This story first ran in DNAinfo in 2016.
CHICAGO — Walk into a hot dog stand and you’ll walk out greasy and satisfied. That’s the goal, anyway, of any stand worth its celery salt and presumably what’s motivating you to begin with.
It could be a stand in any corner of the city. (There are an estimated 1,800 to choose from, according to Bob Schwartz, senior vice president at Vienna Beef and author of “Never Put Ketchup On A Hot Dog.”) You could be wearing a tank top or a tux. Doesn’t matter. You know what you’re there for, as does the guy next to you, and you both know how it’s going to taste.
This is especially true at Chicago’s 10 oldest hot dog stands. Keeping long hours, fending off late-night hooligans, enduring change — sometimes upheaval — in the neighborhoods that they anchor while giving customers what they want and expect (even if that includes ketchup) — is what they’ve done for decades and transcends the art of customer service.
Anchor. That’s also an apt word for what these businesses represent for the families who keep them going.
“This paid for my college,” said Gina Fountain, proprietor of Dave’s Red Hots in Lawndale, the oldest stand, dating to 1938. Her late father was Dave’s second owner. Behind the counter today, you’ll find Gina, her mom, her niece and her nephew (whenever he’s on leave from the Army). Her uncle, 70, just retired after four decades there.
If you were a kid growing up in Little Italy, you ate at Patio on Taylor Street, and when you were old enough to earn a buck, you worked there.
“This was everyone’s first job,” said Alice Reyes, a fixture behind the cash register at Patio. She’s been there 20 years.
As far back as the 1890s, immigrants in Chicago found work peddling sausages from pushcarts on the streets.
The 1920s were the boom years for the hot dog stand as a fixed venture (relatively speaking, as they were often no more than a shack with a ledge), said food historian Bruce Kraig, professor emeritus at Roosevelt University and author of “Man Bites Dog” and “Hot Dog: A Global History.” A second boom came after World War II.
Stands populated Jewish and Italian enclaves on the West and South Sides, serving this cheap meal on a bun that was especially welcome during the Depression and has become emblematic of the city itself.
The hot dog stand today epitomizes the independent restaurant, but hot dogs aren’t the only or even the best-selling thing offered anymore, even for the historic restaurants on this list. (And interestingly, what you might call a “classic” Chicago-style hot dog, as pictured in the photo above, is interpreted differently at each of these stands.)
Time has brought pizza puffs, cheese fries and Twitter feeds. There has been a loosening of the cash-only requirement at some stands.
It’s the cost of doing business, making rent and pleasing customers, Kraig and Schwartz said.
“They’re entrepreneurs. They have to make money and meet the needs of the neighborhoods, which is how hot dog stands started. They’re just carrying on that tradition,” Kraig said.
But don’t be mistaken. Ketchup is still, for the most part, verboten.
1. Dave’s Red Hots, 3422 W. Roosevelt Rd.
At 42, Gina Fountain is a hot dog stand veteran, the kind who knows customers’ orders before they order. She greets adults with “honey” or “baby,” though a boy of, say, 15 will get a “young man.” She was that age when she started working at the Lawndale stand, founded in 1938 by a man named Dave near 12th and Homan, then a Jewish neighborhood. Her late father Eugene Fountain bought it from him in 1970 after the riots that blighted the West Side, and moved it a few years later to its current spot nearby, taking the wooden booths and tabletop jukeboxes that played songs for a nickel. The building, with its boarded-up windows, looks to have had better days. Inside, the jukeboxes are no more, but the narrow booths are intact, and Gina Fountain’s loud, infectious laugh is music of its own. The Fountains have added a few things to the original four-item menu. The red hots are done the way they’ve always been, with fries cut every morning and pickles cut square to match, though Fountain said, “The newer people get relish and onion. We added those as options about five years ago.”
Hot dog with fries: $3.15
How it’s dressed: Mustard, pickle, sport pepper.
2. Jim’s Original, 1250 S. Union Ave.
There were hot dog stands all over the streets of 1920s Chicago, including one on the northwest corner of Halsted and Maxwell owned by Jimmy Stefanovic’s aunt. In 1939, when Stefanovic arrived in Chicago from the former Yugoslavia, his aunt was sick and ready to call it quits. Selling taffy apples on the street wasn’t lucrative for Stefanovic, but he had enough money to buy his aunt’s stand, and he made it his, inventing —by his own claims — the Polish sausage sandwich and the bone-in pork chop sandwich. He also was responsible for the creation of Express Grill, the competing stand next door (No. 10 on our list). Jim’s moved twice due to expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, with the scent of grilled onions — and Express Grill — close behind. Stefanovic’s grandson Jim Christopoulos now runs it. It’s a side gig — he’s an expert witness economist living in California — but not taken lightly. He flies back to Chicago every month to “make sure things don’t change.” Lessons have been learned. Christopoulos said he tried out a different mustard five years ago that no one liked, so he switched back to Plochman’s. Everything else, from the onions peeled by hand to the serrano (not sport) peppers pickled by the barrelful in back, is Jim’s way.
