Taste of Chicago… Da Dogs, Da Italian Beefs and Da Pizzas in Houston?

Ultimate Guide to the Taste of Chicago in Houston… and the Great Chicago-Style Hot Dog Myth…
(and where to find them in Houston)
No food shot from Chicago would be complete without da bean.
I understand the attraction of Chicago and the unique foods that one seeks out when visiting there.  I understand the desire of those who move here from Chicago to seek out those familiar treats in Houston.  I’m not too sure, though, that I understand the number of expats who whine that they cannot find the Chicago-style hot dogs… the Italian beef Sandwiches… the Maxwell Street Polishes the deep dish pizzas, etc.  While the Italian beefs, and the deep dish pizzas may be subject to a lot of personal preference and customization in spices and sauces, this continuing myth that they can only be found in Chicago is really rather silly, isn’t it?  It’s particularly silly when you factor in the number of Chicago expats living here in Houston who now have restaurants and make ‘em the same way that they made ‘em in Chicago.  There are PLENTY of things to miss from Chicago… it’s a great town. But the Italian beefs and the hot dogs (especially the hot dogs), you don’t have to miss.
At any rate, this article is about Chicago’s unique casual offerings (It’s fitting that a city that HUGE that’s still called a “town” would be proudest of its sandwiches and pizzas).  It’s also about the most famous of the treats… the delicious Chicago-style Hot Dog!  Unique among hot dogs, it is not, however, a rocket science formula.
The very proponents of the Chicago-style hot dog demand uniformity. They demand the cookie cutter profile of the sandwich.  They will be quick to tell you that it must have nine specific and non-negotiable ingredients… and under no circumstances, may it have ketchup (thank God). Must-haves are:  All-beef wiener (preferably Vienna Beef), a STEAMED poppy seed bun, neon relish, shopped white onions, yellow mustard, sliced tomato, two sport peppers, a slice of Kosher pickle and a sprinkle of celery salt.  That’s it.  It is tasty… it is reliable… it is predictable and it is the most formulaic of all hot dogs in America.  What’s more, the Vienna Beef Company in Chicago, which is considered by most to be the gold standard of the product, sells the entire package to over 1500 venders, carts and restaurants in Chicago (They even rent the carts). They also sell the entire package to restaurants, carts and vendors all over the United States, including Houston. They also claim that the package of components that they sell guarantees the genuine article whether it’s assembled in Chicago or Charleston.  When in Chicago, however, you will hear that you MUST go to the Maxwell Street area and experience the Maxwell Street Polish made at Jim’s Original World Famous Stand,  Key to this one are the grilled onions, peppers and mustard piled high on the polish sausage.  If you’re looking for atmosphere, you won’t find this feeling in Houston… but Charles Rivers at BB’s Beef and Hot Dog here in Houston says he will give you the product. When I headed for Chicago a couple of weeks ago, Charles headed there the next day, too… with his taster set for Maxwell Street.
A hot dog cart on Chicago’s Navy Pier…
one of over 1500 supplied by the Vienna Beef Company
After trying deep dish pizzas in Chicago, I decided that there’s no way to talk about them in this article.  Every place that sells them has a different recipe.  Every place that sells them in Chicago and Houston has a different style.  All pizza places in Chicago, as well as those here in Houston seem to agree with two basic tenets of the Chicago rule book.  The crust must be tall and brown (and crispy on the sides only) and the cheese MUST be on the bottom and gooier than Hell. Really thick and really gooey.  So, in my mind, what this really means is that Chicago ex-pats are going to love one that tastes exactly like the one that was made in their own neighborhood and whine about all others… Houston, Chicago or anywhere else. Let’s face it… a deep dish pizza is comfort food and it either tastes like the one you are used to, or it doesn’t. You’re homesick!  Speaking of home sick, I tried an experiment at Gino’s East in Chicago. 
Gino’s East, a favorite pizza restaurant in Chicago
I ordered the Gino’s deep dish equivalent of my favorite pizza here in Houston… Star Pizza’s Joe’s Special.  You know which one I mean… sautéed spinach and fresh garlic?  There’s no way to describe two solid inches of fresh sautéed spinach with chunks of fresh garlic bubbling on top gooey mozzarella and tomato sauce I was served at Gino’s.  You would have to eat in a lot of Chicago and Houston pizza joints to make a statement that Chicago has the best pizzas.  I CAN, however, say that the best pizza I ever had in my life was the spinach and garlic pizza I had at Gino’s East last week!
You may have your favorite,
but this one from Gino’s East was the best pizza I ever ate!
There’s more than one Gold Standard in Chicago (MUCH more than one).  I also thought that a non-Vienna Beef maverick should be mentioned here. Portillo’s is a chain that sells it’s own version of all the icons.  They have their own wieners made for them and they’re 50% longer.  They make their own jus for their Italian Beefs and it’s a little less spicy.  I happen to prefer the spicier (Italian)components of the Vienna products, but this one is good, too.

