The line at Hot Doug’s these days can stretch a ways.
At one point on a recent Friday, an employee walked out and pointed to a spot and said, “You’re looking at two hours.” He kept walking. “Two-and-a-half-hours.” Walked a bit more. “Three hours.”
Six of us had been in line a while at this point. I wanted him to be wrong.
We waited in line for four hours for sausage sandwiches and hot dogs, and it was worth every minute.
Hot Doug’s has become a Chicago legend. For 13 years, it’s served amazing sausage sandwiches and touts itself as “the sausage superstore and encased meat emporium.” Owner Doug Sohn has had fun doing it and on his terms. So when he announced this spring he was closing Oct. 3, there was a collective wail from fans and the lines at 3324 N. California suddenly got longer than the hour or two that were the norm.
Not everyone would wait in line for a sausage sandwich. Not even foodies. Not everyone understands why I did.
My lovely wife, Bethany, was nearly speechless when I told her about our late lunch and then had questions.
Here’s an approximation of our conversation:
“So, let me see if I understand this. You went to Chicago to eat at Hot Doug’s and see the Cubs?” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
“But you never actually went to Wrigley?”
“And this was by choice?”
“Because you decided to stand in line for four hours to eat hot dogs instead?”
“Four hours?! For hot dogs?”
“And you understood that you were going to be in line a long time?”
“And decided this is what you wanted to do with your day in Chicago?”
“All of you?”
“This was a group decision?”
“Yes it was.”
“Everyone was OK with it?”
“And you’re happy about how it worked out?” she asked.
“I have no regrets,” I said.
“And you’d do it again knowing you weren’t going to get to Wrigley?”
“I would have liked to get to Wrigley, but it’ll be there after October. Hot Doug’s won’t.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
She’s married to me. I give her lots of reasons to shake her head. She knows I love the Cubs and food, but she isn’t always sure in what order. This choice didn’t make sense to her.
I will continue to defend it. I will mark that August Friday as a great day in my life. Not the day I was told I was an adopted Italian whether or not I liked it, or as good as the day the Cubs will someday win the World Series, but a good day.
Waiting in line for hours is bearable when you have friends with which to make interesting conversation. I’m not sure how long we spent staring at our smartphones, but those also helped as we looked up the menu and mapped out our orders.
We’d each get two or three sausage sandwiches and I’d get enough duck-fat fries to feed all of us.
The tables were laden with 14 sausages, which were laden with toppings. We took bites of what we’d ordered and then passed around the sandwiches.
Jerry Peters got the Midori: Portuguese Linguiça with Saffron Rouille and Tetilla Cheese.
Mark Yoder ordered The Thuringer, a simple sausage of beef, pork and garlic topped with onions and a few other traditional things.
Phil Kaufman got the sweet Chinese sausage topped with an Asian slaw.
Josh Kanagy got The Atomic Bomb: Damn Spicy Cheese-Stuffed Pork Sausage with Sweet Devil’s Mustard and another topping that my memory lost in the haze of encased meat.
Ref Fransen, the initiator of the trek, got the Game of the Week: Bacon and Cheddar Smoked Elk Sausage with Anti-Hero Beer Mustard, Jarlsberg Cheese and Crispy Fried Onions.
On a past visit, I’d asked Sohn for a recommendation, and he chided me to narrow it down. So I settled on a Sante Fe chicken sausage and asked for his recommendation of toppings, which included tomatoes, sport peppers and caramelized onions. It worked. Believe me.
I also got the Smoked Texas Pork Hot Link with Coca-Cola BBQ Sauce, Caramelized Onions and Cheese Curds and the Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Aioli, Foie Gras Mousse and Fleur de Sel.
This is the sandwich I’ll miss when Hot Doug’s is gone. It’s so rich and packs so much flavor into every bite. Foie gras on a sausage? Yep. My mouth is watering at the memory.
Sohn is a master of flavor combinations and that’s why you go to Hot Doug’s: He’s a master craftsman who can combine flavors of ground meat and toppings in ways others simply don’t. The master won’t be selling his business. Fine with me. If he did, we’d probably just talk about the good old days when Sohn owned it.
He’s said he’s quitting before he’s burned out. I admire that and how he’s run his business.
He’s open 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday and closed for plenty of vacations (including Labor Day and the two days after).
Sohn stands at the front counter and takes orders. He manages the flow of customers into his little business so that the kitchen can keep up.
I don’t know if someone will take up his mantle and try to do what he’s done. There’s a fan base, but imitation is dangerous.
I thanked Sohn and wished him the best. I’m grateful for the food he’s offered.
After that great meal, we got to Sheffield’s just in time to watch the seventh inning stretch on television. I was uncomfortably full.
We had waited four hours in line for sausage. And I have no regrets.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.