Hot dog with fries: $3.80
What’s on it: Mustard, grilled onion, hot pepper.
3. Fred and Jack’s, 7600 S. Yale Blvd.
“We’re older than them,” said Clifton Thomas, looking out the window at a McDonald’s just west of this Grand Crossing hot dog stand, where he’s cooked for 26 years. His first bosses, Fred Woods and cousin Jack Gullickson, started their business in 1946 as a pushcart on 76th Street, graduating to a corner building and eventually three more locations. One of their equipment suppliers was Ray Kroc — yes, that Ray Kroc of McDonald’s fame, according to Gullickson’s obituary (he died in 2000, after Woods). Before Roy Castro, owner of the taco restaurant El Gran Burrito, bought Fred and Jack’s, Thomas remembers him sitting outside for three weeks straight, presumably to make sure it did brisk business. It did. The original location, now run by Castro’s three kids and their cousin Enrique Flores, bears the names and menus of both Fred and Jack’s and El Gran Burrito but inside, it’s one counter. Among the hot dog toppings: lettuce and ketchup. Thomas said that’s how it always was. “A lot of people get offended if we don’t put lettuce,” he said.
Hot dog with fries (and pop): $3.50
How it’s dressed: Mustard, ketchup, relish, onion, pickle, sport pepper, lettuce.
4. Patio, 1503 W. Taylor St.
Patio, a Taylor Street mainstay since 1948, is not to be confused with The Patio, a suburban chain of barbecue restaurants. The former is modest as hot dog stands tend to be, with a ’50s-era menu board, a CD jukebox for a modern touch and an elegant woman named Eleanor Varelli behind the counter who looks decades younger than her 86 years. Varelli’s late husband John and her brother Don Caputo opened the business farther west on Taylor, literally as the outdoor patio of their restaurant, The Rendezvous, serving the kinds of foods that taste better under the sun — hot dogs, clams, watermelon wedges and Italian beef, for which they’re better known. John Varelli bought the building where Patio is now in 1984. He had plans to open a pub in another building he owned across the street, but cancer got the better of him, his wife said. She, Caputo and a clutch of longtime employees carry on. “We’re oldies but goodies,” she said.
Hot dog with fries: $2.75.
How it’s dressed: Mustard, relish, onion, sport pepper.
5. Superdawg, 6363 N. Milwaukee Ave.
It was meant to be temporary, a summer of 1948 fling. Army veteran Maurie Berman was studying to be an accountant. His high school sweetheart and new wife, Flaurie, was a newly minted teacher. Maurie’s idea to help pay his way through school: Open a summer-only, drive-in hot dog stand at Milwaukee and Devon in Norwood Park. Berman designed the narrow building (“My mom said, ‘Maurie, it looks like a bathtub,'” daughter Lisa Drucker said); the his-and-her hot dog figurines to affix to the roof, and the proprietary hot dog recipe. It didn’t take long for customers to fall in love. In 1950, Berman passed the certified public accountant exam and made Superdawg a year-round business. The now-iconic elements, besides those hot dog figurines, include crinkle-cut fries, pickled tomatoes on the larger-than-average hot dogs and carhops who still deliver food to your car on a tray. Maurie Berman died in 2015. Flaurie died in 2018. Drucker, her husband and one of her brothers oversee operations, and her niece Laura Ustick is general manager at the Wheeling location, which opened in 2010. Superdawg’s 21st century contribution to hot dog history? The hot dog emoji, which Apple added in October after an online campaign led by Ustick and her husband, who manage Superdawg’s social media accounts.
Hot dog with fries: $5.75
How it’s dressed: Mustard, relish, onion, pickle, sport pepper, pickled green tomato.
6. Al’s Under The “L,” 2908 W. Lake St.
Before it was called Al’s Under The “L,” it was Al’s Red Hots and before that, going back to 1949, it was a Jewish guy named Al slinging red hots, cheeseburgers and Polish sausages out of a trailer at Lake Street and Francisco Avenue, said current owner Larry McCullum. Al’s has been a fixture in East Garfield Park for as long as neighbors can remember, and it’s these folks who keep it going. Barnett Sizer was 15 in 1958 when he started cooking there, back when hot dogs were 26 cents and Polish sausages were 32 cents, he said. He left to fight in Vietnam and came back to his job at Al’s. Now 72, he still works weekends. McCullum, who ate burgers and Polish sausages there as a kid, bought the place in 2009 from a woman in the neighborhood whose grandmother had bought it from Al. In 2011, a car ran into the front door late at night. It was after hours and no one was hurt, but McCullum had to close for a few months to repair and remodel the place. Nothing fancy, though, just a stand-up counter and a window where you pay.
