s Fair, held in Chicago. However, that history may be mixed up with the fact that the World’s Fair is where Vienna Beef, the most popular type of hot dog in a Chicago-style dog, introduced their frankfurters for the first time.
But wherever it came from, make no mistake: Chicagoans take their hot dogs very, very seriously. Whether you’re grabbing one at Wrigley Field, a hole-in-the-wall, greasy-spoon-type restaurant with a Vienna Beef sign swinging out front, or a rolling cart out on the street, there is really only one way to assemble and enjoy a proper dog in Chicago. In fact, this article is supposed to explain the difference between a regular hot dog and a Chicago-style, but the definition of Chicago-style will make that pretty obvious. Simply put, if your dog is just an encased meat on a plain bun, with or without any toppings, well, there you go: It’s not Chicago-style. If you want to do it right, it’s best to follow these steps and insider tips or forever be branded a clueless tourist.
Only the best will do here. Find the highest quality, all-beef kosher-style hot dog that you can. Note that all-beef is key, and kosher-style basically guarantees that. If you can get your hands on a package of Vienna Beef hot dogs, that’s the gold standard. Red Hot Chicago, another manufacturer, is a good substitute, as is Hebrew National. Vienna Beef dogs are most traditional, lightly seasoned with spices and enclosed in a natural casing. Traditionally the hot dog is steamed or boiled in a warm water bath. Don’t be scared by the bath! Many reputable hot dog carts on the streets of Chicago do this alongside their restaurant brethren, and I guarantee you’ll get a delicious, flavorful dog. Char-broiling them on a grill (obviously referred to as a “char dog”) is an acceptable substitute.
Only one type of bun is suitable for a Chicago dog, and that’s a poppy seed bun. No exceptions here! In fact, the poppy seed bun is so ubiquitous in Chicago that I, a Chicago-native, in dismay when trying to find a decent hot dog bun on vacation, was surprised to learn that the poppy seed bun was a Chicago-only thing…and it was in my 20s when I learned this. Seriously, there is no substitute. Take your average white-bread type bun, roll it in poppy seeds on the outside, and voila. The bun is also typically steamed. As you bite into it, you’ll lose a few seeds both in your lap and between your teeth, but that goes with the territory. If you add the rest of the ingredients below to your hot dog but don’t put it in a poppy seed bun? Sorry, but you can’t call it a Chicago dog. It’s almost Chicago-style, but not quite. If you want to be authentic, go for Rosen’s buns, but in a pinch any manufacturer will do.
Plain old boring yellow mustard. Not dijon, not spicy deli-style with the mustard seeds. Don’t get me wrong, those are delicious mustards and have their place on many foods, but a Chicago-style dog isn’t fancy. Just simple yellow will do. Look for French’s or any other style of yellow mustard.
Onions give the dog a good crunch and spice. Coarsely chop up a handful of white onions—not yellow or red—and sprinkle them on top. If you really want to get fancy, you can grill them; in fact, at both ballparks in Chicago, you can walk up to certain stands and simply state that you’ll have a hot dog “with” and they’ll pile a generous helping of grilled onions on top. However, most places will offer just raw onions, and you only need a sprinkle to get the flavor.
Same thing with tomatoes. They’re generally either thick-sliced raw in semi-circles so they lay nice and flat against the dog, or you nestle small tomato wedges in between the dog and the bun. Again, like onions, they offer a little bit of crunch but also a little juiciness and sweetness to offset the bite of the onion.
Never heard of a sport pepper? They’re small, slightly hot pickled peppers. Visually speaking, they look like a jalapeño, though they’re not actually made from jalapeños. Greenish-yellowish in color, the flavor is kind of reminiscent of banana peppers. If you’re sensitive to spice, you can safely omit the sport peppers and still claim the rest of the dog as genuine Chicago-style. But if you’ve never had them, this hot dog is the best way to try them. Just throw two or three whole, never sliced, into the mix on top of your dog.
At this point you’re probably thinking that there’s no more room for anything in between the halves of your poppy seed bun. But you’d be wrong! Continue on—
Relish is, simply put, chopped pickled cucumbers. However, when it comes to relish on a Chicago-style, the more neon the green color, the better. This relish is sweet, which will help tamper down the spice of the sport peppers. There are many brands out there, but Vienna Beef makes their own that’s a safe bet. If you can’t find Vienna’s jars, just look for a sweet relish that glows in the dark, and you’ll be fine.
Kosher spear. Nothing fancy here. But don’t think of a sweet bread & butter pickle, you want the traditional tangy, crunchy kind. The pickle should remain in full-sized, spear form. While many people would assume that the pickle would be a side, an accompaniment to the dog, they’d be wrong. Instead, place the entire spear between the dog and the bun on the other side from the tomato wedges and enjoy it with the rest of the toppings. At this point you can say you’ve got a veritable salad in your bun, right?
Celery salt is simply a blend of salt and ground celery seeds. Celery salt gives the whole meal (and at this point, you need to agree that it’s a meal) just a little more pop of flavor. All you need is a light sprinkle on top, not a heavy dousing. Everything else you’ve added here will give your dog all the flavor it requires, so there’s no need for strong seasonings.
At this point your dog will weigh a pound or two more than a “regular” hot dog and be slightly messy to eat, but I promise nobody will judge you for the giant mouthful of food you’re about to enjoy. An important thing to note is that while all of the ingredients above compose the ultimate traditional Chicago-style red hot, there is a little bit of room for interpretation. Sport peppers too hot for you? You can leave them off. Relish a little too neon? That’s okay, too. Take away one or two of the ingredients, and as long as you’ve got a good piece of meat on a poppy seed bun, you’ll still enjoy a quality specimen of a proper dog. That being said, there is one absolute, quintessential no-no when it comes to a Chicago-style hot dog:
Ketchup is 100 percent verboten. Yellow mustard is truly the only acceptable condiment. You could do everything else right, add every ingredient listed above, but if you add ketchup? You’ll get sad looks of disapproval from the Chicagoans sitting around you.
How strict is this rule? Well, nobody will throw you in jail or into Lake Michigan, but a hot dog stand outside the Shedd Aquarium has a sign that says “must dance for ketchup.” You’ve been warned.
In any case, you now have the tools to belly up to a Chicago hot dog stand like a pro. So grab yourself a poppy seed bun, load up on the toppings, and enjoy the summer with the best dog around.
Header image by Chowhound, using photos from Chowhound and Shutterstock.