The Japanese know it as satori. To the etymologically-giving Greeks, the word is epiphany. But for this journeyman eater, standing there, as I was, in Terminal 3 of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, watching two grown men (one being my traveling companion) throw down and go mano a mano across the steam table of a rolling food cart, locked in what appeared to be a no-holds-barred death match to settle that age-old debate as to whether or not ketchup belongs anywhere near a hot dog, that, that, my friends, was what we shall call my momentary of clarity. Because at that exact moment, I understood, truly and irrevocably, that in no other American city is the orthodoxy of canonical hotdog condiments so deeply entrenched than in Chicago. For atop the Chicago dog, ketchup is blasphemy. It’s sacrilege. It’s the Miltonian fist of culinary defiance raised against the deific sky of better judgment. Little wonder, then, that the response my traveling companion’s puffed out, bro-chested insistence that his hotdog receive ketchup should be one allotted for infidels and heretics of the highest order; for his spluttering indignation and dogged pursuit of the red stuff, my traveling companion received violence: a quick shove to the thorax; a laudable and open-handed swipe at the jaw. Bedlam ensued. Punches were thrown. Police were called. And my traveling companion went—however briefly—to airport jail.
I was traveling through Chicago with Polish Paul. Co-worker. Friend. And fellow culinarian gifted with such protean talents and prodigious good looks that saddling him with such a silly nickname—it was believed by my then-employer—might somehow blunt the edge of his indefatigable Euro-swagger, his Ivan Drago-esque I-must-break-you under bite and mien, and his industry-wide (and much-deserved) reputation as a Lothario par excellence with its too-cutesy-by-half alliterative charm.
We were on our way home from Missoula. A way-beyond-wealthy client had flown us to Montana from our base of operations in Washington, D.C. to oversee a Missoula restaurant’s attempt at catering their son’s Montana wedding (re: plated, seated dinner) for three hundred guests under a tent, in a field, mere feet from the banks of the Bitterroot River. Polish Paul was then just recently arrived to America from his perennially dishwater-colored city of Krakow, and his enthusiasm for all-things-American (including despoiling its rural maidenry) bordered on the maniacal. Within just forty-five minutes of touching down in Missoula (his very first time being west of the Mississippi), Polish Paul had managed procure a cowboy hat, the complete Sun recordings of Johnny Cash, a fifth of Jim Beam rye, and (for the hour or so following) a toothsome, fire-haired bartender named Becky. Polish Paul’s embrace of American culture was that of a zealot’s belief in a newfound faith: total and all consuming. So when Polish Paul learned our return from Montana to Washington, D.C. would be bifurcated by an hour’s layover in Chicago O’Hare, he could hardly contain his glee. For Polish Paul, that quixotic and self-invented Americanist he was most certainly was, the great megalopolis of Chicago clearly signified one thing above all else: the Great American hotdog. Nowhere else in America were hotdogs any more delicious than in Chicago. Polish Paul knew this, and with unequivocal and I’ll-fight-you-motherfucker-if-you-disagree certainty. How so? Because a then-adolescent Paul had once come across a well-thumbed Krakow edition of Perestroika Today, filled with all manner of visually titillating images of uniquely American foodstuffs. Moon Pies. Banana spilt sundaes. Cotton Candy. Arousing as those photographs were, it was what the monthly’s editors used as their money shot that Paul could never—and indelibly—unsee. That’s right, friends: Miss September 1987 had been a hotdog, a Chicago dog, no less, replete with its signature iridescent green relish and poppy seed bun. However clumsy was that glossy, gatefold, proto Soviet full-color stab food porn, it worked: the pimple-faced Paul popped a veritable culinary boner, so have one the now-in-America Polish Paul absolutely must. We pinkie-swore over successive (if ill-advised) in-flight Bloody Mary’s that once aground in O’Hare, Paul would realize this most American—and by his telling—almost preternatural culinary experience. Polish Paul would eat a Chicago dog. And I would help.
So we debarked on Concourse C of O’Hare’s Terminal 3 and engaged the first red, yellow, and blue Vienna Beef steam cart we met. Our hot dog vendor, himself a newly arrived Polish national and doppelganger for a circa-1980 Lech Walesa, replete with a side-cocked solidarist’s scowl and an omnivorous walrus ‘stache hell bent on consuming his entire face, was palpably unimpressed. For in the tipsy Polish Paul now standing before him, the vendor recognized a fellow countryman, clearly corrupted by first-world appetites run amok, for which Paul’s present leering desire for a Chicago dog with ketchup was emblematic of all that was wrong with the West. So the vendor said “no.” He did more than say no, actually; he crossed his arms and stepped away from the cart. Polish Paul was incredulous. He repeated his order, more loudly this time, with less request in his voice, and more command. The vendor again shook his head. Keczup? No. He would not do it. Polish Paul glared at the vendor, choking on his own spluttering rage. There were threats. Insults. Indignations of labyrinthian complexity. All in Polish. But the hot dog vendor remained as serene as a Poznanian Buddha. He could not be moved. It was only when Polish Paul had plunged his hand into the steaming cart water to cobble together his own Chicago dog did the vendor change tact. He came forward, wordlessly, and administered a withering karate chop to Paul’s throat. That blow was followed by another to Paul’s face. Paul swung back, blindly, and the two Poles grappled over the Vienna Beef cart like two bears trying to hug it out. Police were called and Paul was zip-tied into surrender and remanded to an airport holding cell, where he remained, unsated and Chicago-dogless, until our return flight to D.C. was allowed to leave O’Hare.
