CHICAGO — When brothers Gus and Peter Romas bought Wolfy’s restaurant from original owner Mickey Becker in 1999, its founder had only one request: Don’t change the hot dogs.
“He said, ‘Listen, you guys bought the place now, you can do whatever you want with it, but do not touch our hot dogs.’ God bless Mickey,” Gus said. “He said, ‘You can do whatever you want, just don’t do that.’ We said, ‘OK, sir, we’ll listen to you.’”
Thus, the iconic establishment at 2734 W. Peterson Ave. in West Ridge — instantly recognizable by the enormous forked hot dog statue that doubles as the restaurant’s sign — has continued to serve its famous char-cooked, Chicago-style jumbo dog since 1967.
While Wolfy’s regular hot dog is available the traditional way — steamed — or charred on the grill, its plump jumbo dog is always flame-broiled over a grill with nuggets consisting of a mixture of charcoal and other elements.
“Some people are wary of it, because, you know, they see it turning darker and getting black, getting charred,” Romas said. “But it seems when they try it, they’re very pleasantly surprised. Some customers didn’t know hot dogs could come that way.”
That’s likely because the classic way of cooking an encased, all-beef hot dog in Chicago is done by steaming. The other acceptable method is by “charring it,” usually on a grill using lump coal or briquettes, though occasionally gas grills and griddles are used. The char refers to the method of cooking and the flavorful, crispy, blackened outer shell that develops as a result of the hot dog’s exposure to flames and heat.
A Char-Grilled Game-Changer
While Wolfy’s char dog tradition was passed down from Becker, Gus Romas thinks the original owner, like other restaurateurs at the time, likely wanted to capitalize on the growing popularity of backyard barbecuing on charcoal grills — particularly finding a way to offer the summer-style of cooking from a commercial kitchen in the winter.
That guess fits with the history of the charcoal barbecuing trend, which began in the late ’40s and early ’50s as a post-World War II phenomenon brought about by the rising popularity of the backyard grill, said Bruce Kraig, a culinary historian and author of “Man Bites Dog: Hot Dog Culture in America” and “Hot Dog: A Global History.” In its early days, grilling was considered a masculine task that became a prolific activity for returning soldiers and other men.
Around the same time, changes in the restaurant industry began to pave the way for charcoal-cooked meats, Kraig said. The invention of the charcoal briquettes that made home grilling so accessible soon led to larger equipment, with eateries using an array of gas-fired infrared broilers, grills and briquettes. The technology also provided an easier and cheaper alternative to frying for cooks to produce greasy-spoon favorites.
Soon, the days of hot dog stands selling only hot dogs were gone — a new era had also ushered in a new restaurant model that required vendors to offer more than just their beloved dogs. To maximize the use and profitability of kitchen equipment capable of charring, hot dog restaurants brought burgers, tamales and more to their menus. A food trend was created.
“There are styles in restaurants, fads that look good, and it’s a combination of what people want and will sell, and it’s the way food trends are formed, which isn’t exactly a linear process,” Kraig said. “People like the idea of outdoor cooking, and so char-broiling becomes a thing.”
Kraig, whose book “Man Bites Dog” lists Wolfy’s hot dogs as No. 1 in Chicago, said the restaurant makes char-broiling work because it also sells an assortment of other products, like hamburgers and sausages, that maximize its use of the grill and devotion to charring.
“There’s a regionality to cooking hot dogs,” Kraig said. “New York dogs have never worked in Chicago. I think Chicago char dogs tapped into this trend of cooking on a hot surface to create that crispy outside. So dogs charred on an open flame has just seeped into Chicago usage.”
Heartburn And Happiness
One of the biggest players on the char dog scene is Charcoal Delights, 3139 W. Foster Ave. in North Park, which specializes in cooking charred food the traditional way: lump coal and a charcoal grill.
Charcoal Delights’ biggest seller is the Chicago-style char dog. It’s made the same way owner Nick Katsis and family have cooked dogs — albeit now in a larger, more modern space — since 1986, when the restaurant was a small corner stand known as the Hot Dog Pit.
“We just took it to the next level: more efficient, bigger, more convenience for our customers,” Katsis said. “We use real charcoal, and that’s what sets us apart. A lot of places will say they charcoal-broil their hot dogs or their burgers, but they just use a gas grill. We go all the way, the real charcoal grill, that’s the difference. It’s a model that we use.
“It’s a little more expensive, a little more work-intensive, but at the end, it’s worth all those efforts and sacrifice.”
It’s also what has helped sustain the business for more than 30 years by creating, and then catering to, its very own char dog cult following.
“Our customers know what they’re gonna get,” Katsis said. “They love it, and that’s why they keep on coming back for more. It’s a better, healthier way of cooking — and tastier, of course. It’s like you’re barbecuing in your backyard.”
Similarly, Fatso’s Last Stand, 2258 W. Chicago Ave. in Ukrainian Village, serves one of the city’s most popular hot dogs. They’re “always charred, never steamed” and completed with a cross cut on each end. That’s the only proper way to cook a char dog, said John Carruthers, a graduate of Vienna Beef’s Hot Dog University, chef and food writer — and a self-described “opinionated hot dog consumer.”
