In this, our city built on encased meats, where a condiment like ketchup is holy sacrilege, where relish can only look like it’s been exposed to plutonium-239, there is but one abiding truth: Chicago takes its hot dogs seriously.
So when news came Tuesday morning, first on its home page, that the beloved hot dog stand Hot Doug’s was closing after 13 years of business, the ensuing reaction was thunderous. Social media exploded in a chorus of nooooooooo’s. Celebrities tweeted their lament. Nearly every media organization in town camped out on the corner of Roscoe Street and California Avenue in Avondale, cameras trained at customers waiting in line, hoping to capture some sound bite of sorrow. Its owner and chef Doug Sohn said the restaurant will close for good at 4 p.m. on Oct. 3.
“I’m not burnt out. I also don’t want to be burnt out. It’s just time,” Sohn said.
By midday Tuesday, a line of diners stretched 50-deep along Roscoe, a familiar sight during Saturdays in the summer. It just so happens the occassion was a living wake.
“It’s like a dirge out here,” said Jacob Simmons, a 30-year-old from Logan Square, who arrived in line with his friend at 11:44 a.m. and would wait 47 minutes to order four hot dogs. “We came to pay our respects.”
The intense reaction may border on hyperbole, but Hot Doug’s is the rare restaurant that’s crossed over from mere sausage purveyor to pop cultural flashpoint. Its devotion seems real. Witness the many television appearances on national food shows (Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations”), the theme song composed by a fan (with acoustic remix!), a hardcover coffeetable book, celebrity endorsements — Aziz Ansari, Anna Kendrick et al., who waits in line with everyone else, no line jumping — and even those fanantical enough to tattoo a Hot Doug’s logo on their body with the promise of free hot dogs for the life of the business.
“I’ve taken a lot of advantage of it. It’s kind of a ritual now,” said Kirk Faber, who’s had his Hot Doug’s tattoo for a few years. He said he plans to be here once or twice a week this summer before it closes.
“I might have a heart attack. But, you know, that’s the price you pay for delicious, delicious food. And love.”
It’s just a hot dog place, sure, but it’s a hot dog place open only for only five-and-a-half hours, six days a week, blasting punk rock from loudspeakers and serving the most inventive sandwiches in the city. The restaurant’s gourmet take on the venerable hot dog looks like it was concocted by some culinary school-trained chef — and indeed Sohn was a 1995 graduate of Kendall College. On Fridays and Saturdays, the restaurant would serve french fries fried in duck fat. Sohn was doing this before duck fat frying was de rigueur at every white tablecloth restaurant across the country.
His was the restaurant bridging high gastronomy and Everyman Chicago food, making accessible high-end ingredients to the proletariat, such as serving a foie gras and Sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse and sprinkled with fleur de sel for $10. It was this particular sandwich that earned Sohn a citation from the city during Chicago’s foie gras ban between 2006-2008. Rather than take duck liver off the menu, he displayed the $500 ticket on his counter in defiance. That hot dog remains on the menu today.
That combination of cheery kitsch, insubordinate streak, ambitious food, limited schedule, The Clash soundtrack, plus personal face time with Mr. Hot Doug himself — Sohn is the only man who takes your order — has garnered them street cred that is the envy of every restaurateur in the country.
Standing in line Tuesday was engaged couple Michelle Truong and Adrian Velez, both 29, who frequented the original Hot Doug’s a mile east when they were students at Lane Tech College Prep.
“For me it was the place to meet after school. We’d all be there to eat hot dogs and share fries. It was a place we’d all come together,” Truong said. “It’s not a chain. It’s a home-grown establishment. They made a name for themselves through word of mouth, and that’s stronger than anything they could pay for.”
There in Roscoe Village it stood for three years, until a May 2004 fire in an apartment upstairs damaged the building. Sohn’s reaction then, as he told the Tribune in 2011, was: “I’m out. Sweet. Time to get a regular job.” After eight months, he was persuaded to give Hot Doug’s another try, this time, at 3324 N. California Ave.
Inching along in Tuesday’s line, now just inside the doorway half an hour after arriving, Truong’s fiance Velez said: “I don’t think it’s going to hit until it actually closes.”
Sohn said he began thinking at the beginning of the year about closing. “It’s been my strategy that at the end of each year to decide if I have another year in me,” he said. “For me it’s nothing other than I just want to do something else.”
Sohn chose to begin his “permanent vacation” on Oct. 4, well after the summer rush where weekend lines can stretch to 90-plus minutes long. He said he’s 99 percent sure his next venture won’t be in the restaurant industry.
“I’m gonna lie out and go out for lunch because that looks fun,” Sohn said. “That hasn’t happened in a while.”
Truong and Velez placed their orders. She ordered the Malin Akerman, which used to be the Anna Kendrick, nee-Selma Hayek, nee-Britney Spears. That’s the spicy hot dog. They also ordered the foie gras sausage, the Man-B-Que (jalapeño Polish, avocado crema, mole, jalapeño bacon) and one made from smoked yak topped with bacon-garlic mayonnaise.
They got their face time with Sohn.
Truong: “We used to go here when we were in high school.”
Velez: “I can’t believe you’re closing.”
Truong: “We get it. It’s an evolution. You gotta see what the next challenge is.”
Velez: “We’ll be back this summer.”
And so on. One customer after another, offering condolences, effusing praise, making a 52-year-old man like Sohn get misty-eyed.
“This is genuinely the part I’m going to miss,” Sohn said. “The main reason I’m here everyday is this interaction with the customer. It’s overwhelming. It’s incredibly heartwarming, humbling, flattering, mind-boggling.”
He added: “It’s only 12:30. I hope to make it to 4.”
Tribune reporter Brian Cassella contributed.