I love seeing a man dressed in a suit with his tie flipped over his shoulder trying to eat a Chicago-style hot dog with some degree of dignity. Add to that mental image the guy in battered work boots seated right next to him, on break from his construction job, scarfing down a quick chili dog. And the family that brought their kids in on their day off from school for corn dogs and french fries. Now put that scene in motion, with folks coming and going, the tables quickly turning over and getting wiped down, orders coming up, the air perfumed by steamed sausages and thin-cut, deep-fried potatoes.
Street food vendors of European heritage are credited with bringing franks to America. Because they’re cheap, easily customizable and quite portable (not to mention crazy delicious), they work really well as ballpark fare. And the beauty of a hot dog is it’s one of the easiest things to eat while you’re moving from point A to point B. Check out these eight dog emporiums:
1215 W. Layton Ave., 414-281-5580
The bustling, tidy little dining room, with its intoxicating aromas, produces all the heart-racing, hunger-inducing feels. On a given weekday, folks are standing at the pickup window or biding time at the booths, waiting to satisfy their cravings. Martino’s is really good at two things – hot dogs and Italian beef. They’re what everyone around you is ordering. Any way you order your wiener, the link itself has the perfect texture – the firm casing “snaps,” giving way to tender all-beef Vienna goodness. I especially like the sauce-like chili (no beans) that you can eat without ruining your shirt. Chicago-style has me at the first bite, with the signature steamed poppy-seed bun, steamed frank and the bright-green relish that just tastes so good. Treat yourself to a corn dog on a stick – warm and crispy, conjuring up memories of a superb summer day at a county fair. Regular-size dogs $3.69-$4.59.
2659 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-539-3593
Seasoning – the lack thereof – is not a problem at this Bay View bar with laid-back communal table seating and WWE wrestling on the TV. Sausage is the raison d’être of Vanguard, with options numbering close to 30. Hot dogs are a fairly minor, but not overlooked, player. The “simple” all-beef dog is infused with smoked paprika. Add the Vanguard hot kraut or giardiniera (a delicious, tangy and spicy Italian relish), but not both. Another option – and it’s a good one – is to order the chili cheese dog, smothered in Cheez Whiz, green onion, jalapeños and beef chili. $5-$7.
3. Dr. Dawg
6969 N. Port Washington Rd., 414-540-0400
While I don’t typically condone a dog buried under cheese, the Dr. Dawg version is creamy and cheesy without the processed flavor. It just feels like a guilty pleasure. Both the Chicago and chili dogs are solid, but somehow don’t quite hold a candle to Martino’s, which surpasses it in flavor punch and warm-freshness. But an all-beef dog isn’t found everywhere in the North Shore, and if you’re going Chicago-style, the Doctor follows the Windy City topping rules. $3.89 and (12-inch!) $6.99.
8683 N. Port Washington Rd., 414-228- 5130; 4156 N. Oakland Ave., 414-332-7777
It’s easy to get distracted at this old-school Jewish deli, because there’s corned beef and pastrami and matzo ball soup (so good!). But the dogs are Vienna Beef and treated with appropriate respect. You can even specify how you want them prepared – boiled, grilled or “ripped” (meaning lightly deep-fried and ripped open). To purists, a Chicago-style dog is cooked one way: steamed. Benji’s offers its link grilled, which adds a nice, lightly charred exterior, lays it inside a good warm poppy-seed bun and covers it in the traditional toppings, down to the sport peppers, DayGlo green relish and pickle spear. Marrying the best of dog and Reuben sandwich worlds is the Benji, a dog topped with hand-carved corned beef, kraut and Swiss cheese, plus a side of Thousand Island dressing. You pay a bit more for a dog here, but it comes with a side of chips, fries, slaw or potato salad. $6.49-$9.79.
Four area locations
Opening its first location, on Brady Street, in 2005, the Haus has since expanded. The theme here is to build your own Vienna Beef dog or order a specialty pup (like the “Kansas City” – Italian beef and a hot dog, BBQ sauce, cheddar and onions). Stick with the Chicago-style, snappy beef and tasty toppings inside a seeded steamed bun (but I wish they would invest in better, stronger buns). Too many extras overwhelm the meat and make the bun even softer. $3.49 and up.
1234 S. 108th St., 414-774-0466
This joint with black awning and checkerboard sign is no frills – a hot dog “stand” with seating inside the bright yellow dining room, walls hung with old car memorabilia. The Chicago-style all-beef dog itself is good and topped appropriately (with relish, sport peppers, sliced tomato, mustard and pickle spear – and I spotted the cook sprinkling that celery salt on my frank), but the corn dog – and boy, do I love a good cornmeal-breaded fried dog – was greasy. And yet for the price, the Chicago-style passes muster. Bonus: Every Sunday, Sammy’s offers many of its dogs for $2. $2.80-$3.80.
About those chains…
17685 W. Bluemound Rd., Brookfield, 262-289-3390; 8705 W. Sura Lane, Greenfield, 414-877-5400
I like to trumpet the little guy – the independent restaurant – as much as possible, but in the world of hot dogs, you cannot ignore chains if they do their dogs right. Certainly not Portillo’s, which now has two locations in the area. The Chicago-style dog Portillo’s offers is classic and tasty-terrific: a snappy Vienna Beef dog wrapped inside a warm steamed poppy-seed bun and topped with the traditional mustard, relish, celery salt, onions, sliced tomato, sharp sport peppers and a sizable, briny dill pickle spear. Close to perfection. Steaming that bun prevents it from turning gummy. Messier and delicious in its own saucy way, the chili-cheese dog covers the all-beef dog with beany beef chili and a slice of good old American cheese. Add raw onion if you’re not concerned about the redolent impression you’ll give off. $3.09-$3.99.
8. Shake Shack
220 E. Buffalo St., Suite 110, 414-509-1080
This new-to-MKE chain started as a frankfurter cart in New York City. Toppings on the Shack-cago Dog are similar to the Windy City’s famous dog (but with the addition of cucumber). But the major differences are the soft, seedless potato roll and – perhaps more significantly – the split, griddled sausage. This creates a crispy wiener, a texturally different experience and yet a quite tasty one. $3.49-4.69.