Portillo’s Maxwell Street Polish

Portillo’s extra-long all-beef wiener Chicago-style hot dog

Just for the sake of honoring the other iconic delicacies, I should mention some of them and I’ve enjoyed them all… in Chicago, as well as in Houston.   A really good way to get a taste of Chicago is to visit there during the last week of June and the first week July (approximately) during the huge Taste of Chicago event. Having just returned from there last week and wearing out a pair of shoes, I’m an expert.  In what is billed as the World’s Largest Food Festival, hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans swarm Grant Park on the lakefront and wander the blocked-off streets to taste Chicago. In a sense, It’s not really a taste of Chicago, as the upscale restaurants aren’t represented there.  You won’t taste Charlie Trotter’s offerings, nor the seriously authentic Mexican dishes of Rick Bayless’ restaurants… but the iconic signature dishes that Chicago calls her own are all there.  Admission is free and the tickets used to buy the “tastes” are reasonable.  Pictures tell the story best:

Early in the day, but 100’s of thousands will pass through here.
Billy Goat Tavern was the inspiration for John Belushi’s famous
cheeseburger skit on Saturday Night Live
“Cheeborgie… cheeborgie”
Bobak’s is all about sausages… and they were grillin’.
Ya gotta eat the official dessert since 1980…
Eli’s Cheese Cake
The Vienna Beef stand has to be here at Taste of Chicago.
Lou Malnotti’s Pizza!
SOME PLACES TO TASTE CHICAGO IN HOUSTON:

Because the good citizens of Chicago have given us a formula for judging an authentic Chicago Hot Dog, I checked out a few here in Houston.  There are more here, but I don’t need to taste them all to know that they exist. The Houston versions are easy to judge because  there’s not much variance allowed.  I tasted them both before and after my most recent trip to Chicago:

Sonic Chicago-Style Hot Dog
Sonic’s Chicago-style Hot Dog looks good,
but the bun wasn’t nice and soft on either visit.
Sonic Drive-In isn’t too hard to rank from an “authenticity” standpoint.  My Poppy Seed Bun wasn’t steamed and the wiener, while it IS “100% beef”, isn’t Vienna Beef (but then, there are a lot of folks in Chicago that keep the Portillo’s Chicago chain in business and they have their own 100% beef wiener made for them).  Believe it or not, wieners have taste… and Vienna wieners have a flavor, just like all others do. If you like Vienna Beef… you will know the difference.  If not, this might appeal to you.  And while we’re on the wiener, I had to move the mustard off of one end of it to take a photo with it showing. Kind of diminutive, don’t you think? I didn’t have that problem in Chicago. But as they say, “size isn’t important” and most wieners in Houston and Chicago are about the same size.  At Portillo’s, the wiener is 50% longer and you can’t hide it.  So, Chicago die-hards can claim triumphantly “It ain’t REAL”.  Is it a tasty dog, though? Why, yes it is.  MY problem with it is that (believe it or not) you don’t have to be from Chicago to understand the subtle softness and tenderness of a steamed bun, poppy seed or not.  My mother used to put a colander over the pan she boiled wieners in when we were growing up in the 50’s.  At the last minute, she put the buns in over the boiling water to soften them.  Perfect.  I found the dry bun at Sonic distracting. As far as atmosphere is concerned… it’s a drive-in… atmosphere here isn’t that important.  If I were in the mood for a Chicago Hot Dog, I wouldn’t seek it out at Sonic Drive In.  If I were already at Sonic, I might order a Chicago dog in addition to another dog that they do better. But, probably not.
James Coney Island Chicago-Style Hot Dog
Authentic Chicago-style hot dog at JCI
I have a soft spot in my heart for James Coney Island.  It’s a Houston institution and a tribute to the Papadakis family that has made chili dogs for Houstonians for generations. Love ‘em or like ‘em, they’re Houston comfort food for a lot of us.  I LOVE JCI original chili dogs. So, I felt that they’d do it right if they wanted to.  I went to the JCI closest to me, at Westheimer and Bering. 
(Me)“I’d like a Chicago Dog”. 

