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The Dog Show Wed Jun 13 2012
by Lisa White & Andrew Huff
After a long absence, The Dog Show has returned! Every other week, we'll be exploring Chicago's many hot dog stands, checking out their Chicago-style hot dogs as well as other treats.
To mark the column's return, Lisa White and Andrew Huff visited Susie's Drive-Thru, a classic Mayfair spot that's been pleasing people for 38 years. Set on an odd-shaped lot at 4126 W. Montrose Ave., just west of Elston, it's mostly oriented toward eating in your car -- there are two drive-thru windows and ample parking, while inside there's but a narrow counter along the windows. A couple of picnic tables are set up outside.
The menu is surprisingly long for a hot dog stand. In addition to the standard encased meats, burgers and gyros, there are also all sorts of combinations of menu items -- seemingly anything may be topped with anything else, resulting in such oddities as the hot dogs wrapped in gyro meat, burgers served like reubens, and just about anything on top of cheese fries. Apparently being stuck in tight quarters from noon to midnight every day inspires a good amount of experimentation.
If Susie's would just invest in a better hot dog, they'd be on to something. That's not to say that their dogs aren't worthy of attention, but the stand's use of Vienna's smallest hot dog, a limp 1/10th pound caseless wiener, just doesn't stand do justice to the creative and fresh toppings. Their Chicago dog is loaded with fresh chopped onions, a slice of tomato, neon relish, and crisp sport peppers -- plus a slice of cucumber, a hot button issue for Chicago-style purists. Everything on the dog was super fresh, so it left a tinge of sadness that the meat wasn't the same quality. Even rich chili and cheese on the chili dog couldn't elevate the sad excuse of a hot dog to a higher state. Surprisingly, the standout was the pizza dog, where the idea that adding enough melted cheese to anything makes it better rang true. Topped with marinara sauce and a thick, gooey layer of mozzarella, it was rich and tasty enough to make us not care about the sad little hot dog underneath.
Really though, it's all about those fries. There is an entire section of the takeout menu devoted to the variations on cheese fries served in an edible fried tortilla bowl -- which must have originally been for a taco salad that is no longer served. There is a plethora of combinations, but the basic set up is the same: hand cut fries in a taco shell, covered with a ton of melted cheddar cheese. We'd gotten the classic and gyro set up before (don't bother with the gyro, you get fewer fries and it wasn't the greatest flavor match), but today we decided to go all out with the "cheese ball cheese fries." That's deep-fried cheddar cheese balls on top of the fries, smothered with more cheese -- basically artery clog in a taco bowl. It was actually too much. The cheese on cheese medley wasn't a pleasant mouth feel, as the cheese sauce quickly overwhelmed the crunch breading on the cheese balls. Next time we'll try the bacon cheese fries, which we hear are amazing. The fries were a bit limp on this visit, but we've had them super crisp as well. Just depends on the cook. Request extra crispy and you should be set.
The best example of the mad scientist experimentation going on at Susie's Drive-Thru is the milkshake menu. This isn't your basic vanilla, chocolate, strawberry situation; the shack boasts more than 60 flavor combinations. You've got everything from safe bets like butterscotch and Oreo mint to flavors you've got to ask about for more details. We're still not sure what a Bermuda Triangle or a Dark Spell is, but one day we'll find find out.
Andrew got a caramel cappuccino, while Lisa went with the suggestion from the lovely lady at the counter and got the banana split shake. The caramel cappuccino shake was great, with a creamy coffee flavor and lots of gooey caramel that somehow stayed fluid in the ice-cold mixture. The banana split was a solid riff on the classic dessert, with chunks of banana and strawberry so big you had to fish them out with a spoon. It even came with a cherry and nuts on top. It was an enjoyable shake but not Lisa's favorite on the list. She suggests banana rum, with quality flavors that almost fool you into thinking that there is real alcohol in your drink. Or try the caramel apple, another example of the quality they use at Susie's, where the drink actually taste like a melted version of its namesake.
Overall, Susie's is a must visit, a Chicago neighborhood institution, and temple of fried and frozen goodness. Just make sure to hide your hot dog under a massive amount of toppings, or forgo it altogether and just tuck into a massive edible bowl of cheese fries.