If you’ve met someone from Chicago and even dined with them, you’ve probably heard them mention Chicago hot dogs one time or a thousand.
The components of a Chicago hot dog are vital to a Chicagoan: They must be made with a poppy seed bun – steamed not toasted – and a Vienna dog. The pungent, puckery trifecta of yellow mustard, chopped onions and neon green relish must be accounted for. It has to be topped with a tomato slice, pickle spear, sport peppers and a shake of celery salt. No exceptions. Nope. Just like Philadelphians are protective of their beloved Philly sandwiches and New Yorkers of their pies, so are Chicagoans of their favorite street food.
While South Sound has been home to restaurants serving Chicago dogs – the Red Hot in Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue neighborhood makes a really good one – Chicago themed eateries have come and gone. There was the Lucky Hot Dog Diner – first in Puyallup, then in downtown Sumner – and the Tommy Chicago food truck that served around Parkland.
Good news, though. Chicagoans home sick for their beloved dogs have relief in the form of a new tiny restaurant that opened in the far reaches of East Pierce in Graham. It’s an out-of-the-way location on Meridian, just past South Hill.
The food at Chicago Hot Dogs & Beefs is honest and good, although it probably has too much of a micro niche to be considered a regional destination. The menu is short and features eats from Chicago and New York – dogs and a handful of sandwiches. If you’re not from Chicago or have a thing for dogs and Italian beef sandwiches, you may not get all of the hullabaloo. For Chicagoans homesick for their beloved street food – Chicago Hot Dogs & Beefs will feel like home.
It’s a modest eatery with three tables and a dine-in bar. The dining room is serviceable, outfitted with photos of the Chicago skyline and Chicago’s franchise sports teams. Getting in and out of the parking lot that also is home to a tire store and espresso stand can be tricky.
The family story behind the restaurant is irresistible. Dave Rasmussen was born in Tacoma, graduated from Franklin Pierce in 1954 and hightailed it to Chicago where he spent 50 years. He did five years in New York, too. Wisconsin was a blur.
Rasmussen imported a little bit of every stop to his restaurant – he brought dogs and beefs from Chicago and a Reuben and pastrami sandwich from New York. He even brought sausage from Wisconsin. He imports a lot of his ingredients from Chicago, including his kids, who live in Chicago where they grew up with Dave and wife Loyda, who works the register at the restaurant. Daughter Melodie Rasmussen-Koukol has worked in the kitchen at the restaurant since it opened in December, but will return to Chicago in a few weeks. Her brother Dwayne Rasmussen came out to help with construction of the business, but returned to Chicago just as the restaurant opened.
Chicago dogs on two visits were absolutely perfect – every hallmark represented. The buns tasted fresh, the Vienna dogs tender, the ingredients perfectly puckery and “dragged through the garden,” as they say in Chicago of a fully loaded dog. Dogs are bargain priced at $2.89 each. Beef sandwiches were a close second in outstanding execution. The Italian beef – which has been an important part of Chicago’s culinary fabric since its Depression-era invention – was a satisfying, soul warming sandwich full of beefy flavor. Hearty French rolls came stuffed with thinly shaved beef and topped with – or without – au jus sauce spiked with garlic and herbs (order it wet or dry, $6.99). Sandwiches were served with sweet peppers or housemade giardiniera (pronounced jar-dah-nera), a pickled condiment usually made with chopped cauliflower, carrots, onions and peppers.
At Chicago Dogs and Beefs, the giardiniera takes three days to make and is cut with such precision, I thought it might be commercially prepared. The hand chopping is done by Rasmussen-Koukol. She makes her giardiniera with jalapenos and sport peppers. The condiment added piquant contrast to layers of tender beef.
The menu also lists an Italian combo ($7.99) – shaved beef with a velvety fennel-flecked sausage in the middle. The sausage is the only Wisconsin import on the menu, said Rasmussen.
Other sandwiches at the restaurant hit the hallmarks for good eating in ingredients – but a kitchen worker on two visits committed a deadly sandwich sin – she took a Reuben ($6.99) off the sandwich press a minute too soon, leaving the sandwich with unmelted innards. It resembled a slightly warmed deli sandwich instead of a hot, melty mess of pastrami, Swiss and ‘kraut that a Reuben should be. A meatball sub suffered the same fate – unmelted cheese was mildly irritating, but the red sauce was punchy and the meatballs huge ($6.49). These were two-handed sandwiches requiring a three-napkin cleanup.
Rasmussen said they’re working on perfecting their execution and anyone not happy about what they get should speak up Chicago style – loud and often.
Chicago Hot Dogs & Beefs
Where: 19319 Meridian Ave. E., Graham, 253-875-5979
Hours: Serving lunch and dinner daily, closed Mondays.
Sue Kidd dines anonymously and all meals are paid for by The News Tribune. Reach her at 253-597-8270 or firstname.lastname@example.org.