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.