Confession: Hot dogs are directly responsible for me quitting vegetarianism after more than 15 years. You guys, I love hot dogs. My brother, Matthew, and I used to split a package of Lit’l Smokies when we came home from school (for the record, that’s four servings each; it’s a miracle we’re not dead). I like a hot dog off the grill, I like a boiled dog, I like a dog charred in the flames of a campfire, I like sliced dogs stirred into stovetop mac and cheese, I like pigs in a blanket…I even like tofu dogs, but when I was faced with a hot dog at my first Mets game in Shea Stadium, I folded like a cheap suit. Folks at my old magazine caught wind and asked if I’d eat meat for a week and write about it. The rest is history. Sweet sweet sustainably-and-humanely raised animal-eating history.
Truly, I don’t eat much meat these days, particularly red meat, but I just can’t resist a hot dog. That said, I had never known the glory of a Chicago-style dog until I moved East, and once my eyes were opened, they were opened wide. Now, I’m a fan of condiments. The more, the merrier, I say. I like my burgers overflowing with stuff. I’m the guy at Subway who orders a sandwich “with everything. No, seriously, all of it.” A Chicago dog speaks to this innate need for a well-dressed weenie. In the Chicago style, when a beef dog is “dragged through the garden,” it’s placed in a steamed poppyseed bun and topped with yellow mustard, pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, fresh tomato, pickled sport peppers, diced white onions, and celery salt. Sometimes, a cucumber slice or two are added; the occasional inclusion of ketchup is a hotly contested issue. This colorful dressing takes a simple dog and elevates it to a full, colorful meal.
There’s one problem: Chicago dogs are messy, y’all. The tomatoes always end up slapping against my nostrils, the onions fall off, and the sport peppers, when they’re not squirting spicy brine, are torpedoing out the tail end of the bun. We make these babies fairly frequently in our house, so I’ve been tinkering with the method. Boiled dogs are fine, but Mike prefers ’em grilled (“chardog”), so I’d been splitting them in half and slapping them on our Griddler. They curl up like crazy, though, and the charring isn’t that fantastic. I also often eliminate the sport peppers because they’re a bit much when you bite into a big one. I tried out a few methods of steaming the bun (a soft bun is essential), none of which were satisfactory. And then? I had a brainwave. I saw a video about spiral-cutting hot dogs. How cool is that method? That’d prevent the curling issue I’d been experiencing. A spiral-cut dog is perfect for holding chunky condiments like relish…waitaminit! What if I turned the toppings into a sort of chunky salsa?
I set to work and suddenly we found ourselves eating the greatest (and least messy) Chicago dogs I’ve ever made. We’ve had them this way three times since then. Y’all, this is a winner. To those of you from the great state of Illinois, I ask your forgiveness for messing with a classic. Don’t hate until you try it, though. I think you’ll really enjoy it.
Better Chicago Dogs
Active time: 25 minutes | Total time: 25 minutes | Serves: 4
4 all-beef hot dogs
4 potato hot dog buns (poppy seed if possible)
1 medium tomato, cored, seeded, and finely diced
1/3 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded, and finely diced
1/4 medium white onion, finely diced
1 dill pickle (or 3 baby dills), finely diced
2 sport peppers, finely diced (optional)
1/8 teaspoon celery salt
mustard, for serving (and ketchup, if you don’t mind being noncanonical)
- For the relish: Combine tomato, cucumber, onion, pickle, sport peppers (if using), and celery salt in a glass bowl.
- For the dogs: On a cutting board, lay a hot dog front of you, parallel to the long edge of the board. Position your knife on top at a slight angle. Slowly and carefully rotate the hot dog, cutting about halfway through in a spiral. [For a video of this preparation process, visit Chow, but note that it’s just as easy to do it without the skewer if you hold your knife in the same place (height, angle) while turning the dog.] Repeat for remaining hot dogs. Heat a medium skillet over medium, coat with cooking spray, and cook dogs until warmed through and slightly charred on exterior, about five minutes, turning often.
- To assemble: Wet two paper towels and then wring out any excess water. Wrap two buns in one damp paper towels, set on a plate, and microwave 30 seconds to steam. Repeat with remaining buns and paper towel. In each steamed bun, place one cooked spiral-cut hot dog, a stripe of mustard (and ketchup, if using), and one-quarter the Chicago Dog salsa.