Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Great Chicago Hot Dog—or Why I May Never Be Thin

I had just finished facilitating a challenging two-day training session at our corporate headquarters in the Aon Center in downtown Chicago. The focus of our work was a project our firm is currently engaged in—a retrofit of the Empire State Building that will lower its energy use approximately forty per cent. It’s a model energy project. The owner of the iconic building has expressly made the tools and processes we used public information in hopes of encouraging other building owners to follow suit.

Some of the processes are only marginally different than conventional processes, but significantly more effective. I spent months studying the technological and financial drivers, and the interrelationship between them. As an avowed art major, my appeal to technical subject matter experts is always: “If you can get me to understand this, I can get anyone to understand it.” Part of my approach is to simplify the jargon and offer engaging analogies and activities to help cement the concepts in the minds of others.

One analogy I tried out was intended to suggest the difference between a normal energy audit and the robust, comprehensive, holistic energy audits that we performed. I compared these to the difference between an order of McDonald’s fries and a “super-sized” order. I passed this concept by one energy manager who said I had gotten it wrong. I needed a metaphor that suggested adding different features not merely providing more of the same. The next time we met I showed him a PowerPoint slide that graphically demonstrated that if the typical service is a plain hot dog, then the robust, comprehensive, holistic, service is a Chicago dog with the works.

Chicago dog with the works.
I presented these images to the workshop participants during each of three “webinars” that I led in the weeks prior to our gathering in Chicago. Admittedly it may have been a bit of a stretch. I’m not sure how effective it was in making the distinction between the levels of service. I do know that it generated a thirst for Chicago hot dogs in myself if not the rest of the group.

Chicago is a great food city. Throughout my years of travel here I’ve had the opportunity to sample many of its restaurants. One benefit and hazard of frequent travel is frequent dining out. This trip, however, was not destined to bring me to any of the “finer” establishments. Our management had decided to have a department holiday party on the eve of the training sessions, so I cancelled reservations at The Girl and the Goat to take one for the team that night. The party featured some pleasant, if not spectacular, hors d'oeuvres, most of which featured either pork or shellfish, neither of which I eat. So it goes. The following night, after our first day of training and in a further effort to create some team bonding, I was hosting a bowling party. We had ample party food there as well, but face it—this was a bowling alley. I had even ordered some mini-Chicago dogs, somewhat tasty, a bit on the cold side—and again, nothing to get excited about.

On my final morning in Chicago, I was okay about having missed an elegant meal during my visit, but what really stuck in my craw was not having had a truly great Chicago dog. I figured I could remedy that with a stop at Portillo's on the way out of town. Portillo’s had been introduced to me by some locals a few years ago. I had been there once. Loved the Chicago dog. Not so impressed by the fries covered with melted cheese that was no improvement over ketchup.

I wheeled my carry-on down the sidewalk outside the Fairmont and flagged the first taxi in line. “Portillo’s,” I requested and we headed off. Immediately he asked, a propos of nothing, if I were Italian or Jewish. After I replied, he asked if Hanukkah was over yet—apparently he never does well on Jewish Holidays—business is too quiet on LaSalle Street for the lack of Jewish bankers. I wasn’t entirely sure if that was blatant anti-Semitism or an accurate assessment based on empirical evidence. I let it go.

He was Greek—in this country since he was eleven years old. He engaged me in animated conversation on a variety of topics most of the journey. We talked about the freezing weather. We talked about our families. He proclaimed that he was happily divorced. Not long ago he flew to San Francisco to meet a beautiful wealthy woman from San Francisco who he met on the Internet. En route, apparently, she suddenly had moved to Stockton, gained 300 pounds, and lost her fortune. Funny how that worked out.

Eventually the conversation turned to my quest for the great Chicago dog. Soon he offered a suggestion. While he had never eaten there himself, he knew a hot dog place on the way to O’Hare to which he had taken many people, including a guy who was actually flying out of Midway and for whom the excursion to this part of town added significant dollars to the cost of the dog. If someone thought that highly of the place, I was game.

We rolled up to the corner of Roscoe and California to “Hot Doug’s”! I was immediately taken by the name. By this time the driver had already described the vast menu that includes different meats, toppings, and even choices of cooking medium. You want it steamed? Fried? Grilled? Fried and grilled? The cabbie considered whether to join me inside, but opted to wait for me in the car—with no idling charge. The line would normally have been out the door and around the block if the temperature were not in the teens. As it was, I waited long enough to make some friends in line, and watch a lot of happy faces walking out the door or gathered around the tables inside.

We rolled up to the corner of Roscoe and California to “Hot Doug’s”!
The guys ahead of me let me know I had not been led astray by my cabbie, that he had extricated me from the tourist trap in town to an authentic joint in an authentic neighborhood. I perused the menu, eschewed such options as The Elvis: Polish Sausage, smoked and savory, just like the King; The Frankie “Five Angels” Pentangeli (formerly The Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo and The Luca Brasi): Italian sausage—“keep your friends close, your sausage closer; The Keira Knightley: (formerly The Jennifer Garner and The Britney Spears): fire dog, mighty hot!; The Salma Hayek (formerly The Madonna, The Raquel Welch and The Ann-Margret): Andouille sausage: mighty, mighty, mighty hot! The list went on with aptly named selections of Bratwurst, Thuringer, vegetarian dogs, chicken sausage, corn dogs, etc.

I stuck to my plan—two orders of the classic, simply named “The Dog—Chicago-Style Hot Dogs with all the trimmings: 'nuff said.” I added the optional sport peppers, a small fry, a Diet Coke and a Hot Doug’s t-shirt. The friendly guy behind the counter said, “Make it twenty bucks.” I assumed he had done some rounding, probably down. He was the kind of guy who told someone ahead of me to order a small Coke if he was dining in, since they were refillable. When he asked if I wanted my dogs steamed or grilled, he only waited a second as I contemplated these options. “Grilled” he proclaimed.
 “The Dog—Chicago-Style Hot Dogs with all the trimmings: 'nuff said.”
I took in the ambiance. Animated diners filled the joint. Brightly painted walls were covered with colorful paraphernalia. There was one guy whose job was expediting the orders to the tables. He brought me a tray with two robust, comprehensive, holistic dogs, covered with relish, mustard, sautéed onions, tomatoes, the aforementioned peppers, and a big dill pickle spear. The Chicago dog is often judged by its “snap” and I’m pretty sure grilled is the way to go to enhance that quality. The fries alone were worth the trip—bronze toned, skins on, just the right amount of grease. I savored every bite of dog and fry.

When I told the server how I happened to arrive for my first meal at his place he didn’t hesitate to order a dog, on the house, that I dutifully ran out to the waiting taxi and handed through the open window to a grateful driver. By the time he and I got to O’Hare he had dictated a tidy list of places to eat the best hamburger, the best pizza, and the best Greek food in Chicago, but it was the amazing visit to Hot Doug's! Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium for which I will be ever grateful.
An amazing visit to Hot Doug's! Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium.