Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Where's the Beef? The Best Chicago Beef? Right Here, Baby.

Chicago is known for its three signature food items: (1) stomach-expanding deep dish pizza; (2) savory Italian beef sandwiches piled high with beef galore and soaked in au jus; and (3) Chicago-style 'dogs, loaded with special toppings and condiments. On my recent visit to Chicago, my quest was to try the "best" of all of these types of food, and weigh in with my own opinion. After some guidance from Dylan of Eat, Drink, and Be Merry, who recently visited Chicago, I set out on my quest.

First, where are the best hot dogs in Chicago? I attempted to answer this question by visiting four reputable hot dog eateries, in less than two days.

My first visit for hot dogs was
The Wieners Circle, where you can allegedly get a serving of "sass," banter, and attitude with your hot dogs. Rumor has it, that if you give the female cashier $20 and ask for a "chocolate (or vanilla) milkshake," depending on the race of the server, she will "flash" you.

That is terrible for so many reasons.

Now, I did not ask for a milkshake, but I did order two "Vienna red hot" dogs, one with a slathering of melted nacho cheese.

While the wieners tasted like classic hot dogs, I loved the Chicago touches of (1) the poppy seed encrusted bun, (2) the fresh relish made with chopped onion, (3) the fiery and acidic banana peppers, (4) the elongated wedge of dill pickle, (5) the cooling slices of beefsteak tomato, and (6) a sweet dusting of celery salt.

Wieners Circle's fluffy fries were steaming hot, and had a golden-brown and crispy shell.

Overall, the hot dogs and fries received a "B+" in my book. A respectable grade for a respectable hot dog establishment.

Next, I visited
SuperDawg, a drive-in fast food joint from the bygone period of yesteryear. Upon arriving, I was immediately entranced. I loved the assembly line of industrious workers, the animated hot dog mascots, the amazing variety of 1950s soda shoppe drink selections, and the whimsical hot dog packaging and decor. Similar to Wieners Circle, SuperDawg's crinkle cut fries were perfectly fried, with a crisp and seasoned shell and soft potato interior.

The dogs from
SuperDawg came with all the Chicago fixings, including a dill pickle wedge, mustard, and banana peppers. As for the relish, I was truly impressed by the zesty, fresh, and bright flavors of their homemade version. Were there bell peppers in the relish? It certainly looked like it, and it tasted heavenly. Along with the classic Chicago hot dog ingredients, I enjoyed the large wedge of brined green tomato. I found the quality of the hot dog to be far better than the Vienna red hots served at Wieners Circle, for I could taste heavy undertones of beefiness and there was more of a substantial and hearty texture to the hot dog.

Although I was a little disappointed by the way my hot dog and fries were mashed inside a small brick-sized box, I would say, "A" for this super dog.

Third, I visited
Portillo's, and enjoyed the hot dog there, as well. Portillo's is a fun restaurant, with a unique and old-fashioned style of service and decor. As for the meaty dogs, I found them quite similar in flavor and in topping ingredients to Wieners Circle, with the right proportion of condiments and fixings, and a warm and delectable meat wiener. So a healthy "B+" for Portillo's.

(As you can tell, I am running a little low on words to describe the hot dogs.) But I do want to note with jubilation that
Portillo's has opened two locations outside of the State of Illinois and in Southern California, so if you live in So Cal, go forth and take advantage of this Chicago eatery!

Finally, I visited a gourmet and more upscale version of a classic hot dog stand in Chicago,
Hot Doug's, which is self-entitled as "the Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium." Hot Doug's does not only serve hot dogs, but gourmet sausages. Doug Sohn, the owner and namesake of the eatery, took it to a whole 'nother level. And actually, Doug of Hot Doug's is really hot.

Everyone and their mama has likely heard about Hot Doug's, especially after Anthony Bourdain featured Hot Doug's on one of his No Reservations episodes. Because of its immense popularity, you must be prepared for a long wait in a long line. And you will likely have to brave the relentless Chicago weather. For me, after torturously waiting over an hour in the sleet and frostbite-inducing and skin-shredding Chicago wind, I arrived inside, drenched with rain and sporting raw and chapped skin lesions.

Doug runs the counter and the cash register. Based on Doug's recommendation, I ordered three types of "encased meats." I enjoyed (1) a bacon and cheddar elk sausage with Goose Island Pere Jacques mustard and Madrigal cheese, (2) a chardonnay-infused rattlesnake sausage with sweet Peppadew dijonnaise and green peppercorn Montsegur cheese, and (3) a jalapeno and bacon duck sausage with blood orange mustard and Chaubier cheese drizzled with honey.

