The Best Hot Dog in Chicago Isn’t a Chicago Hot Dog
Does that matter?
Chicago is a hot dog town. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Deep dish pizza came later, sometime in the 1940s. Italian beef remains obscure in the eyes of non-Chicagoans, a tier-two sandwich like Philadelphia’s roast pork, forever in the shadow of the cheesesteak.
In the hands of a Chicago artisan, the humble hot dog becomes complex, multi-textured, and particularly delicious. If you asked for proof, I’d send you to Superdawg. I’d have to follow up by admitting that, by the rigid standards that define a Chicago hot dog, the Superdawg isn’t one.
The Chicago hot dog is a codified assemblage of all-beef wiener, steamed poppyseed bun, and seven toppings: mustard, chopped onions, tomato slices, dill pickle, sport peppers, neon-green relish, and celery salt. Those are ingredients with German, Jewish, Greek, and Italian origins, reflective of Chicago’s population in the early twentieth century. There is little room for variation within those parameters. You could use a finer mustard, such as Plochman’s, or you could char-grill—instead of steam—the frankfurter.
In the hands of a Chicago artisan, the humble hot dog becomes complex, multi-textured, and particularly delicious. If you asked for proof, I’d send you to Superdawg.
Superdawg’s rendition defies tradition in one important way: This wiener sandwich (please, not now) ditches red tomato slices for a wedge of pickled green tomato. The pickled tomato comes nestled in the crinkle-cut fries, not on top of the dog. But this writer sees that as an engineering choice, and you should end up alternating bites between hot dog and green tomato anyway. It is an inspired substitution. Too often, the red tomato half-moons on Chicago hot dogs are mushy and flavorless. Green tomatoes bear a family resemblance but offer a firmer, crunchier texture. The flavor complements the existing toppings—the spicy brine of the sport peppers, the dill pickle zip.
That pickled green tomato provokes debate among the hot dog cognoscenti. Does the Superdawg wiener pass the Chicago hot dog purity test? Not quite. Does it taste good? Some would say it’s the best. It offers savory and sweet and tang and spice, bite and pillow softness.
It’s best enjoyed in context. Opened in 1948 in the Norwood Park neighborhood, halfway between downtown and O’Hare, the drive-in and counter-service restaurant retains its kitschy mid-century atmospherics—all hand-drawn cartoons and bright primary colors in neon glow. Superdawg exudes joy from all angles. As you approach, you see two towering hot dog figures jutting into the sky: one muscle-bound and sporting a leopard-print singlet, the other in a blue pleated skirt. Those are based on the joint’s late husband-and-wife founders, Maurie and Flaurie Berman.
Whether their house wiener is a true Chicago dog is a pedantic argument—and a pedantic argument about a hot dog, no less. It brings to mind another long-running Chicago food debate. Many of us count Pequod’s pies among the best deep dish in the city, though Pequod’s is baked in a shallow pan, with cheese caramelized into the edges, differentiating its crust from its cakier cousins at Uno’s and Lou Malnati’s. Some critics argue that it isn’t even deep dish. I say that if a stylistic difference puts Pequod’s into a category of its own, it’s in a superior category.
So too stands Superdawg, serving a great hot dog in a hot dog town.