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The Dog Show Mon Aug 27 2012
What makes a Chicago-style hot dog so unique? It's the melding of all the ingredients, the balance of flavors tested over time and eventually made canon: hot dog, yellow mustard, relish, chopped onion, tomato slice, dill pickle spear, sport peppers, celery salt, poppy seed bun. All together, they create a delicious harmony.
Nonetheless, one ingredient stands out, especially to visitors to Chicago: the neon green relish. Its artificial hue can't help but draw attention, and it's the most talked-about element among tourists and insult comedians.
Nobody is quite sure where the bright green relish got its start. Hot Dog Chicago Style claims it was introduced in the 1970s at classic stand chain Fluky's, while Dining Chicago's Leah Zeldes reports that Superdawg cofounder Flaurie Berman says her shop has used it since it opened in 1949. Zeldes guesses that the lurid green may have been an overzealous attempt by a relish manufacturer to ensure a consistent color in his product. Who knows how many copycats it inspired, but today there are only three brands of neon green relish available at retail: Vienna, Rolf's and Puckered Pickle Co. (BestOfChicago.com sells a Fluky's branded green relish, but only in a $25 four pack with yellow mustard, giardiniera and, for some reason, serrano peppers.) None of them is easy to find -- you're lucky if the grocery store near you carries even one -- but a Chicago-style hot dog isn't quite the same without it.
By chance, I happened across all three brands side by side on the shelf at Joe Caputo & Sons in Palatine, which gave me the perfect opportunity to conduct a taste test against plain, un-dyed sweet pickle relish -- Vlasic brand, in this case. I also picked up a jar of Vlasic "hot dog relish," which appeared to be a mixture of pickle relish and mustard, just to see what it was like.
Showing Their Colors
I compared each relish on three factors: color, consistency and flavor. I tasted each on its own; on freshly grilled, otherwise plain hot dogs; and on Chicago-style hot dogs I ordered without relish from Budacki's Drive-In in Ravenswood.
With such a simple condiment, you wouldn't think there'd be much of a difference between them. But beneath the flamboyant food coloring, each brand proved remarkably distinct.
Puckered Pickle Co. Super Green Sweet Pickle Relish
Color: The brightest green of the bunch. Probably the closest to your mental image of "neon green relish."
Consistency: The pickle is chopped to a slightly smaller dice, and appeared more consistent in size. Nice and crunchy.
Flavor: On its own, puckered is an accurate name. There's a prominent vinegar punch up front, with a hint of mint on the finish -- a unique and unexpected ingredient. Red bell peppers are another ingredient, lending a slight bitterness that contrasted the well-balanced sweetness and tartness of the relish on the plain hot dog.
When added to a Chicago-style hot dog, the bright vinegar acid stands out, and an unexpected saltiness. It almost reminded me of the pickled green tomato served at Super Dawg.
Rolf's "Deli Style" Sweet Pickle Relish
Color: Sort of a mellow green, with a little blue tint to it. Perhaps the most "natural" color of the three dyed brands.
Consistency: Consistent dice, a little bigger than the Puckered. Very little fluid -- almost dry in terms of juice.
Flavor: Rolf's was the least sweet of all the options. On its own, it tasted most like dill pickle, with a subtle celery seed note. On a plain dog, it was a little tart, and on the Chicago-style dog a little fruity flavor came out that quickly faded.
Vienna Chicago Style Relish
Color: Dark green in the jar, it brightened up on the plate and on the dog. The classic "neon relish" color.
Consistency: Vienna's relish had the most liquid of the group, and was therefore the loosest and least crisp. The liquid ran on the plate when I portioned it for the solo tasting, threatening to invade the other samples. The pickle itself was not chopped to a consistent size, with some bits as much as twice the size as others.
Flavor: On its own, the Vienna relish has a sharp but fast-fading vinegar bite to it, giving way to strong sweetness with a hint of menthol. It had a tender mouthfeel that made it seem like its pickles had been brined for too long. On the plain hot dog, the sweetness was at the forefront, easily the sweetest of the bunch. When placed in the context of a Chicago-style dog, though, those extremes disappeared and the relish became a team player. It just blended in -- not lending much to the overall flavor, but not standing out, either.
Vlasic Sweet Relish
Color: A nice light yellowish green, the natural color we know and love. The bits of red bell pepper are clearly evident.
Consistency: Inconsistent dice, but crunchy and crisp. Juicy, but the fluid doesn't run.
Flavor: As is probably evident from the photo, this jar was what I already had in my fridge. Sweet like sweet pickles, with a little bitterness in the finish on its own. On the Chicago-style dog, it's exactly as you'd expect -- pickled tanginess that balances the funk of the onions. The bitterness takes on a slight metallic taste, though.
Vlasic Hot Dog Relish
Color: Slightly greenish yellow, with green bits of green and reddish relish mixed in.
Consistency: Since it's a mixture of mustard and relish, the texture's a little gloppy, with little fluid. The relish chop seemed fairly uniform, though the opacity of the mustard made that hard to gauge.
Flavor: Amazingly, this was the least flavorful of the group. Vlasic has managed to take two incredibly powerful flavors and destroy them both. On its own, the "hot dog relish" tasted sweet and artificial, almost fruity; on the plain dog, it disappeared. Pretty awful, honestly. It was bad enough that I didn't bother trying it on a Chicago-style dog and just threw the jar out.
It comes down to a matter of taste. Do you prefer your relish sweet or tart? Do you want it to blend in with the rest of the ingredients on a Chicago-style hot dog, or should it stand out a bit?
Vienna was the best team player and also the sweetest, so if that's your preference, you've found your relish. Which is convenient, because it's also the easiest to find of the neon-green brands. But I preferred the tarter, more complex flavor of Puckered Pickle. It stood out more than the rest in the Chicago-style dog, but not the point of overpowering the other ingredients, and I thought it had the best combination of juiciness and crunch. Its brighter green dye also made for a better look on the dog.
On the other hand, you're not depriving yourself of anything but aesthetics by going with the regular stuff.