In addition to other well-liked char haunts — Wolfy’s, The Wiener’s Circle and the former Hot Doug’s — Fatso’s “char dog is the one I’d tell someone to get locally,” Carruthers said.
“You’ve got to cut it with the cross at the ends,” he said. “Don’t stick it with a fork. Don’t slash it. Cut the ends and you’ll retain the best amount of juices and get a nice little bite on the end.”
Kheirra Figueroa, a lifelong Chicagoan who was out at Fatso’s one recent night with her son, home from the military and craving classic American fast food fare, said she’s loved hot dogs her whole life. They were a staple of her childhood.
Now an adult, Figueroa likes to get a char dog with mustard, onion and hot peppers.
“I like cross-cut” ends like at Fatso’s, she said. “I like that bit of char, because when you put on the mustard, peppers and onions, it’s like having a grill at home.”
The restaurant’s unpretentious nature and delicious food are aspects of Chicago that makes its food scene so special, Figueroa said.
“It’s the grease joints … . You can still go get a nasty, dirty Polish or hot dog from over there and still have heartburn and be happy,” she said. “But you know, that’s what makes the hot dogs here so good.”
A Purist’s Nightmare, Or Chicago Delicacy?
However, not all hot dogs are created equal, said Kraig, who is an admitted “hot dog purist.” The food historian noted that while Vienna Beef is a commercial product, he also considers it an artisanal hot dog among a sea of sometimes limp, lifeless wieners. He struggles to understand why someone would desecrate one of Chicago’s most respected sausages by throwing it to the fire rather than conducting a controlled steaming.
“I would never char a good Vienna Chicago hot dog, or any other upscale hot dog, because I think it ruins the flavor,” Kraig said. “I’m kind of a purist, myself, and there are other people like me who are absolute purists about their hot dogs.”
Still, Kraig acknowledged sometimes demand from consumers can seem contrary to culinary best practices when it comes to cooking hot dogs, such as the Vienna Beef hot dog served at New York-based food chain Shake Shack, which is split and cooked on a griddle.
“I asked them, ‘How could you do that?’ and they said, ‘Well this is what New Yorkers want!’” Kraig said, chuckling. “I was appalled.”
Kraig worries charring a hot dog with skin is a waste of a top-shelf dog because the casing typically comes from sheep in Australia and New Zealand — an aspect of the classic steamed dog that gives it a satisfying snap with each bite and ups its value.
“But if you take a cheap supermarket hot dog, say Oscar Mayer or Ballpark or one of those things which are flaccid and flavorless except for salt, and you char them — great, it’s the only way to cook them, in my opinion,” he said. “It gives them at least some flavor and texture.”
Carruthers said he could understand why someone might be turned off by a char dog, especially because they lend themselves to, well, accidentally burning to a fiery crisp.
“I think it’s understandable if people don’t like char dogs because we’ve all been to that barbecue where some poor, overworked dad just lets them sit on the grill for way too long and they explode,” Carruthers said. “I mean, a bad char dog is like eating an incredibly tough racketball.”
A backyard cook himself, Carruthers confessed with a laugh that “if there’s one thing backyard cooks may have ruined, it’s the grilled hot dog,” because they are so easy to overcook.
“What people need to remember is that it’s a cooked, cured product — you could eat it raw if you wanted,” he said. “So if you’re worried about getting food poisoning from a hot dog, you may end up just carbonizing it until you’re both sad.”
Yet when done right, a perfectly grilled char dog can be the sign of a great cook and provide insight into the quality of a restaurant, Carruthers said.
“A steamed dog can be very forgiving over time, but with a char dog there’s a little bit of skill there, a little bit of cooking,” he said. “You can really mess it up.”
Carruthers said he, personally, is a “big fan” of the char style because it “adds a lot of depth to an already fun and complex thing.”
“Everything from Italian beef all the way up to what they’re serving at Alinea is about layers of flavor and layers of texture and layers of experience — and the char dog gives you all of that,” he said.
For people wary of charring an encased hot dog, they can get a skinless Vienna Beef frank, Carruthers said. The char itself serves as a stand-in for the missing casing, providing a textured outside with a smokey flavor.
“Natural casing is a thing we’re spoiled with here,” he said. “People can get a little too prescriptive and gatekeepy about what is and isn’t a Chicago dog. If you want to yell at ketchup, fine, but you have to open yourself up to things like a char dog because that’s how dishes stay fresh and keep evolving. It’s not the Chicago dog you’d see on a poster, but again, we didn’t have that forever, either.”
At the end of the day, the beauty is in the eye of the beef-holder, Kraig said. While a char dog made from top-tier Vienna Beef may not be his first choice, finding one’s favorite hot dog is ultimately up to the consumer.
“My advice is: If you’re going to burn the hell out of something, make it a cheap dog and enjoy yourself,” he said.
Colin Boyle contributed to this story.
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