(Him) “Do you want that all the way?”
(Me) “Yes.” 
(Him) “Foot-long?” 
(Me) “WHAT?” 
(Him) “We have two sizes.  Regular and foot-long”. 
(Me) “In a Chicago Hot dog?” 
(Him) “Yes”. 
(Me) “OK.  “Drag” it through the garden.”  
(Him) Puzzled look.  Oh well… they get their ingredients from Chicago, but not their employees.

I was handed a foot-long chili cheese dog at the register with an apology that they had no foot-long poppy seed buns.   I explained to the manager that the servers needed to be trained in what products they sold. Manager went away and brought me a James Coney Island Chicago-style Hot Dog while I stepped aside for the non-problematic customers to pay through and waited.  All of the components were there.  The snap of the natural casing Vienna Beef wiener sets it apart from the “100% beef wieners” that some others sell.  The bun was steamed, but then they steam all their buns.  Opulent display of celery salt. Same thing I’ve had around Chicago… exactly (I would not quibble about pickle length, which even varied from dog to dog in Chicago).  The atmosphere is OK… it’s a hot dog joint after all.

www.JamesConeyIsland.com

Chicago Pizza and Italian Beef Chicago-style Hot Dogs
Chicago Dog. I liked the hand-cut fries here, too.
I love the atmosphere at Chicago Pizza and Italian Beef.  Proprietor is from Chicago and miss  town, but has adopted Houston… it’s a neighborhood pizza (deep dish)/Italian beef/Chicago-style hot dogs joint. Signs on the walls leave no doubt that this place is Vienna Beef formulaic CHICAGO.  It’s a full-menu restaurant with burgers, hot and cold sandwiches, salads, hot dogs, pizzas, etc., etc. , beers and Italian wines.  We’re just talking about dogs here, but I thought I’d show a photo of the pizza and the atmosphere, too:
The walls brag about the Vienna Beef Connection.  This place had the
most Chicago neighborhood feel of all I visited.
Kinda hard not to think that this doesn’t look pretty good. However
on a subsequent visit, the crust was thin… the filling was thin and runny.
Unfortunately, the quality of the pizza here seems to depend upon who makes it.

Maxwell Street Polish
Tiramisu (nothing to do with this article… but I liked it). 

The wieners have the perfect snap to the tooth.  The buns are steamed perfectly. The neon relish and celery salt are authentic and the veggies are all fresh.  I guess I look like a wimp, as my first one was served without sport peppers, but that was remedied after I took the photo above.  I hate to break it to you Chicago exes, but the only thing missing here is the homesick factor (“I miss Chicago and I only like Chicago-style dogs exactly where I ate them all of my life… AT WRIGLEY FIELD!”).  I agree that Wrigley Field adds to the experience big time.  As far as the product is concerned, it is the exact delicious Chicago Vienna fill-in-the-blanks dog sold at over 1500 locations in Chicago. As far as the people are concerned, they were nice and I felt sorry for them, as they were concerned about me when I came in alone and ordered a deep dish pizza, an Italian Beef and a Chicago dog all to eat there by muself. The atmosphere here was the most like a neighborhood joint one might find in Chicago… so they got a 10.

