A Chicago-style hot dog is sort of headache inducing, if you think about it: a frankfurter most often nestled into a poppy seed bun, topped with a combination of yellow mustard, diced onions, tomato slices, shockingly neon green pickle relish, a whole pickle spear, sport peppers (a real type of pepper, by the way), and celery salt. But the thing is, we Chicagoans don’t really think about our hot dogs too much. We don’t have to. They’re just there when we need one. Hot dogs are practically within arm’s reach in most of Chicago’s neighborhoods, with stands dotted all across the city.
A fully loaded Chicago dog is absolutely magical. The mustard cuts through the beefiness of the dog, the onions bring an acrid sting, the tomatoes insert freshness, the relish carries welcome sweetness (and a Willy Wonkaesque pop of color), the pickle spear brings vinegar, the sport peppers add a sharp-spicy acid, and it’s all tied together—however strangely—by the celery salt, which leaves you with a satisfying vegetal afterglow. None of this might make any sense, but as soon as you take a bite, it will.
Outsiders like to joke about how the Chicago-style hot dog is a frankfurter with a salad on top, but in truth, there’s more utility to the dish than you might think. Chicago dogs sprang from necessity during the Great Depression in the 1930s; they were cheap and made from trimmings—after all, Chicago was a meat-processing town. Street vendors would pile on a bevy of toppings per customer request, which made each dog a square meal. And an affordable one, at that. What settled after years of adaptation was the final result you see today.
With all these topping options, you’d think ordering a Chicago dog would be overwhelming, but it isn’t. In most cases, all you do is order one with “everything.” There is, of course, the whole debacle around ketchup. Diehards will wag their fingers and tell you that asking for ketchup on a Chicago hot dog will get you run out of town. I’m here to tell you that’s not entirely true. Some hot dog joints will make it known that they don’t serve ketchup on their hot dogs. But the truth is, I hear people ask for ketchup on their hot dogs now and then, and aside from some ribbing or groaning, they usually come out unscathed. There are major exceptions to this rule; some places don’t even carry it (including Jimmy’s Red Hots, on this list).
And while ordering a Chicago hot dog shouldn’t make your palms sweat, there are some variations to consider: the char dog, which is grilled instead of steamed or simmered; and what some call the “depression dog,” which is a minimalist version of an “everything” dog that’s topped more sparingly with yellow mustard, onions, pickle relish, and sport peppers.
It’s hard to pick between all of the great hot dogs in Chicago. But as long as the place looks somewhat banged up, the walls are sticky, and there’s a steady line of customers, you’re golden. These eight places represent my absolute favorites, and they’ll give you a sense for how much creativity and care can be packed into a bun. But if you make it through this list and want more, ask nearly anyone on the street where to get a hot dog. Their eyes will light up and they’ll let you in on their own hidden gem.
The Vienna Beef Factory Store
The Vienna Beef Factory was started by two Austrian-Hungarian immigrants, Emil Reichel and Samuel Ladany, who began selling their franks at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. Now, Vienna Beef manufactures most of the actual hot dogs you’ll find at stands throughout Chicago. This means the hot dogs from its own little stand, across the street from its factory, have to be exactly right. And they are. If you want a hot dog done strictly by the rules, this should be your yardstick. Vienna Beef’s hot dogs come with all the toppings—mustard, onions, tomatoes, relish, pickle spear, sport peppers, and celery salt—on top of a natural-casing dog that has a snap to it.
There are other dishes on the menu like Italian beef sandwiches (a story for another day), Polish sausages, and Reuben sandwiches, but you’re really just here for the dog. Maybe two. And make absolutely sure to pick up a package of the natural-casing frankfurters from the refrigerated case, because they’re weirdly difficult to get your hands on at a grocery store.
Order: A regular hot dog with everything on it.
It took me a while to come around to Superdawg’s contribution to Chicago’s hot dog scene, but I’m glad I did. I’m clearly a latecomer, since this wonderful hot dog joint has been around since 1948. It was originally opened on the Northwest side of Chicago by a then newlywed couple, the late Maurie and Flaurie Berman. Superdawg’s skinless dog is manufactured specifically for them, and it’s a big beefy one that’s much bolder in terms of seasoning than your typical Chicago dog. They come topped with mustard, piccalilli (which is their term for neon green relish), onions, sport peppers, and a pickle spear. But my favorite part about a Superdawg is that it comes with a delicious pickled green tomato wedge on the side, which no other hot dog stand that I’ve visited does.
Plus, ordering through the loudspeaker by your car is really fun. Don’t forget to take a photo of Maurie and Flaurie, affectionately represented by the two massive hot dog mascots on top of both location’s buildings. (Maurie is the one in the strongman outfit, flexing, and Flaurie is in the blue skirt, standing bashfully—or as bashfully as a hot dog can stand.)
Order: Don’t ask for a hot dog here; ask for a Superdawg. It comes in a small box that’s absolutely crammed with crinkle-cut fries. If you have any room left, try to sneak in an order of fried shrimp, which are massive and fried to perfection.