I thought little of the incident in the intervening years until I recently moved to Chicago, splitting my time between it and my hometown of Washington, D.C. Only then, and only after I had encountered, and purely by chance, an incredibly delicious—nay, transcendent—hot dog on a just-in-town run to my Chicago-area Home Depot for a hacksaw, did I realize that in Chicago, more than in any of the other dirty water dog capitals I’d ever eaten—New York, Boston, Philadelphia, D.C.—the Chicago hot dog transcended its own perfunctory utility as grab-and-go street food, while remaining fixedly central to the city’s own culinary identity as an internationally renowned food destination.
For those of you who have yet to have the pleasure, the Chicago dog is made a “Chicago dog” by the requisite addition of several essential and post-maximalist savory toppings: yellow mustard, chopped white onion, iridescent green pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices (or wedges), pickled “sport” peppers, and an ample dusting of celery salt, all atop a poppy seed bun. And as for ketchup: fuck that noise. The Chicago dog does not abide the red stuff. Ever.
I went for years without ever really considering—or eating—the dirty water dog in the many American cities in which I lived or traveled. Its sheer ubiquity— with it being on each street corner of every major American city I had ever visited—somehow debased its value as regionally specific foodstuff and made it a cringe-worthy lunch option deserving of pure culinary contempt. The hot dog represented total surrender to a hunger which could not be outfoxed with either cunning or wit, nor felicity with one’s own iPhone restaurant apps; the hot dog meant defeat.
But not here in Chicago. Here, the hot dog remains the very acme of excellence in street eating. It’s something the laboring classes have always had over on white-collared stiffs for generations. Cab drivers. Bookies. Waiters. Firefighters. Cops. They’ve known for decades what the rest of us in the American hinterlands are only now just discovering: that the Chicago dog reins supreme.
I come late to this party. Way late. I didn’t purposefully, deliberately eat my first Chicago dog until the autumn of 2017. Sure, I had spent most of the 90s in Chicago, and in that decade, unwittingly consumed hundreds of the things. In those days, for this then-college student, eating wasn’t deliberate or even political; my gastronomic decision-making was rooted, purely, in economy and survival. But upon moving to Chicago in summer 2017 as a food industry professional with seventeen hard years in, everything about what I then—as now—chose to eat was now invariably fraught with judgment and implied decree. And after eating my first Chicago dog since the riotous Polish Paul incident at O’Hare, I knew it was true love, and I eat them every chance I get.
Founded in 1893 by Austrian immigrants Emil Reichel and Sam Ladany, and made locally famous at the Columbian Exposition of that same year, Vienna Beef has long been heralded as the gold standard in Chicago street eating. And while the Windy City hosts other several other venerable hot dog manufacturers—the Eisenberg and Red Hot brands come to mind—the sheer near-omnipresence of the Vienna Beef dog suggests that it holds a special place in the hearts (and major arteries) of Windy City eaters. And with so much of Chicago’s culinary identity encased in its eponymous dog, I decided that for my first hotdog as a newly returned and re-minted prodigal son of Chicago, I would go directly to the source. The fountainhead. The mothership. I went to the Vienna Beef Factory Café and got myself a hotdog.
If there exists in this world of gastronomy a more pure and proto-Marxian archetype of a happy-worker’s paradise wherein the sleeves-up proletariat consumes, bodily, that which it has just produced, I’ve yet to encounter its kind anywhere in America. Located in the street-level underbelly of the Vienna Beef Factory, with the wheels of meat-in-tube-form industry humming ceaselessly overhead, the factory cafe itself occupies a liminal (if deeply egalitarian) mixed-use, culinary-and-retail space where Vienna Beef factory workers lunch elbow-to-elbow with eaters from the outside world in a florescent-lit, red-yellow-blue confluence of nagahyde-and-formica break-room-based insouciance and ennui so deep and vexed that the hum of refrigerated cases of just-made meats and cheeses is all you hear. But so what if conversation is not on the menu? It’s not for the witty banter and persiflage that eaters hunger and come. It’s for the hotdogs, boy-o, and the Vienna Beef Factory has them a’plenty.
I ordered the classic. I ordered the Chicago Style Hot Dog. What I received was nothing short of sublime: a fresh-from-the factory Vienna Beef dog “fully dressed” on a just-steamed poppy seed, served with a side of impeccable, perfectly salted, just-dunked fries. Crinkle cut no less. And as I chewed, blissed out, as I was, on what surely must be among the crowning achievements of proletarian gastronomic glory that filled my mouth with a blunt-force-trauma umami-bomb of flavors—salty, sour, and sport-pepper hot—I realized the genius of the Vienna Beef Factory Café lies not what it is—a hushed culinary haven for a work force seeking a moment’s reprieve from their noble toil above—but for what it’s not. For nowhere among my fellow eaters—middle aged men, mostly—was there a whiff of irony, nor any miasma of hipness. Nowhere among them were sardonic hipster beards or the too-cool-for-school strains of Father John Misty issuing from the speakers overhead. Nowhere among them was any palpable longing for culinary “betterment” from, say, the andouilles and boudins of the world. No way. Not here. The Vienna Beef Factory Café is a sarcasm-free, no bullshit zone offering the quotidian best of what surely must be one of life’s keenest culinary pleasures: a perfect American hot dog.
It really is that good.
I haven’t spoken to Polish Paul in a while—years, maybe—but when I do, I’ll be sure to invite him back to Chicago. And when he makes the trip—as I know he will—I’ll be take him to the gloriously inglorious Vienna Beef Factory Café, where we will sit in the wan florescent light, among our fellow food industry brethren, and laugh about the bad old days over a meal of Vienna Beef hot dogs.
Without ketchup, of course.
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