Chicago Pizza and Italian Beef is at 1777 Airline Drive, Houston, TX 77009, 713-862-2844, www.chicagopizzaanditalianbeef.com
 BB’s Beef & Hot Dog Chicago-style Hot Dogs
There’s so much of the garden, it wouldn’t all fit on the hot dog
I have to thank Katharine Shilcutt of the Houston Press for the “heads up” on BB’s Beef and Hot Dog.  It would have been an incomplete study of Chicago-style eats available in Houston without the offerings of two Chicago ex-pats named Brenda and Charles Rivers. 
Charles Rivers… owner and head chef
They offer several Chicago treats, including the Chicago Italian Beef and the Maxwell Street Polish. All are authentic and all components come straight from the Vienna Beef Company in Chicago.  The Italian beef is served double dipped and per my request, was served with extra jus on the side (I also order French Dips in other restaurants that way).
Italian Beef all wrinkley from floating in the jus.
While the components are the same as other restaurants in Houston (and Chicago), the Italian spiciness of the jus seemed to stand out here and I particularly enjoyed it.  First of all, per the scoring system set up by the people of the great city of Chicago themselves, we have an authentic Chicago-style hot dog here.  The entire package comes from Vienna Beef in Chicago… poppy seed buns (perfectly steamed), neon relish, tomatoes, pickles, sport peppers, yellow mustard and the boiled (then steamed) Vienna Beef wiener. When you have just returned from Chicago (as I have) with the taste, feel and the aroma of the general article still permeating your essence, there is no doubt that there are branch offices of the windy city in Houston.  I rated the atmosphere here a “10” due to the presence of Charles Rivers and his willingness to come out to the small lunch counter and tell Chicago and Maxwell Street food stories.
BB’s Beef & Hot Dog is located at 11611 W. Airport Blvd. in Stafford.
 Chicago Hot Dog Shack Chicago-Style Hot Dog – CLOSED
Dragged through the garden, there’s nothing missing here!
Several years ago (I don’t know how many), some Chicago expats started talking about this place which operated at the time from a little trailer with an awning and some table seating.  It has grown by word-of-mouth and is now in a strip center west of I-45 on 1960 near the Champions area.  I’ve sampled their Maxwell Street Polish, their Italian Beefs and of course, their Chicago-style Hot Dogs.
Maxwell Street Polish
I say this with respect and agreement on the authenticity of these three products when I say that they make them correctly from ingredients ALL supplied by the godfather of all things wienered from Chicago… the Vienna Beef Company.  I stopped in to buy and taste the three sandwiches with the idea that I would taste them all when hot and juicy and then take the remnants home to finish off later.  When I ordered my lunch, the young lady said “Is this all for YOU?” I told her my plan, then blew it by eating all of all three sandwiches.  The Italian Beef was excellent and dipped in the spicy jus to make it properly impossible to eat without putting your face in the basket, also.
Chicago Hot Dog Shack is at 954 FM 1960 W. at Red Oak. Phone 281-537-2322
Did I miss some really good Chicago-style eateries in Houston?  If so, e-mail me and I’ll check it out and this article will magically change to reflect your suggestion.

8 Comments on “Taste of Chicago… Da Dogs, Da Italian Beefs and Da Pizzas in Houston?

  1. Hey Jack!

    I've had the Sonic–poor imitation and bun is off (not steamed). JCI is very good, but it's Houston–don't tell them to Drag it through the Garden–they won't get it. I will definitely try BB's, Chicago style hot dog shack and Chicago Pizza & Italian Beef soon.

    I don't know if you were here in Houston in early 1990s, but there was a place called Big Frank's (one on Montrose, one on Kirby, one on Richmond Ave) that had some huge and awesome Chicago style dogs that were Vienna Beef. They went out of business years ago though. 😦

    Take 'er easy,

    Hank

    Like

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