Hot Doug’s, Chicago
When I told my brothers Simon and Zach the name of the place I’d stopped for lunch in Chicago before heading to O’Hare and boarding a plane to join them in Massachusetts for a New England Patriots game, both of them thought I was making it up. Turns out that in one episode of the King of Queens, always-hungry protagonist Doug Heffernan suggested to a hot dog place’s owner that he should change the name of his restaurant to Hot Doug’s, and my brothers thought it was a joke off the episode.
But Hot Doug’s is no joke in Chicago. It’s one of the city’s best places to enjoy the world of sausages on a bun, in a city known for its hot dogs. While Hot Doug’s keeps to the traditional toppings of Chicago on its sausages, it goes far above and beyond the standard Chicago hot dog. The best way to put it is that Hot Doug’s is, depending on your cuisine of choice, the Vortex, Voodoo or Ike’s of the sausage world.
In addition to the standard Chicago dog, Hot Doug’s expands to Polish sausages, bratwurst, Italian sausage, chicken sausage and several others, all served on the standard bun and topped with any or all of the condiments you find on a standard Chicago dog. For those who don’t know, that means mustard, relish, tomato, dill pickle, onions, celery salt, possibly peppers and absolutely no ketchup. Hot Doug’s is not nearly as strict on that rule, as you can easily use the ketchup available for the fries on your sausage if you so choose.
But that’s only the beginning. Each day, Hot Doug’s cycles through a plethora of high-brow sausages, some of which nobody would ever think of them as ending up in a sausage. Examples on one day include a portabella mushroom and Swiss pork sausage with anchovy mayonnaise, shiitake mushrooms and caramelized onions, a jalapeno and Chardonnay rattlesnake sausage (yes, rattlesnake) with fig cream and Dutch cheese, ale and Provolone chicken sausage with four-cheese dijonnaise and duck confit and foie gras and sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse and fleur de sel.
All specialty sausages come with their own toppings that you will not find on the standard Chicago dog, making for a totally different experience than what you will find elsewhere in the city. However, different experiences had to wait for another day on my visit. The true test of a place is when you have something else to compare it to, so I had to sample some of Hot Doug’s more typical sausages to see if the ridiculous line on a snowy January day was justified.
It is. Both sausages have a great amount of juiciness and firmness, providing a great taste from first bite to last. The toppings all work perfectly with the meat, and the poppy seed bun is an excellent finish. The grilling of the meat adds a nice charred flavor, and the taste makes it clear that you’re in hot dog heaven.
That doesn’t even touch on the other specialty at Hot Doug’s: duck-fat fries. The use of duck sausage means that twice a week on Friday and Saturday, Hot Doug’s cooks its fries in duck fat and offers a large portion to its customers. The taste is excellent, and the fries seem to taste a little closer to the pure Russets that they came from. The skin is clearly still on, always a big plus.
No matter what your sausage preference is, Hot Doug’s can put something on a bun to satisfy any palate. Doug Heffernan might not have gotten his restaurant named after him in Queens, but he’d be proud to share his name with the sausage superstore of the Windy City.
Time to go: Lunch only. Hot Doug’s is open from 10:30 to 4 p.m. six days a week and closed on Sunday. Shoot for Friday or Saturday if you can to try the duck-fat fries.
Wait during my visit: Substantial. Hot Doug’s is so popular that even on a snowy day in the middle of January, the line was out the door. Do not go if you are in a hurry. You want to set aside time to eat and enjoy.
Location: Hot Doug’s is in the northwestern part of Chicago, at 3324 N. California Avenue.
Cost: Depends. A normal sausage will set you back only about $3. A specialty sausage is going to run you $8. It’s up to you which way you want to go.
Parking: I did it wrong last time. There’s a lot here, but I didn’t know that and walked a mile from the Blue Line on CTA. I do not recommend that anyone do this ever, least of all in 25 degree weather. I didn’t think things through at all.
Seating arrangement: Could get dicey. It’s seats and stools, but the restaurant gets so crowded that finding space is a challenge. Find a table and don’t give it up.
Website: Hot Doug’s
Specialty items: Sausages, duck-fat fries