My Last Visit to Hot Doug’s

I wasn’t always this interested in culinary exploration. But Chicago has changed the way I think about food. Since I moved here, I have discovered that some of the most brilliant, innovative artists that our city has to offer are in our restaurants and our kitchens. And their creations are among the best that you will find anywhere.

Among the very best of them is Hot Doug’s – our wildly popular hot dog restaurant in the Avondale neighborhood. For 13 years, owner Doug Sohn has served a variety of amazing hot dogs and sausages, including classic Chicago-style dogs, Polish sausage, and beer soaked bratwurst, to thousands of loyal, hungry people.

But what really makes his restaurant stand out is the gourmet specialty selection. His menu rotates twelve different gourmet sausages of all different kinds of game meats, aged cheeses, sauces, and other random flavorful combinations and toppings, all on a hot dog bun.

Over the years, I have patronized his store for things like a Thanksgiving Turducken Sausage with pumpkin cream and cranberry-infused gourmet cheese, a smoked shrimp and pork hot dog with Cajun shrimp remoulade, goat cheese and honey drizzle. And sometimes just a plain old Chicago style hot dog with all the decorations would suit me just fine.

He is best known for his world famous Foie Gras Hot Dog. A foie gras and sauternes duck sausage with a spread of truffle aioli, chunks of foie gras mousse, and a dash of fleur de sel sea salt. It is as legendary as the culinary kings of old, and is to this day one of the best things I have ever eaten.

It is amazing enough to capture the attention of Anthony Bourdain, who had nothing but great things to say about it when he visited the restaurant. The clientele has done nothing but grow ever since, thanks to the publicity.

Last May, owner Doug Sohn announced on his website that he planned to close the store for good in October, giving his patrons five months to enjoy whatever they could from his one of a kind menu. Since then, the lines have been getting exponentially more and more insane. On a weekday morning, I used to wait ten minutes in line, but after the announcement it took me two hours to get inside. I went once on a Saturday at the end of June and got through the line three hours later. And it hasn’t stopped. It has doubled, tripled, and quadrupled in size over the summer.

Having just got back from a five week trip to Virginia, I wanted to go one last time, and it was now or never. So last Saturday, Mike and I agreed to meet in line at 8am. Word on the street was that the Saturday wait time was about 8.5 hours (yes, I’m serious) if you fail to beat the morning surge, so I bumped it ahead to 7 for safe measure. That would give us 3.5hrs at least to be optimistic.

We lucked out. When I got there, the sun was coming up and only ten people stood ahead of me. The crowds started showing up exponentially over the next few hours, backing up to what looked like a 6 hour wait around 9am. It didn’t stop there; the line kept going and going. So fuck yeah, we got this.

Our wait turned out just shy of 4 hours, and was actually quite a bit of fun, thanks to our knowing we earned the best spot in the line. Well, that and the bloody mary kit that the ladies in front of us generously shared to help kill the time. Why not tailgate to such a noteworthy occasion?

The last two hours blew by as Mike and I hung out with our new tailgating friends. Like us, they enjoyed exploring the food scene. They claimed to meet regularly to go on foodie adventures about the city, as Mike and I also do (though I hesitate to think of myself as a “foodie”, since it goes against my beliefs as a cowboy).

Before we knew it, it was 10:30 and the doors opened. The bittersweet feeling of closure was already starting to distract me from the menu as I walked in for the last time. Doug was at the front counter taking orders and giving Cindy a hard time for having never been to Hot Doug’s before. His banter was as sharp as a cleaver, and he could easily get the customers laughing, especially at the expense of one or two people. “What am I gonna do, get a bad review on Yelp?”

Mike and I put in our orders and sat down with our new friends at a table for five.

We both got a Foie Gras Hot Dog for obvious reasons. In addition, we got four more sausages and shared halves of them: The Smoked and Spicy Alligator Sausage with Crayfish and Shrimp Remoulade and Raspberry-infused Bellavitano Cheese, the Smoked Shrimp and Pork with Creole Mustard, Hominy Grits and Goat Cheese, a Veal Saltimbocca Sausage with Sage Mustard, Sheep’s Milk Brigante Cheese and Fried Prosciutto, and a Lamb and Pork Belly with Onion Butter, Brie Cheese and sweet fucking Tomato Preserves.

I don’t even know what half of this stuff is. But it all tasted as awesome as it sounds.

And I’m not one to waste any time savoring the flavors, fuck that. Even if they are out of this world. A few months ago, I visited Au Cheval, a great diner in the west loop that is well known among locals for their cheeseburgers. As soon as I finished one, a guy came up to me and told me that that was the fastest he had ever seen anybody eat a burger. And he’s right, when something is that good, I will mow it the fuck down.

Mike is pretty much the same way. We finished off our share of the sausages with some room left for duck fat fries. The ladies finished their decadent array of gourmet food and we all got up, satisfied and sad all the same that our favorite place in town will soon be gone forever.

When I walked outside, the line was at least as long as a football field.

But don’t let that discourage you from going. You still have time up to October 3rd, so make the most of it. They open at 10:30, but the line will already be there before. Do what we did and get there at 7, maybe even earlier at this point. The line is exponential as far as I can tell, so if you’re thinking of going on the closing day, you’ll probably have to camp out to beat the surge.

Do whatever you have to do. I promise you it’s worth it.

We will always have great places to eat in Chicago. But I don’t know if we’ll ever have something like this again. I am certain that Hot Doug’s will be remembered for many years to come as a truly, truly quintessential culinary venture.

#foodporn courtesy of Mike Bacos