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Hot dog heaven: Sampling classic and exotic franks at Chicago fest

National correspondent Ben Schamisso reports from the Windy City Hot Dog Fest with one assignment: Trying as many franks as possible.
Hot dog heaven: Sampling classic and exotic franks at Chicago fest
Posted at 9:48 AM, Jun 08, 2023

Chicago's obsession with hot dogs knows no bounds.

That's the clear impression you get at the annual Windy City Hot Dog Fest, where people get to stuff their faces all weekend long with vintage and exotic frankfurters from 12 of the city's favorite vendors. After trying them all, attendees crown the supreme dog.

First the classic: The world-famous Chicago-style dog.

On top of your all-beef steamed sausage, you get mustard, relish, chopped onions, tomato wedges, a pickle spear, sport peppers and finally celery salt.

"The tartness of the tomatoes, the sweetness of the relish, the vinegar taste of the mustard and the onions — it just all blends together perfectly," explained Mike Payne, president of Byron's Hot Dogs, one of the fest vendors. Payne says that perfect combo would be criminally ruined by ketchup, or "the K-word," because as a self-respecting Chicagoan, "it would hurt too much" to say the full word, Payne said.

There's tradition and then there's innovation — as in putting nacho cheese and Flamin' Hot Cheetos on top of your dog, an idea one fest vendor credits to his nephew.

Of course, the other kids at the fest love it.

"The crunch [from the Cheetos] gives it like this good texture that I feel like I'm missing when I eat a hot dog," one 11-year-old boy told Scripps News.

SEE MORE: Why is Chicago against ketchup on hot dogs?

Next door, you have Lola's Coney Island and their signature Detroit-style chili dog, which won the People's Choice Award last year.

Lola's chef Gus Lemus says the dog is popular because it's meaty and messy. "When they bite into it, they can see the meat rolling down," he said proudly.

At Tandoor Char House, you'll find Indian-inspired dogs like the tikka masala and spicy achar dogs.

Achar is the name of a medley of pickled vegetables including carrot, cabbage and hot peppers. Here the recipe comes from the chef's great-grandmother.

"We put this in a hot dog one random evening and decided it was the best things we've ever had," said the chef, Faraz Sardharia, adding that the pickled vegetable dish is the Indian equivalent of Chicago-style giardiniera.

For the most daring, Chicago's DogHouse has meat you likely have never tried, such as alligator, wild boar and the most exotic dog of all: rattlesnake and rabbit.

"We have a rattlesnake farm and we feed it rabbit. So when the rabbit is inside of the rattlesnake, then we make the sausage out of it," explained Aaron Wolfson, the owner of DogHouse.

SEE MORE: The Italian beef: A century-old sandwich that stands the test of time

Scripps News' Ben Schamisso visibly enjoyed sampling all those delicious dogs. But it came at a cost. Having lived in Chicago for more than 10 years, the Belgian native had always wanted to join a hot dog eating contest. So his editors let him sign up.

But he overestimated his appetite — and underestimated his competitors.

While he managed to gulp five down in five minutes, Teddy Delacruz took the trophy home by downing 12 dogs.

His secret? Dipping them in different sugary drinks.

"It tastes better if you mix up the drinks, so it makes it easier," the contest champion explained.

While Schamisso had to call it a day, for other festgoers the feast promptly resumed — with Asian- and Mexican-style dogs stealing the show.

"That's what's so great about America," said festgoer Vu Nguyen, adding, "Every country brings their own culture in terms of food, especially, and they kind of mix it and blend it. And, you know, the result is something even better than before."

Unfortunately, there was no People's Choice Award this year because of a glitch with the voting system. Or maybe the tech person responsible for it had one too many dogs.

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