Hot dog with fries: $3.35
How it’s dressed: Mustard, relish, onion, sport pepper.
7. The Original Jimmy’s Red Hots, 4000 W. Grand Ave.
There is no ketchup at Jimmy’s Red Hots, never was from the day Jimmy Faruggia opened it in 1954 on a busy Humboldt Park corner. Should you not know or assume this, you need only look around at the shirts worn by employees and signs everywhere that say “No ketchup never ever.” You won’t get thrown out of the place if you ask for some but you might get razzed, probably by Billy “The Silver Fox” Randazzo, Faruggia’s nephew who’s worked there since day one — that’s 62 years. He’s 81 and still behind the counter three days a week. The young blonde working next to him is Rose Faruggia, Faruggia’s granddaughter who sat on the counter as a kid selling napkin drawings to customers and now runs the place with her siblings. Rose keeps the line moving, with no changes to the original four-item menu of hot dogs, Polish sausage, tamales and fresh-cut fries. “My Poppy and my dad had a saying. ‘K.I.S.S. Keep it simple, stupid,’” she said. “I have a turnaround rate of two minutes. I want to get you in and out.” And she does, except on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, the only days of the year Jimmy’s is closed.
Hot dog with fries: $2.75
How it’s dressed: Mustard, relish, onion, sport pepper.
8. Duks Red Hots, 636 N. Ashland Ave.
“Donald Duks Red Hots.” Mervyn Dukatte and his cousin Donald Marselle thought it was a catchy name for the West Town hot dog stand they opened in 1957, an obvious reference to the most famous of all ducks but also to themselves. But it was too catchy for the Walt Disney Company, which sued for trademark infringement, forcing “Donald” off the name. Business didn’t suffer. At its peak, there were 13 Duks locations in the city, according to Karen Edwards, who worked there for 45 years. Edwards lives next door to and still eats at the original Duks, managed by her sister and owned by Dukatte’s son. It looks every bit its age, from the carnival-esque marquee outside to the fire-engine red formica counter, bar stools and subway tile inside. The menu runs the gamut, from 60-cent hash browns at breakfast to a gut-busting double baconburger for $6.55.
Hot dog with fries: $3.53
How it’s dressed: Mustard, relish, onion, pickle, sport pepper.
9. Jake’s Pup In The Ruf, 4401 N. Sheridan Road
It was 1959. CTA bus driver Jake Segal was on his regular Sheridan Road route when he made a move that changed the course of his life. He saw a man put a “For Rent” sign in the window of an Uptown storefront. “I stopped the bus, got out, ran across and asked the guy if I could meet with him to rent it,” Segal said. He finished his route that day and soon after opened Jake’s Pup In The Ruf at 950 W. Montrose Ave. (“Ruf” because “It was a rough neighborhood, but I didn’t want to make it look bad,” he said.) Ten years later, he bought the entire building and moved the hot dog stand to its current northeast corner spot. Son Randy Segal runs it and his 12-year-old son helps out, but most days you’ll find the elder Segal there too. He’s 80. The brightly colored cartoon figures and slogans painted on the windows are hard to miss. “We get very wealthy people pulling up in limos, and we get the poorest people in the neighborhood,” Jake Segal said. All of them, it seems, know to order the best deal on the menu and maybe in all of Chicago: a 49-cent soft-serve ice cream cone.
Hot dog with fries: $4.99
How it’s dressed: Mustard, relish, onion, tomato, pickle, sport pepper.
10. Express Grill, 1260 S. Union Ave.
In the 1950s, as family lore goes, Tom Lazarevski quit his job at Jim’s Original, his uncle’s hot dog stand, to open his own stand, Express Grill. The specifics of their dispute remain murky (“He doesn’t like to talk about it,” his son Alex said), but the separation, if you can call it that, worked out well. Lazarevski’s stand is still around and it’s next door to Jim’s, as it has been for decades. The menu and prices at Express are nearly identical to Jim’s, almost comically so. Same pork chop sandwich, same Polish, same heaps of grilled onions. One difference, and it’s a big one, according to Alex Lazarevski, who’s taken over for his dad: the seasoning in the Polish sausage. “It’s our recipe. It’s patented,” he said, holding a hefty pouch of said seasoning but not allowing a photograph to be taken. Still, while he doesn’t talk much about his relatives, and vice versa, there appear to be no hard feelings. At this point, those debating which of the two stands is better are doing so online or while standing in line at their preferred stand.
Hot dog with fries: $3.80
How it’s dressed: Mustard, grilled onion, sport pepper.
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