The line outside of Hot Doug’s hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Chicago stretches two blocks. It’s almost 10:30 a.m. — opening time.
Jamie Madison, 30, got in line more than two hours earlier in order to be the first at the door. For her, coming to Hot Doug’s isn’t just about eating a hot dog, it’s “the whole experience,” she says.
“My friends and I like to come here at least once a summer,” Madison says, correcting my use of the term “hot dog” to describe her meal: “Hot Doug’s is 'gourmet encased meats,' not hot dogs.”
I stand corrected.
Hog Doug’s owner, Doug Sohn, also takes his encased meats seriously. But not for much longer: Sohn plans to retire from the hot dog business and close his shop in October.
Sohn attended culinary school and applied that training to his sausage and hot dog enterprise. At his restaurant, you can order an elk sausage or one with escargot mixed in. Among the most popular items is the foie gras and Sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse and fleur de sel.”
“To me, a really good quality Chicago hot dog should be [as] satisfying and tasty as anything you would get in a three-star restaurant,” Sohn says.
His philosophy has made him very popular. Sohn was recently inducted into the Vienna Beef Hot Dog Hall of Fame, an honor to which Sohn responded with something to the effect of: "I didn’t know there was a hot dog hall of fame."
“If someone had said to me when I started doing this 14 years ago: 'Oh and at some point you… will have a book… and you’ll be sitting down and chitchatting with Anthony Bourdain for his TV show'… It’s like, 'OK, and can I have some of that crack?'” Sohn says.
Sohn’s success has sparked a whole new niche industry within what was otherwise a staid part of the Chicago culinary scene.
“There’s no such thing as a hot dog franchise in Chicago, but there might as well be, because they’re all exactly alike,” says Mike Gebert, a journalist who has been writing about food in Chicago for 10 years, and who, for just as long, has been waiting for others to imitate Hot Doug’s.
“Finally, I think, it's what you see happening is we’re getting these … places that are trying a little harder, that’s got more exotic things on the menu,” Gebert says.
Other restaurants are hoping to lure in some of Sohn's loyal customers. Chicago-area chefs have been experimenting with a wide variety of hot dog dishes. For the adventurous hot dog connoisseur, there are now elk-meat sausages, quail egg toppings, and a popular Japanese hot dog topped with seaweed salad and pickled ginger at Ivy’s Hamburgers, Hot Dogs and Fries.
“Years ago, you could open up a new restaurant… and expect people to walk in. Nowadays, it’s a whole different market… Social media directs a lot of your customer base. You have to be on top of your game. You have to serve the best. There’s no other way,” says Ivy’s owner Tony Tzoubris.
There are so many restaurants jumping into the gourmet hot dog niche that Mike Gebert even wrote up a list for dejected Hot Doug’s customers searching for a replacement.
Tzoubris says he hopes Ivy’s is on it.
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