|« Ceci n'est pas un Cidre Brut||Put A Little Christmas In Ya' Drink »|
Feature Thu Dec 13 2012
Until recently, I had a dirty secret: I had never been to Gene and Jude's.
I know, I know. People talk about this place as hot dog nirvana, the Shangri-La of red hots. What's worse, I'm a passionate hot dog consumer, a connoisseur of the corner yellow shack, a lover of hot dogs high and low. As someone who uses her Vienna Beef Finder app regularly, I knew I should be particularly ashamed.
Maybe it was the supremely inconvenient location that turned me off, or the way foodies talk about the journey as so worth it. I happen to know quite a few outstanding hot dog joints that don't take an hour to get to, and that give you a poppy seed bun to boot. But in any case, I couldn't listen to one more rapturous description without trying this place myself.
After a mind-blowingly frustrating hour and a half on the Kennedy, I arrived at the glowing yellow sign full of ravenous hunger and road rage. Gripping the counter, I tried not to scream my order at the teenager in front of me: "Double dog, everything."
Now keep in mind, "everything" has a very specific meaning in a context like this. The seven ingredients of a Chicago hot dog are as ingrained as the sign of the cross in people like me. So imagine my surprise when I unwrapped a dog with no tomatoes, no pickle, not one sport pepper, a bun in the buff, and nary a hint of celery salt. If this didn't qualify as a cardinal sin, I don't know what would.
Already worked into a huff, I turned to the patron next to me to ask "what is the deal?!" but quickly realized that a restaurant without chairs was not the place to strike up a conversation about the finer points of hot dog culture with a stranger.
Left to contemplate this grave offense on my own, I noticed another concerning spectacle: everyone around me was eating their dogs piled high with fries, in a jaw-challenging, mustard-dripping, not-safe-for-first-dates sideways maneuver that I had to watch a few times before attempting it myself.
I briefly considered the possibility that I had stepped into a hot dog vortex and had emerged in a bizarro-version of Chicago, where everything is eaten sideways, the river runs north, and mustard is banned instead of ketchup.
A little bit of smartphone research cleared all of this up. What I had thought was sloppy wrapping was in fact a particular style of old school Chicago hot dog in which the fries are eaten on top. This "depression dog" is a minimalist version, "terrific for anyone who doesn't want a salad-topped dog". You hear that, all you salad haters? Now there's a dog for you too! (And, indulge me for a moment: I don't believe a no-frills hot dog is a valid request past age 10. Is a pickle a frill? Is there some sort of celery salt shortage I don't know about? You want no-frills, go eat a hot dog in Boise.)
I guess it's possible that I was feeling a tiny bit crotchety about this scandalously saladless, fry-topped dog, but I tried to keep an open mind. And sure enough, I was pleasantly surprised by my first successful sideways bite--it was a perfect ratio of salty/meaty and starchy/greasy, rounded out with just enough mustard and onions to add a savory kick without competing with the two key elements. Excellent dog and excellent fries... superlative, even. But I still wished there had been poppyseeds on my bun.
Mid-dog, I started wondering if it would be possible to combine the best of both versions... what about a double dog with all seven toppings AND fries on top? Would this test the limits of human bite capacity? Would this be an ill-advised food version of the kid who wants to wear all of her favorite things at once? Even if it was, it sounded like my kind of challenge.
I contemplated this conundrum on my one block walk to the only other reason to come this far northwest: Hala Kahiki. Now this... this is something I can fully get behind--straight-up, unadulterated, sixties tiki kitsch. Leopard print bar stools and pufferfish lamps? Room after dimly-lit room of bamboo and idol masks? No arguments here--I'm into it.
Sipping my Trade Winds boozy ice cream float (description: "a few of these and life is a breeze"), I concluded that the long journey was far more worth it if you hit both of these excellent spots. If you're going to Gene and Jude's, a cocktail in a coconut can only make your night better. And if you're headed for tikidom, you really must swing by Gene and Jude's to judge the depression dog for yourself.
After much reflection on my own hot dog experience over another round of mai tais, I'd say that the depression dog was a surprisingly delicious change of pace, even if it will never replace the classic Chicago dog in my book. The peacemaker in me would even say that there's no reason both styles can't fit under one big hot dog tent (or umbrella?).
Gene and Jude's
2720 River Road
Tel. (708) 452-7634
2834 River Road
Tel. (708) 456-3222