I love Chicago hot dogs. I'm a wholehearted believer in their no-ketchup, super-messy, over-topped existence; of course, the best Chicago hot dogs come from Chicago. Maybe it's the water; maybe it's the magic of the city, but there's something special about chowing down on a "drag it through the garden" dog in Chicago.
However, some of the places here can come close to mimicking that magic. Oh, and those Italian beef sandwiches aren't half bad, either.
Two recently opened Chicago-dog joints—Bubby's Chicago Style, on the northwest side, and Chicago Fast Food, at Broadway Boulevard and Kolb Road—are on the Vienna bandwagon: Vienna all-beef hot dogs, Vienna relish, giardiniera, sport peppers, celery salt, the whole deal. So you might think that the experiences would be similar—but you would be wrong.
Bubby's is a bright, clean, friendly space, complete with smiling, friendly, attentive service. Chicago Fast Food's décor is dark blue, and the space suffers from a lack of sunshine. On my first visit, the staff was less-than-friendly and inattentive. However, on my second visit, service was much improved.
The menu at Bubby's is simple: You get hot dogs, Italian beef, Polish sausage, burgers (both meat and veggie) and fries. It's classic and uncomplicated, and the food follows suit. The jumbo dog, Chicago style ($5.50 with fries), comes piping-hot, in the all-important steamed poppy-seed bun. The hot dog sticks out of the sides; otherwise, you'd never know it was in there, thanks to the beautiful pile of toppings: a generous squirt of yellow mustard, radioactive-green Chicago relish, diced raw onions, fat red tomato wedges, two sport peppers, a hefty dill-pickle slice and a sprinkle of celery salt. Halfway through the hot dog, the toppings were all over my hands, face and plate—a good sign of authenticity.
Ted ordered the Larry's hot and sweet ($7.95 with fries), an Italian beef sandwich that comes with both the giardiniera and the sweet peppers. It was goopy and just wet enough to make a big mess, but not so wet that it fell apart too soon. If you don't have to wash your hands after eating a Chicago dog or an Italian beef, something's wrong, so Bubby's is definitely doing it right.
Chicago Fast Food has a fairly complicated menu, with hot dogs, Italian beef, fish, chicken, burgers, ribs and a plethora of other sandwiches, subs, sides and desserts; all of the menu items come à la carte. The first visit was a disappointment nearly across the board; besides the less-than-pleasant service on the first visit, the food was tepid, and the hot dog in the Taste of Chicago sandwich ($7.99) had an unpleasant grayish tinge on the outside. This sandwich was probably one of the strangest things I've ever eaten. I love hot dogs and Italian beef, but that doesn't mean they should be married in the same entrée. It's a monstrous sandwich, with an Italian beef sandwich on the bottom, and a Chicago dog on the top. The individual flavors were OK, but they just didn't go well together.
Ted ordered the downtown Italian combo sandwich ($6.99)—a more-common mix of an Italian beef sandwich with an Italian sausage. His sandwich was slightly warmer than mine, but still lurking around room temperature. The sausage had a nice flavor, and the Italian beef was well-seasoned, but the sandwich started disintegrating before he could even get one bite in.
On the second visit to Chicago Fast Food, I took my friend Brennan, who happens to be a Chicago native and Chicago-style-food enthusiast. Thankfully, it was a completely different experience: The staff was attentive and friendly, and the food was quite good. I went for the Maxwell Street Polish sausage ($4.59), and Brennan couldn't help but order the classic Chicago hot dog ($3.25). We also ordered a side of cheese fries ($2.59) and a Chicago tamale ($1.89). The food took a little longer to arrive; I was hoping that meant the food would come out hot—and it did.
The polish sausage, with hints of fennel seed, was served in a poppy-seed bun with mustard, sport peppers and grilled onions. The onions were still pretty raw and could have been grilled for a few more minutes, but the flavor and texture was acceptable. The cheese fries were done in classic ballpark style, with gobs of so-bad-it's-good, unnaturally orange cheese-like goo smothering the salty, hot fries. Brennan even gave praise to the authenticity of the Chicago dog, lamenting only that they seemed a bit stingy with the toppings. The Chicago tamale (which, as far as I can tell, was ground beef with taco-like seasoning rolled in yellow cornmeal, then deep-fried) wasn't my thing; it wasn't bad, but it was really greasy.
Bubby's Chicago Style is making Chicago-food-lovers proud with their authentic, tasty dishes; I hope they don't suffer from the road construction and the semi-residential location. Chicago Fast Food has a way to go with consistency, but when it's good, it's good. Maybe they should take a cue from the tried-and-true Chicago hot-dog joints, and just keep it simple.