Okay, I am going to be vulnerable with you all, and admit to a sin that I committed that no food blogger should ever do. I wolfed down the delicious sausages and did not adequately document the sausages. By the time I eventually reviewed my pictures, I was pretty flabbergasted as to which sausage was which. I also ate so fast, that I do not actually remember that much about my wonderful meal. I do remember, however, that it was "wonderful." Finally, I ordered "to go," and took some messy pictures because the sauce from the 'dogs had smeared all over the wrappers. But I know you will forgive me. If not, I guess I will have to eat there again.

Nevertheless, I do remember some key characteristics about the sausages and their toppings. The elk sausage was surprisingly tough, dry, and resistant to the bite. Because of the texture, I thought that Doug did a particularly good job pairing the elk sausage with strong spices, a potent mustard, and a robust cheese. I thought the rattlesnake was interestingly tender and sweet, and I loved the spicy, fiery aroma from the peppercorns. Finally, the duck sausage possessed a penetrating cumin aroma, and really stood wonderfully on its own.

Best of all, on Fridays and Saturdays, you can partake of Doug's duck fat French fries, which are light, airy, and ethereal. They taste just like regular fries, but have a uniquely light feel to them. French fries deep-fried in duck fat? Oh man, I am in heaven (or will die and go to hell soon)!

The interestingly gourmet twist on the classic Chicago dog was very convincing for my palate.
Hot Doug's scored an "A" from me on its report card.

Now that I finished my excellent hot dog adventure, and have emerged with a clear victor in mind, I will share about my journey in seeking an answer to the baffling question of where to find the best Italian beef in Chicago. That question led me to two places.

My first experience with Italian beef was at
Portillo's, the same place where I also ordered an enjoyable hot dog (see above). I actually visited Portillo's with a few Chicago natives, and they gave me a few pointers on how to order Italian beef sandwiches in Chicago. First, you must order them with peppers. Second, you must also order them dipped in the roast beef jus. And that is exactly what I did.  (Oh, and check out this great Italian beef website for more tips on how to order.)

When I unwrapped the soggy foil-lined paper, I was quite overwhelmed with the amount of beef stuffed inside what was once crusty bread. Everything was in disarray. However, one bite, and I was smitten.

I loved (1) the rich oregano-flavored beef broth which had been soaked into the bread, (2) the soft pieces of celery, onions, and carrots that had been slow cooked and shoved inside the beef sandwich, (3) the slippery and tender slices of beef, and (4) the giardiniera relish made of pickled sport peppers and carrots. The toothsome slices of roasted beef were full of flavor from the Italian spices and coated with a perfect amount of jus (and grease). Definitely an "A" grade.

After my experience with the Italian beef sandwiches at
Portillo's, I had high hopes for what was lauded as the "#1 Italian beef" in the City of Chicago, Al's Beef.

But my hopes were not to be realized. Unlike the slices of beef from
Portillo's, I found Al's sandwich to be lacking in inherent moisture. The meat seemed to be cooked beyond recognition, and was more akin to an overcooked chipped beef sandwich, than a nicely sliced roast beef sandwich. It seemed as if the juices had been completely drained from the beef, and Al simply dunked the beef in jus, hoping to reconstitute it. Also, the mushy bread was saturated with the oddly flavored jus. I found the jus to be overpowered with the strong essence from cloves. Sorry Al, but you are a distant second to Portillo's according to my experience at your place. I hate to be harsh, but I would give you a "C."

So there you have it, my take on the best hot dogs in Chicago and the best Italian beef sandwiches in Chicago. What are your thoughts about Chicago's best? Also, stay tuned for my take on the best deep dish pizzas in Chicago, next!


  1. I am drooling all over my laptop. No seriously I have to go find a towel and come back to comment later...

  2. I live in a suburb about 8 miles from the Sears Tower, so I am definitely familiar with those places, but I have never heard of Hot Doug's! I must be out of the loop!

    Your pictures are amazing.

    Thanks so much for stopping by my blog today!!

    1. lol - 'out of the loop' (Chicagoan's know what that really means)

  3. Excellent review of Chicago-area hot dog/meat establishments!!!! They ALL look good... but the sliced tomatoes are a bit strange to me. I bet they are tasty anyway. I am amazed at the high quality of your photos, even when you don't have special lighting equipment. Now that is talent you have!

