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Digging in at Hot Doug’s

First off, I want to Wisch everyone a Happy Fourth of July. Have a great one.

Secondly, here’s today’s Wisch List newspaper column from the Kankakee Daily Journal

Digging in at Hot Doug’s

The WISCH LIST

July 4, 2009

At precisely 9:30 a.m. last Saturday morning, Darren Cahr parked his SUV at a quiet intersection on Chicago’s North Side and promptly hopped out.

The 40-year-old then strolled across the street, took a seat on the sidewalk outside a restaurant’s entrance and unfurled a newspaper in preparation for an hourlong wait.

Just to eat a hot dog.

“I’ve been doing this for years,” Cahr proudly explained as he sat on the hard concrete outside Hot Doug’s, Chicago’s self-proclaimed “Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium” that serves so much more than “just hot dogs.”

Within minutes, the line behind Cahr had grown to eight. And by the time Hot Doug’s finally opened for business at 10:30 a.m., the string of hungry folks waiting outside had swelled to nearly a hundred and stretched all the way down the block.

It was expected to stay that way all day long. Just like it does every Saturday, no matter if there’s rain, sleet, snow or sweltering heat.

And you thought the lines at the Taste of Chicago were extreme.

“For a true aficionado, there simply is no better place to experience a hot dog,” Cahr said explaining the madness behind his methods. “Hot Doug’s is the height of the encased meat art form.”

Yes, in Chicago, there is an art form.

And Hot Doug’s is the Louvre.

Owned by executive chef Doug Sohn and located at 3324 N. California Ave. in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood, Hot Doug’s truly is unlike any other hot dog joint that you’ll find in the Windy City – or anywhere else, for that matter.

In a town known for its grub, Hot Doug’s stands tall, boasting a true cult status among Chicago’s devoted “foodies” thanks to its fascinating menu (we’ll get to that), friendly atmosphere (Hot Doug himself is your cashier) and glowing accolades (in June, culinary guru Anthony Bourdain decreed Hot Doug’s as one of the “The 13 places to eat before you die”).

If Bourdain’s claim is true, then Brent McKinney is proud to say he can die a happy man.

“My two favorite restaurants are Gibson’s (Steakhouse) and Hot Doug’s,” McKinney, 35, explained on Saturday as he stood fourth in line waiting for the Encased Meat Emporium to open. “But I put Hot Doug’s slightly above Gibson’s because you can find other steakhouses.

“But you can’t find another place like Hot Doug’s in the city. You’ll never find another place like this.”

At Hot Doug’s, you can get traditional Windy City staples such as bratwursts, polish sausages and Chicago dogs (no ketchup allowed). But that’s not the main reason why most people go there.
Rather, they’re willing to wait more than an hour in line to sample some of the restaurant’s more exotic – or amusing – fare.

Each day the menu includes a variety of celebrity-themed sausages such as the “Keira Knightley” (formerly the Jennifer Garner and the Britney Spears) that’s described as “Mighty hot!” and the “Salma Hayek” (formerly the Madonna, the Raquel Welch and the Ann Margaret) that’s “Mighty, mighty, mighty hot!”

Beyond that, each morning at hotdougs.com rotating specials are posted that range from the Hot Doug’s BLT with bacon sausage, avocado mayonnaise, cherry tomatoes and iceberg lettuce to a Spicy Beef Sausage with Coca-Cola BBQ sauce and Colby Jack cheese to a Taco Pork Sausage with jalapeno mayonnaise and habanero Jack cheese.

Most interestingly, though, is Hot Doug’s “Game of the Week” special, a selection of game animal sausages that – if they don’t make your mouth water – will at least make your jaw drop.

“I’ve had a rattlesnake hot dog, kangaroo, elk, venison, buffalo, wild boar, rabbit …” McKinney said, ticking off the sausages he’s sampled.

On this, my first visit to Hot Doug’s, I skipped the wild boar and instead went with a BLT dog and an order of duck fat fries (available only on Fridays and Saturdays), described by many as the best in Chicago.

Hot Doug’s is only open from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, but McKinney makes those hours work.

“One weekend, I actually did a triple-dip,” he said. “I came here for dinner on a Friday, then lunch on Saturday and then dinner on Saturday. By the third time, one of the busboys did a double take. And I was like, ‘Yeah, me again.’ ”

McKinney said that weekend he spent a total of nearly four hours waiting in line outside Hot Doug’s. And he issued a caveat to anyone else considering a visit.

“Just Remember that Hot Doug’s only takes cash,” McKinney said.

The wait is worth it.

But it doesn’t take plastic.