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Hot-Dog Loyalty a Red-Meat Issue in Chicago

The 2,000-plus stands spawn their own style of frankfurter and devoted fans. 'This is the center of the hot dog universe,' Vienna Beef man says.

September 28, 2003|Don Babwin | Associated Press Writer

CHICAGO — Walter Logan is going to be late for work.

"I could have been on time," says Logan, 52, whose stop for lunch will delay his arrival at a wedding he's been hired to videotape. "But I'd rather be late and eat here."

"Here" is Jim's Original. Or maybe it's Express Grill. It doesn't really matter to Logan, as long as it's one of two adjacent sausage stands owned by members of the same family who've been competing against each other for decades.

When the one on the left is open, so is the one on the right. And the one on the left is open every minute of every day.

All of which suits Logan just fine. For most of his life, he's been eating what Jim Stefanovic and his nephew, Tom Lazarevski, started selling decades ago. And Logan is willing to drive miles out of his way and be late for work to get to a noisy, dusty street where the dining room is the hood of his Dodge.

Just how many Chicagoans are willing to leave the bride at the altar for a hot dog is unclear.

What is clear is that around here, these tubular treats are serious business.

How serious? If there's a place in the country that can top the 2,000 hot dog stands in the Chicago area, Jim Bodman doesn't know about it.

"This is the center of the hot dog universe," said Bodman, president of Chicago-based Vienna Beef, which sells hot dogs all over the country.

That universe is expanding. Bodman said more and more Chicago-style hot dogs -- typically steamed on poppy seed buns, loaded with mustard, onions, neon green relish, tomato, pickle, chili peppers and celery salt -- are being sold in places like Phoenix, Houston, Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

In New York, which has long prided itself on its own style of hot dog, at least one hot dog cart is doing a brisk business selling Chicago-style hot dogs.

Chicago certainly didn't invent the hot dog.

That honor goes to Frankfurt, Germany, in the late 1400s. Or was it the brainchild of a butcher in Coburg, Germany, in the 1600s? Or maybe it came from Austria.

The history of Chicago and the hot dog collided in 1893, when vendors at the World's Fair and Colombian Exposition sold thousands of the odd-looking sandwiches.

Before long, an army of vendors was taking pushcarts all over the city to feed working people, who appreciated the cheap and filling "meals on a bun," said Bruce Kraig, a historian at Chicago's Roosevelt University and a hot dog expert.

Kraig and others say business took off in the 1920s and '30s.

"For five cents in the Depression, an unemployed person walking around with a newspaper in his hand looking for a job could get one, and it was a meal," said Maurie Berman, who in 1948 founded Superdawg -- a drive-in hot dog stand that still employs car hops.

During that time, pushcarts were replaced by hot dog stands, each one developing a loyal clientele among the immigrants who often didn't feel safe venturing outside their neighborhoods.

"You can start an argument among Chicagoans even now by asking which is the best hot dog stand," Kraig said.

For Josh Fonseca, the list begins and ends with the Express Grill.

"My dad used to drive a laundry truck and he used to bring me," said Fonseca, 38. "Ever since, I've been hooked."

Fonseca kept coming back even after Express and its neighbor were displaced by renewal in the city's famous Maxwell Street neighborhood and moved a few blocks away.

So has Logan. "I don't know if it's all in your mind or the adrenaline flowing, but they taste better here," he said.

Which place sells better hot dogs and Polish sausage is debatable. Kraig, the hot dog historian, is a Jim's man. Arnold Sandoval Jr. of Chicago swears by Express, where he's been coming since he was a kid. Now, he brings along 9-year-old Arnold Sandoval III.

As for the competitors themselves, they don't say much about each other.

"We don't even worry about him," said Joe Stefanovic, who took over Jim's Original when his father, Jim, died in the 1970s.

About all Alex Lazarevski will say is that his dad, Tom, left his Uncle Jim's business to set out on his own in the 1950s. "Business is business," he said, leaving it at that.

Both, however, swear by their products. Stefanovic said his father invented the Maxwell Street Polish some 60 years ago. Since then, nobody, and certainly not the joint next door, has made a tastier sausage, he said.

"A lot of people are copycats, but our Polish sausage is our own recipe," Stefanovic said.

"I've got a guy making them for me and I've got my own seasoning," Lazarevski countered. "It's patented. Nobody can get it."

There is one thing that this city of serious hot-dog and Polish-sausage eaters can agree on.

"Someone who puts ketchup on a hot dog should be arrested as a felon," said Paul Green, a Chicago college professor who grew up in this city.

"Ketchup cannot be on it," agreed Bodman, of Vienna Beef. "Our sales manager has an Illinois license plate that says, 'NO KETCHP.' "

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