  4. I love Chicago, I was there about 3 years ago. Next time I go back I'll know where to eat!

  5. OMG, Portillo's! That's the #1 thing I miss since moving to CA. Hubby's getting a FedEx overnight sandwich pack for our anniversary in a couple weeks.

    So want to try Hot Doug's, but I left Chitown before they opened...

  6. I must admit I got worked up when I saw the wheres the beef title.. Ive never been to Chicago, looks like so many great places to eat.. and FUN too. My kinda place. Love your reviews..

  7. I'd love to visit Chicago and all these places serving scrumptious food!



  8. Waw, that food all looks inviting!! MMMMMM.....Your pictures are beauties too!!! Yum!

  9. Jennifer, hot dougs is great. If you go there on a friday you can get "duck fat fries". Fries cooked in duck fat.

    Vicki, there is a place down in san fran area that is a crazy variety like hot dougs:


    Also depending where you are in Cali, you may have access to Italian Beefs/ Portillos. They have 2-3 down there, think near LA. Might be a long drive, but could be a nice little day/weekend trip.

    I also have a directory of beef joints at

    So there may be some closer. If there are none in your area, check back in a week or so as I have about 50 places to add this week.


  10. Ok I love this!! My husband is from Chicago and he is in search of the best dog ever! We just got back from Tampa where we stumbled on Mels which of course I made the ultimate "foodie" mistake. I only took a picture of the outside!! I got inside and was mesmerized! Forget it, when my hot dog arrived I was already in a food trance. Thanks for sharing!! Great blog!!

  11. What a great post! I'm originally from Chicago and boy do I miss the Chicago hot dogs and Italian beef. Yummmm. You picked some great establishments. I've got to get to Hot Dougs next time I'm there -- my foodie Chicago-based cousin says it's his favorite pace to eat in the city.

  12. Gene and Jude's is also really good for a cheap dog. They serve their dogs w/ fries on top. Yum!

    I also LOVE me some Hot Doug's (and Doug himself as well!) Duck fat fried french fries is the most wonderful creation in the world. Best to go during the early summer or fall. You're guaranteed to be waiting so you might as well do it when it's nice out!

    I am a beef junkie. I actually don't find Al's beef or Portillo's to be adequate in my book (sad, I know that no one agrees w/ me) But I do love the Chief from Rosati's and Buona Beef. The Chief is served on garlic bread (mmm...) w/ melted cheese and onion and peppers. Soooooo gooood.....
    And Buona beef has some great au jus. Not only is their beef cooked w/ some wonderful spice, their au jus has it too! And I don't solely mean hot spice, I mean spices, wonderful, flavorful spices. I have to say those two places make the most flavorful beefs, and I am all about flavor!

  13. in 3 years of grubbin @ Wiener Circle, I've NEVER seen a non-Black worker, hence it's ALWAYS the chocolate milkshake. O YAH!

    hate it say it but, your hot dog choices were so much better than Italian beef choices. LTHforum's Beef-a-Thon's were mONSTROUS events back in 04/05. Hopefully referencing that link would send you at LEAST to Johnnie's next time around?

  14. Dang PE, an exhaustive post, I had to take a breather after reading about the duck fat fries and hot dogs! The beef sandwiches just don't spark the same interest for me.

  15. I used to work in Chicago, and after working late at the bars, would go to Weiner Circle - BEST FRIES EVER!

  16. OH MY! I had to read this in two sittings because I became completely overwhelmed by the thought of beef (both real and processed)and had to get up and have something to eat halfway through your post. And then when I came back to reading, your mention of the duck fat fries made me start drooling again.

    Visiting that many hot dog places in 4 days is true passion indeed. If I ever make it too Chicago, I will be using this post as my tour guide.

    And rattlesnake - I've never tried it, did it taste like chicken?

  17. Speechless! I am literally drooling to see all of this delicious food. I check the location for Portillo's, too bad that we don't have it here in the Bay Area. Delicious, and you are lucky to be able to taste them.

  18. Hey PE - We are not worthy.....

  19. A very interesting read, and that's a lotta of hotdogs in very little time!

  20. For a true Chicago Italian Beef experience, you really need to have it at a big family gathering where your aunt's friend from her union's butcher brother got you the beef at cost by listing you as one of their whole-sale customers in their books. Not that this has ever happened to me.

    Although Portillo's is a close second.

  21. Wow, PE, you have an iron stomach for eating all those dogs and meat! And don't worry, I've had a few slips now and then where I ate the food before taking the pictures or even taking notes on what I ordered. Sometimes you can't resist it, and those Hot Doug's look amazing!

