At Avondale's Hot Doug's, faithful customers willing to spend up to two hours in line can get anything from a classic Chicago dog to a Goji berry pheasant sausage. Hot dog aficionados know that this sausage superstore is the place to find some of the most exotic sausages, conceived by the restaurant's charismatic owner, Doug Sohn. He's been serving hot dogs and duck fat fries for over a decade, and is now co-author of, what else, Hot Doug's: The Book, an origin story for the store and his love of encased meats. Sohn joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm.
Reading the book, I learned you went to culinary school at Kendall College. Was there a time where you were planning on working in a more conventional restaurant?
The plan was to take the opportunity to go back to school and not work, but also to learn how to cook. I did not have any grand plan past that. I had no idea what I wanted to do, other than I kind of got into food and wanted to learn how to cook.
How did you become a cookbook editor?
I answered a job in the Tribune. Literally answered the ad. It was for Publications International, which printed a lot of mass market things. I would do a lot of cookbooks for brands, like Campbell's Soup or Kikkoman or Coca-Cola. Or for small magazines you find at the checkout counter at the grocery store.
What do you remember about hot dogs when you were a kid? Were you always so devoted?
I remember growing up here, it was a staple. After school, you’d have a hot dog and fries before dinner. I miss those days. My family’s from out East, and we’d go to New York a lot and would have them from the cart. That would be my breakfast, with an orange soda.
I read a post you wrote for Conde Nast Traveler about trying local delicacies when going abroad. How much of that influences the menu at the restaurant?
We just actually did it with the French Cassoulet: we use the classic bean stew and duck confit, and recreate it on the bun. Sometimes, it’s iconic dishes that we translate onto our menu, like the Reuben.
And yet you write that you love having a hot dog no matter where you are--and that most foreign hot dogs have great bread and toppings, but the hot dog is terrible. So what’s the attraction?
I always have to try it. You never know. There could be one that’s really terrific. I was in DC recently and had one from a cart, and it was delicious. Was it awesome? No. But, at that time and place, it was fabulous. After I ate it, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “I know this sounds ridiculous, but I really love hot dogs.”
Outside the U.S., I’m always curious what’s going on. I had one in Budapest: it had ketchup, some funky mustard and fried onions on top from a tiny little stand. I had that with a cup of hot wine. It wasn't that weird because it was the middle of February. Overall, it was a great experience.
You have a game of the week sausage that has been alligator, boar, venison and others. Is there any animal you wish was more accepted?
I did turn down iguana meat. I thought, I’m not doing it for the shock value of it. It has to taste good. So I’m not doing Komodo dragon.
I was surprised so many of your early, die-hard customers were hooked on your veggie dog. Were you surprised, and what made it so good?
Absolutely surprising. My thought was if there’s a group of 4-5 people coming from an office for lunch and one was a vegetarian, I wanted them to be able to come here for lunch. We take more care in making it, and we use better ingredients. It took a while to source that one. We use good mustard, fresh tomatoes, the thing that makes our Chicago hot dog so good.
Chicagoans are famous for being very strict about what makes a classic Chicago dog, yet your restaurant uses butter-caramelized onions as the default, instead of raw, because you say it tastes better. And on top of that, you say you don’t even mind people putting ketchup on them. To some locals, that would be almost blasphemous.
I think the great thing about the Chicago hot dog, is that because of the number of condiments, you should be encouraged to mix and match and customize as you see fit. There should be no food rules.
You wrote in the introduction to the book that you hope it “legitimizes” Hot Doug’s because you still see it as ephemeral and a sham. Is that really true?
I’m still pretty serious about it. I kid you not, every day I open the doors thinking today's the day nobody shows up. I do not take it for granted. Of course, intellectually, I understand the ridiculousness of that statement. But I can’t be that objective about it. I’m still stunned by the reaction and I still feel that way. I'm not scared about it, but I still feel the outpouring of commitment and accolades is so beyond my comprehension. It still seems not real in a way.
Interview has been condensed and edited.