Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Eat, Eat, Eat for Tomorrow We Die

My desk is frequently littered with restaurant reviews or "Best of" lists (brunch, barbecue, bakeries) ripped from Time Out or New York. The clutter distresses my Virgo husband, so I slip the pages into an artist's portfolio, which I pore over the way others might ogle certain prurient magazines. "Oh, I want that!" I'll exclaim to myself as I drool over a photo of a perfectly poached egg. I keep mental checklists of places I want to eat, including one I've titled "Eat Here Before the Baby Comes."

Anthony Bourdain recently compiled a list of "13 Places to Eat Before You Die" for Men's Health. Although some of his choices are presently out of my reach (elBulli, French Laundry), I was pleased that I could already check off three of his picks: Russ & Daughters, Katz's Delicatessen, and Hot Doug's. Much can be said about the silky lox at Russ & Daughters and the tender bits of brisket the counter men at Katz's use to tempt customers. One Katz employee told me the brisket was tasty and healthy—"Clinton ate here all the time before his heart surgery," as if that would reassure me. But when I learned Hot Doug's had made Bourdain's list, I felt a surge of pride.

When Adeet and I lived in Chicago, we ate at Hot Doug's almost every Saturday. There was even a period when we'd go for lunch during the week, and photos from that time show our faces looking fuller than they do now. Bourdain explains his esteem for Hot Doug's: "This place convinced me the Chicago red hot is, in fact, superior to the New York hot dog. And it's home to two great innovations in American gastronomy: the 'foie gras dog' and the weekends-only practice of cooking French fries in duck fat. It's proof that food doesn't have to be expensive to be great."

I've enjoyed the foie gras dog, which defiantly stayed on the menu during Chicago's two-year ban on goose liver. Owner "Hot" Doug Sohn was the first to be fined for violating the ban and had to fork over $250 to the city. The dog is rich and decadent and delicious—slabs of foie gras on a Sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli. But other specials, from the spicy Thai chicken dog to the smoked pork and crayfish sausage, never disappoint. And the dog must come with a side of fries, cooked in duck fat or not. Adeet usually orders a Chicago-style red hot along with a special such as the Mountain Man: buffalo, venison, elk, and antelope all encased in one sausage.

Part of Hot Doug's appeal is Doug, as much as his dogs. Doug, who holds degrees from both Columbia University (philosophy) and Kendall College (culinary arts), mans the counter and is quick to banter with customers. His wit can recall a Catskills comedian, and kitschy hot-dog memorabilia line the walls and crowd a large display case. The restaurant's atmosphere is playful, but the creativity and thoughtfulness that go into the sausages belie a serious commitment to good eating.

The line into Hot Doug's frequently stretches around the block, especially on Saturdays. Of course it's worth the wait, and Adeet and I try to stop in whenever we're back in Chicago. Full disclosure: for a couple of years a photo of me showing my love for Hot Doug hung next to the cash register. On a recent visit, I noticed it was missing and wondered if absence had made his heart grow fonder of another hot dogista. Instead, Doug informed me that my photo had been moved to his "Wall of Fame" (graciously located near the restrooms), so I now share space with glossy autographed photos of Styx, former Chicago Cub Ron Cey, and Saturday Night Live cast member Fred Armisen.

Perhaps I should eat at only new places instead of returning to old favorites like Hot Doug's. After all, there are ten other restaurant's on Anthony Bourdain's list I haven't tried and my portfolio is bulging with food reviews. There is so much to eat before I die, before the baby is born, before I decide I should really eat in more often...Still, when I'm in Chicago I'll continue to stand in line at Hot Doug's, daydreaming about where to eat next.

Where do you want to eat before your time is up?

3324 North California • Chicago

179 East Houston • NYC

205 East Houston • NYC

photos by Adeet Deshmukh

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