Culinary Regrets of an Erstwhile Chicago Resident

hotdougsI lived in Chicago for 14 years, beginning in 2000, but I never considered myself a Chicagoan.

I now live in Las Vegas, but I doubt I’ll ever think of myself as a Las Vegan.

I was born and raised in California. My daughter was born there. So were my grandkids. Most of my friends still live there.

Regardless of where I may live, I’ll always be a California kid.

But back to Chicago for a moment. During my 14 years and four months in the Windy City, there were two things, in particular, I came to love: the music scene and the dining scene.

The music scene ranged from the intimate Old Town School of Folk Music to the mid-sized Chicago Theatre to stadium shows at Wrigley Field. The food scene embraced every type of ethnic cuisine you could name, a bevy of “American” restaurants and steakhouses, and the kind of places you’d be more likely to see on “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.”

I’m not sure whether Hot Doug’s ever was featured on “Diners,” but it should have been, as owner/chef Doug Sohn found a way to stand out in a city that’s home to more than 2,000 hot dog stands.

He did it by concocting unique hot dogs and sausages, and topping them with gourmet ingredients you’d be more likely to encounter at the Chicago home of revelatory bites, Grant Achatz’s Alinea.

I visited Hot Doug’s on two occasions during by tenure in the Windy City. I would have gone more often, but the restaurant was a bit out of the way, and the two times I did go, I had to wait in line for more than 90 minutes.

Hot Doug’s served the classic Chicago hot dog — topped with mustard, onions, relish, tomato, sport peppers, a pickle spear and celery salt — but so did those 2,000 other hot dog stands. I wanted to taste what made Hot Doug’s different, and for me, that meant sampling encased meats that had some kind of association with wine.

On one occasion, I had the Chardonnay and Jalapeno Rattlesnake Sausage, topped with pomegranate mustard and cheese-stuffed hot pickled peppers. I must admit that I could not taste the Chardonnay in that sausage.

On the other occasion, I had the Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse and sel gris (a.k.a. Celtic sea salt). And I must admit that I could not taste the Sauternes (a sweet dessert wine from France) in that sausage.

I remember wishing I had a glass of Chardonnay to drink with that first long sandwich, and a glass of Sauternes to taste with the second, but Hot Doug’s was not that kind of place. With so many flavors going on in those sandwiches, I’m guessing any wines served with them would have had their flavors overwhelmed. But that’s just a guess; how cool it would have been to be proved wrong.

I had put a return visit to Hot Doug’s — appropriate wines in hand — sometime next year on my culinary bucket list. Sadly, on October 3, the restaurant shut down. It wasn’t from lack of business; if anything, the restaurant had too much business.

From what I’ve read, it simply sounded as if Sohn needed a rest, and perhaps a few opportunities to have the tables turned with someone serving lunch to him.

I plan to Google his name every so often, just to see if he emerges somewhere with another restaurant concept or, perhaps, a resurrection of Hot Doug’s. But for tonight, I’ll have to settle for raising a glass of Chardonnay and, later, a glass of Sauternes in his honor.

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