Redhot Ranch and 35th Street Red Hots
There’s two restaurants called Redhot Ranch on the North Side of Chicago, and one stand on the South Side called 35th Street Red Hots, right by what old-timers call Comiskey Park (where the White Sox play). Despite the name differences and various locations, they all serve the same hot dogs and are under the same ownership. These three spots were started by experienced restaurateurs Jeff Greenfield and the late Barry Nemerow. All three locations have a small but exemplary menu of hot dogs, burgers, and fried shrimp.
Here, an “everything” dog means a depression-style hot dog, which comes topped with yellow mustard, onions, relish, and sport peppers. Each dog comes tightly rolled up with the fries, making this a fully rounded meal.
Order: A double dog with everything. These natural-casing hot dogs are fairly slim, which is why I like getting a “double,” which literally just means two hot dogs are shoved into one bun. I’m going to warn you, though, this architecture means there’s a lot of pressure on the bun, which inevitably falls apart as you’re eating it. Don’t be embarrassed; it happens to everyone. Revel in the mess.
Jimmy’s Red Hots
Jimmy’s is a workhorse of a hot dog stand. It’s open until 1 a.m. daily, rain or shine. Because of that, it’s a get-in-get-out sort of place, and has been since 1954. There’s no seats, just a standing counter to eat at, and there’s always a steady stream of customers popping in and out.
If you want to experience a version of true, no-bullshit Chicago, visit Jimmy’s and order a hot dog with “everything.” In this case, “everything” means a depression dog: yellow mustard, onions, relish, and large sport peppers (which, in this case, I suspect are actually serranos). Oh, and Jimmy’s is vehemently “no ketchup,” which means you can’t even ask for packets of it with your fries. Instead, ask for the homemade hot sauce, which is compelling for its smoky-sweet flavor, laced with habaneros.
Order: A hot dog with everything, and ask for a side of hot sauce for your fries. Then get out of line as quickly as possible.
Byron’s Hot Dogs
Byron’s Hot Dogs is one of the more unique stands in Chicago, started in 1975 by Byron Kouris, the son of Greek immigrants. Kouris died in 2012, and there’s only two stands left, but they’re beloved. The family-owned joint is known for serving one of the most over-the-top hot dogs I’ve ever seen. If you ask for a hot dog with everything on it, you’re going to get one loaded with—prepare yourself for this: yellow mustard, onions, relish, tomato slices, cucumber, lettuce (you read that correctly), a pickle spear, bell pepper, sport peppers, and celery salt. It is as difficult to eat as you might imagine.
Order: A regular hot dog gets drowned in this veritable produce aisle of a hot dog, so order a jumbo dog, which balances out the salad on top with the right amount of beef.
The Wieners Circle
The Wieners Circle is a legendary, rowdy place for late night food, where the staff openly heckles you (don’t be surprised if you hear a bunch of F-bombs hurled your way). It was formerly co-owned by Barry Nemerow, of Redhot Ranch and 35th St. Red Hots. The Wieners Circle serves some of the best hot dogs in the city. During the day, however, you get a more subdued atmosphere, where you’ll be treated to much more gentle conversation, if that’s what you’re into. The food here is stellar, from the dogs to the hand-cut fries (get a cup of tangy cheddar spread on the side, for dipping). Oh, and take a gander at the sign outside, which usually displays pointed political messages that don’t pull any punches.
Order: A char dog with everything, which features all the familiar ingredients including tomatoes and a pickle spear.
Jeff’s Red Hots
Jeff’s Red Hots was established in 1977, and sits on the corner of Byron and Cicero, just south of a hectic six-corner intersection that never seems to calm down. Jeff’s is about as classic as a hot dog stand gets in Chicago, serving up gyros, Italian beef sandwiches, pizza puffs, and other staples, along with, of course, hot dogs.
What’s unique about this particular dog, however, is that there’s an additional ingredient included on the “everything” dog: sauerkraut. Aside from Byron’s, there’s not a lot of hot dog stands that add to the long list of Chicago hot dog toppings, which is what makes Jeff’s worth the visit. The sauerkraut adds a fermented tang that none of the other classic ingredients in a Chicago dog provide.
Order: A hot dog with everything. You’ll be asked if you also want sauerkraut, which you can ask to omit, if you’re a purist.
Dave’s Red Hots
Dave’s Red Hots in the Lawndale neighborhood has the distinction of being the oldest hot dog stand in the city. Once you walk in the front door, you can just feel the history seeping through the dark wood-paneled walls, small booths, and standing countertop. It’s been open since the 1930s (the actual date is murky), and there are only five options on the menu: hot dogs, Polish sausages, Italian beef, salami sandwiches, and pastrami sandwiches. If you’re feeling wild, you can get your Polish sausage deep-fried for an extra charge.
Interestingly enough, if you ask for a hot dog with “everything,” the default toppings are yellow mustard, thinly sliced pickles (which fit perfectly on the hot dog), and sport peppers. That’s it. You can, however, ask for relish and onions as well, which I recommend. Each dog comes with a hefty quantity of hand-cut fries, and if you’re so inclined, you can ask for ketchup packets or a side of cheese sauce.
Order: A hot dog with everything, plus relish and onions.