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Wednesday, July 24

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The Dog Show Fri Jul 13 2012

The Dog Show: High- and Low-Brow at Allium & Munchie's Red Hots

Thumbnail image for TheDogShow_01.jpgSince our last column, Lisa White and I weren't able to make our schedules match in order to visit one of the hot dog joints on our list, so we opted to dine separately. Lisa took the high dining road, visiting fine dining restaurant Allium, while I went the more plebeian route. How'd we fare? Read on, hot dog lovers!

The High-brow: Allium

In the pantheon of high brow Chicago style hot dogs, Allium is out to take the top prize. Located in the Four Seasons, the once-fine dining Seasons was rebranded earlier this year as Allium, still the fine dining technique and chef but a more relaxed, comfort food-based menu. Chef Kevin Hickey has introduced a menu that creates a restaurant where you can celebrate a high end, special occasion meal or just simply stop by for a solid and affordable snack.

This is a hot dog column after all, so naturally I went to Allium for the standout and much loved, made-in-house Chicago style hot dog. The platter comes deconstructed, with sides of sport peppers, chopped red onions (a faux pas in my book, because I only ever see Chicago-style dogs with white onions), cut up cherry tomatoes, and three squeeze bottles containing mustard, relish, and balsamic ketchup. This is Chicago-style in the same sense as the Chicago-esque at Frank 'N' Dawgs, where the chef riffs on a tried and true original. Starting off with the plating itself, I love the idea of it being a build your own hot dog. It adds a sense of playfulness, which is even more fun when you are sitting in a leather and wood high end dining room. It takes a bit of the stuffy out of your surroundings. It also assures that any picky eater can enjoy this dish. And I think that it also stands as a learning lesson for any out-of-town guest that wants to really get a full feel for the Chicago dog. You see all the parts, you can taste things separately, then combine to fully taste and understand what a Chicago-style hot dog is all about. It adds a nice multiple sensory touch to the dining experience.

Allium Chicago-style hot dog
Photo by Jasmine Davila

The taste is the true test, and sadly where I feel the dog falls flat a bit. The bun was so light and buttery, but the dog itself, albeit a nice smoky flavor, lacked any snap at all. It almost had a spongy texture to it. The flavors were good, but the mouthfeel was off. The cucumber topping the dog was either the blandest pickle ever, or just a limp cucumber, which added nothing to the mouthfeel. But the sport peppers gave a nice spicy kick, and the cherry tomatoes added a nice hint of sweetness. The red onions were surprisingly not overpowering, and the mustard was a nice spicy brown variety. The relish though was a tangy mustard base, and something in the flavor just felt wrong. Maybe I'm used to my neon green relish, but I ended up leaving Allium's version off all together. The technique was impressive, and the dog was good, but there are far superior examples in the city. Especially at the price point. You could probably walk not far from the hotel and get a better example of a true Chicago-style hot dog, and for much less. But it does get high marks for keeping it a simple play on this style, and for any tired businessman at the bar, who doesn't have time to go searching for a Chicago-style dog on his trip to our fair city, it would more than enough suffice for a prime example of what our namesake hot dog is all about.

The fries fared better, super crisp and crunchy exterior and creamy on the inside, perfectly salted. They were the star of this dish, showing just how important technique can be. Dipped in the ketchup, they paired perfectly with the acidic taste from the touch of balsamic vinegar. Anyone can make french fries, but if you want a perfectly balanced example, you can't go wrong trusting a high-end kitchen staff. The attention to detail and technique was apparent here, and really did showcase the beauty in something so simple.

To go along with the fry and dog combo, we ordered up a trio of sweet drinks, two milkshakes and a float. Now being a high-end restaurant, you won't find your standard milkshakes and coke float combination here. Our trio consisted of a miso butterscotch milkshake, a roasted peach melba and almond milkshake, and a sarsaparilla soda and sassafras ice cream float. Off the bat the consistency of the milkshakes was perfection, another nod to the attention to technique. A thick but not impossible hard, creamy shake, topped with the best homemade whip cream I've ever tasted. It was whipped to a velvety, buttery consistency, dotting the top of both milkshakes. I could have eaten the whipped cream on its own and been content. The miso butterscotch was the perfect balance of salty and sweet, and the flavor reminded me of the dulce de leche licuado at Big Star that I love dearly. If you look into reviews of Allium, you see a lot of praise for this milkshake, and it's well deserved -- it's now on my list of the best things I've drank this year. The peach melba and almond milkshake was well-balanced as well, the nuttiness of the almond ice cream more complex than I intended. The float immediately took me back to the rootbeer hard candy I loved as a child, notes of spice, chicory, and an earthy quality that grew with each sip as the ice cream melted. I'd highly encourage everyone to start ending their meals by sharing a tasting menu of milkshakes, as it ended up being the highlight of our meal.

Allium truly is a solid bet if you are craving a well made hot dog but also craving the luxury of a gorgeous setting and world class customer service. Our service was incredible, not overbearing at all, but our glasses never were empty and our server made sure to pace our food out perfectly so we'd have enough time to visit and enjoy each part of the meal. Every staff member was inviting and friendly and made sure to explain every aspect of the dish. Now, it is a bit of a culture shock eating a hot dog in a lounge area that looks like it came to life of the pages of Town & Country, but once you take a sip of your miso butterscotch milkshake you won't have a care in the world.

The Low-brow: Munchie's Red Hots

Munchie's Red HotsOn a hot Saturday afternoon, I found myself inching up Western Avenue, stuck in the typical Lincoln Square traffic backup, when I realized I hadn't had lunch. So I took squeezed through to make a right onto Montrose, found a parking spot and walked over to Munchie's Red Hots, a little stand at the edge of Welles Park, where Oakley dead-ends into the park.

Like almost every park concession, Munchie's is a seasonal operation, appearing in late spring as little league season begins and lasting until the autumn softball season comes to an end. This hot dog cart has stood here since at least the mid-'80s, but the current owner bought it just three or four years ago. In addition to hot dogs and Polish sausages, Munchie's serves hot tamales, chips and all manner of candy from its cluttered cart, plus sodas, water, ice cream and snow cones from a collection of coolers off to the side.

This is about as bare bones as you get, dining-wise. There are no chairs, unless you count the benches overlooking the playground and baseball diamond a few dozen feet away, and no frills to speak of. Posters, bumper stickers and photos of patrons with their "Welles Park's hot dogs" of the four-legged variety provide something to look at while you wait in line. Then, I had a lovely park to stroll through while I ate. Hard to beat for ambiance.

$2.50 gets you a steamed Vienna Beef hot dog any way you want it. While I waited my turn, three different people requested ketchup and onions. In their defense, two were little leaguers, still in uniform. I went for the traditional Chicago-style, and was not disappointed. The bun was nicely steamed and the dog had good snap. The condiments, dished up from a relish tray hidden inside of a plastic flower box, were as fresh as anywhere else, and the dog was finished off with a dose of some of the best celery salt I've had.

Munchie's Red Hots is open 11:30am to 7:30pm seven days a week; but closes during inclement weather.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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