Since the mere notion of me moving to Chicago was mentioned in my small Connecticut town, the few people who’ve ventured across state lines told me, “Two words: Hot Doug’s.” Being stubborn, I presumed a hot dog was a hot dog as far as I was concerned. Spoiler alert: I’ve never been more wrong. Each year that passed, my high school Law & Justice teacher would ask “Have you been to Hot Doug’s yet?” and, to his dismay (perhaps disappointment), I would always shake my head, spewing out some haughty, uneducated line claiming there were other hot dogs to be had and enjoyed.
And then Hot Doug’s announced it was closing. I think the panic surrounding Black Tuesday in 1929 looked a lot like a Chicagoan’s Twitter feed that week. Since that day in May, my friends and I all made casual plans to eat at Hot Doug’s but said plans always fell through. That was until one Wednesday last month (yup it’s October folks!) when my friend Rob said “Hope you’re not working on Saturday, we’re getting some encased meats.” I woke up especially early that day to a text from Rob that simply said “Encased meats. Encased meats,” and met him at the bus with our friend, Jack.
We arrived to the restaurant at 9 o’clock on the dot and the line was about half a block long. Not discouraged, we took our place in line with smiles on our faces. Jack, who was at Hot Doug’s less than a week before, mentioned that the line was NOT this long. We envied the Jack from last week, but he was an equal today. The two men in front of us turned around because they overheard Rob and I were first timers (they were seasoned professionals). After a brief conversation they mentioned that they’d be joined by “A few other people.” We were too happy for gourmet sausages that we didn’t care if a few people cut us. That was until these “few other people” added up to eight new members in line.
A sign to few; the real North Star to most.
An interesting nuance about today than any other day that Hot Dougians can remember is that the store technically closed the second it opened. At 10:30, when technically Hot Doug’s opens, an employee was immediately sent to the end of the line, sign in tow, saying that they were no longer accepting people to join the line. We made it, though, that’s all that mattered.
The wait was, for lack of a better word, unique. As the day’s weather vacillated between sunny & humid and rainy & humid, the three of us were happy that we had a singular umbrella to fit under. We played handheld video games, talked about classes, and shared fun facts about Chicago to try to pass the time. An ice cream truck even rolled by. As “All Around The Mulberry Bush” played while I waited to eat a hot dog, I was finally six years old again. We perused the menu two hours into the line. I knew exactly what I wanted before noon. In hindsight, this was a horrible decision because it was all I thought about as the line attempted to progress.
The man, the myth, the legend: Doug
It was a seven hour wait before we got to the counter. I don’t even wait a half hour after I eat to go swimming, so this gourmet sausage had some pretty big buns to fill. I was next in line when I made a bold choice of adding a third sausage to the order. I almost forgot what I was getting by the sheer demeanor of the titular Doug as he took our orders. He genuinely thanked Jack for returning to his restaurant. He welcomed Rob and I as we stepped into the blue, red, and yellow interior for the first time. He told us he never liked reading reviews because he’d always dwell on a negative one (he could only recollect getting one, though). He said his philosophy was, if people returned, he was doing something right; if they didn’t, he would have to go do something else (the four of us had a nice laugh about how, despite people coming back, he was still, in fact, going to do something else despite the lines and love).
The special of the week was a chardonnay and jalapeño rattlesnake sausage with smoked swiss cheese, Revolution Rosa Hibiscus Ale mustard, duck confit, and black sea salt (I know, I feel you). The three of us agreed, without a moment’s hesitation, that the special was a must. I went with another weekly special, The Shrimp ‘n’ Grits: a smoked shrimp and pork sausage with creole mustard, hominy grits, and goat cheese. My final impulse sausage was The Elvis: A Polish sausage with your standard Maxwell Street topping (I’m true to my roots). Jack mentioned it was sacrilege to not get the duck fat fries, so, naturally, we all got an order of it.
The immediate, unadulterated euphoria that came from sitting in that chair after seven hours was the moment we knew victory. We laughed. The people that jumped in line, the classic and indecisive Chicago weather, the wait all led up to this foam cushion and the hearty chuckle we had.
We only waited a few minutes for our sausages, a feat I applaud the staff for. As the three trays rolled out, a song was playing on the stereo that we all recognized, but couldn’t identify. It wasn’t until the server finally said “Alright, guys, enjoy your food,” that Gary Wright began belting “Dreamweaver,” and our religious experience finally came. We took a bite, or at least tried through our laughter, and it was better than anything I could have imagined. Life is full of so many sublime moments: the birth of a child, standing on the altar as someone tells you, “I do,” but waiting almost a full work day to eat rattlesnake and grits in sausage form with two of your best friends is all I’ve got at the moment.
Chicago Dog (Debatably best in the city. Char grilled, of course), the rattlesnake sausage, Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage, and a serving of duck fat fries. Get your elastic waistbands ready
All three sausages had a quality about them that made each an experience worthwhile. Hands down, best Polish sausage I’ve ever had. As for rattlesnake, it’s hard to pinpoint through the subtle chardonnay flavor what differentiated it from pork, but it’s a whole new world: shining, shimmering, and splendid. My favorite, however, was the Shrimp ‘n’ Grits. I remember saying, “It smells like home,” (being from New England, I had to clarify that I meant the concept of home, but I digress). The fries, however, were something else. There’s something about the texture the duck fat gives them that you simply don’t have a bad fry in the batch and no two fries are the same.
What I leave you with is this: If you can get to Hot Doug’s tomorrow, it’s last day, please do. Although I think you should probably line up right now in order to do so. I can only hope my children know a fraction of the happiness that day brought me. I’d like to thank Doug and his team for two things:
1) Thank you for making something so hard to say “goodbye” to.
2) Proving that “There are no two finer words in the English language than ‘encased meats,’ my friend,” (Thanks for the mantra, Secret Robbie)
A modest treasure trough.