  22. Honestly. If we were in Chicago, all we'd do is eat.

  23. Wow. I am impressed. That was quite the eating adventure! If I find myself in Chicago sometime soon, I am definitely sending you an e-mail for guidance!

  24. Any one of those beats the measly hot dog I got at Costco for lunch today for a buck fifty. Though it wasn't bad for the price (soda included) I now realize it was just so...plain...I need a hot dog with "more"....

  25. I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoy your site. Your posts are always fun, make me hungry, and have beautiful photos. I have been coming since 2007, I'm on the Northshore of New Orleans.

  26. What an amazing post! I've never been to Chicago and have never had a Chicago dog, but I think I gotta rectify that SOON. I think that Portillo's Italian beef looks smack-yo-momma good. How's it compare to our roast beef po-boys?

    I live in New Orleans/go to Tulane, so NOLA food bloggers unite. :)

  27. I miss Chicago dogs, but I miss Giordano's stuffed spinach even more. I've never heard of it being known for beef sandwiches though...

    Third choice for me would probably be Garrett's popcorn.

  28. Love your post! I was back in Chicago for Passover, drove by Hot Doug's (my fav) but the line was way too long so we ate at Kuma's (great burgers) that day!
    Lori Lynn

  29. I used to not eat hot dogs. Probably a traumatic food experience as a child or something, but I wouldn't go near them, until I had a Chicago style dog "run through the garden".

  30. I grew up in Illinois and used to love a good Chicago dog. Pickle and tomato on a hotdog were just great. These days, I'd have to have a tofu dog, and I don't think that counts.

  31. Hey There!

    I,m looking to start a hot dog cart business and I was wonding if Superdawg can sell me thire dog for me to sell.

  32. OMG, I'm salivating now!
    I will be in Chicago for Memorial Day weekend staying on Michigan AVE and w/o a car. Could you please email me to let me know which hot dog place is accessible by public transportation? I would SO appreciate it!

    Thank you
    orchidgirl1979 at gmail.

  33. That's just lovely that you explored so many restaurants and tasted the variety food. All the food keeps me pushing into the dining.

  34. You have great taste!
    Although I've never experience Doug's "dogs", my first stop when I visit my old stomping grounds is Superdawg! Clearly you are not used to your hotdog and fries being so cozy in their box, however, it is just part of the experience. Yes the Portillo's beef sandwich dipped with both kinds of peppers is for sure one of the best things you could ever eat. I go to the one in Buena Park as much as I can, which is not nearly enough. And I prefer Lou's. Spent my first 25 years or so in Chicago. You're on the right track :)

  35. Superdawg is really a great place! I had my first Chicago hotdog there on the 4th of July. Check out my site when you have time.

  36. Wolfy's hotdogs are very good too.

  37. If you get back to Chicago, try Mr. Beef. They cook their beef to med. rare, so it's much more moist than Al's.

  38. I love this entry!! I'm visiting Chicago soon and was googling for where is the best Chicago beef and came across your blog. I'm so glad I did, because your entry definitely confirmed for me that I want to hit up Portillo's and Superdawg! Yum.

  39. Those pictures really make me hungry. I'm planing to go to Chicago and I'm happy to learn all about these places where delicious foods are served. I love the place already because of the foods. Yummy!

  40. leo from chicago10/22/2011 12:14:00 AM

    You might have had better luck at the Big Al's on Taylor. In any case, you have to be careful to ask for your beef sandwich 'dry' -- otherwise they dunk the thing in the juice tray and you end up with a soupy mess.

  41. I'm so hungry right now, I could eat my laptop!

  42. First off, they never put NACHO cheese on hot dogs here. It's Merkt's Cheddar from Wisconsin that he had at Wiener's Circle. Al's Beef on Taylor is amazing, but you have to be prepared for the unique flavor of it (which many love). The franchises are not as good. I love Portillo's for a solid Vienna Hot Dog and one of my favorite beefs. My other top beef joints - Johnnie's (Elmwood Park, Arlington Heights) for sure, Mr. Beef and Pizza (on Harlem and Irving Park - NOT the famous and overrated Mr. Beef on Orleans!!!), Boston's Beef (Grand and Chicago Ave) to name a few. Going to hit a bunch more with my brother soon. Chicago food rules!

  43. Whoa! Just found an Als beef in the bay. 71 curtner ave ste 80. Omg. Dippedbeef with hot . portillos is good . word on the streets they don't sell Vienna beef dogs anymore. This Als got the full menu, and I got A 2$ off coupon on


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