Sure, I’m particular– not picky– but I like to eat anything done well, and that includes a hot dog or other street food– and it doesn’t have to be “gourmet”.
So when Kelly suggested I try this for lunch the other day, I had no idea what I was in for. I didn’t do any research, but assumed it was some gourmet hot dog stand. I ended up deciding against eating it for lunch on Friday (it can be a pain to get down Fields Ertel at noon on a Friday) but instead, Terry and I checked it out on Saturday afternoon.
Hot Doggin’ It is in an unassuming strip mall off of Montgomery Road. Essentially, you drive past all of the Mason chain restaurants, and end up in this oasis of small businesses– Kyoto sushi, a new Asian restaurant opening soon in the old G. Bailey’s spot, Cheezburger Cafe (why they don’t have a LOLcat as a logo…) and a couple of others. I had no idea! See, you can discover new things all the time in the suburbs, too. Terry was momentarily mesmerized by the lure of the Cheezburger, but I dragged him into Hot Doggin’ It, where we encountered… quite a line! We got behind someone who seemed to be a regular, and I asked him one simple question:
“How’s the Italian beef?”
I know, I know, but ever since the Hoperatives got me hooked on Portillo’s last summer, I think of Chicago and Italian Beef. The guy ahead of us in line assured me they were good, and that he’d had “everything on the menu” and particularly suggested the cheese fries. Okay, then.
The place is a primary-colored homage to all things Chicago. Jerseys are on the wall, a map of the Greater Chicagoland area with pins stuck in locations where their customers are originally from– the owner, Ava, says she has over 1200 native Chicagoans as customers, driving from as far away as Lexington. There’s a jukebox from the 50s under a brand-new TV (showing sports). It’s got a lot of character.
So we get in line, and meet the aforementioned Ava, the owner, who takes all of the orders. She’s super sweet and talkative, and advises you to leave room for your ice cream dessert. Okay, then.
Terry orders a Chicago dog– featuring a steamed, natural-casing Vienna Beef hot dog, and what are the traditional fixings: mustard, onion, relish, tomato, “sport peppers” (tiny green peppers pickled in white vinegar ) and celery salt, on a poppyseed bun. This is a Chicago dog like you’d get in Chicago– not the tasteless dogs served around here. And, of course, no ketchup, which I hear is a cardinal sin, akin to putting peanut butter on pizza. They’re considered Hall of Fame by the Vienna Beef folks– and they’re not even in Chicago.
I got the Italian Beef, a pile of falling-apart roast beef on a roll soaked with the beefy juices, topped with a ton of freshly sauteed onions. I chose no peppers. When Ava came by to talk to us– right after giving a cute kid in the corner a Vienna Beef hat and a lollipop– she noticed that something was missing: giardiniera! This is a mix of vegetables in vinegar and olive oil, that comes in mild and hot, used as a condiment. She instructed Terry (who had started nibbling on my sandwich by that time) how to stuff the giardiniera into the meat– just a little, because it’s hot– to get the full flavor effect. It was delicious– just like I had at Portillo’s in Chicago. The sandwich was so flavorful– much more so than the French dip sandwiches many places pass off as an Italian beef.
Oh, and then the cheese fries– fresh-cut, freshly-fried skin-on fries, topped with more cheese than two people know what to do with. They were fantastic– okay, so it was cheese sauce, but hey, we’re going for authenticity here! We couldn’t finish. We were stuffed. So Ava comes around again and reminds us of our ice cream. We demur; she says, “This is my house, you get ice cream.” So we get our cones (vanilla and chocolate) and ate as we chatted with her, feeling like we were going to explode.
We walked out thinking two things: “holy cow, how did we eat so much?” and “wow, those are some of the NICEST people we’ve ever met!” Seriously– could not have been nicer if they tried. Ava makes a point to remember her customers’ names– I have no doubt that the next time I walk in, she’ll greet me just as warmly as she did the first time.