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Hot Dog Daze: A Dirty Franks Field Trip

Posted by CMH Gourmand on November 17, 2008

Coming Soon

Several times per week people will ask or e-mail me – “When is Dirty Franks going to open?” My answer is: not soon enough. However, like a fine red wine, a fine red hot hot dog place needs time to age. Progress has been slow but sure, however the wait will be worth it.

Take the site of the former Queen Bee Diner. Then mix in the power of Liz Lessner and Harold LaRue as well as many others and you get Dirty Franks Hot Dog Palace.

Columbus has been waiting for a dining destination in the Red Brick District (south part of downtown). Dirty Franks aims to deliver in the form of hip hot dogs and comfort food at comforting prices.

The Palace is inspired by Liz’s love of Chicago style hot dogs. Liz and Tim Lessner spent their formative years in Chicago. Dirty Franks aims to bring the authentic tastes of Chicago hot dog and beef stands to our fair city. You will see elements of the other Liz Lessner Restaurants – Betty’s, Surly Girl, and Tip Top Kitchen and Cocktails but Dirty Franks will stand apart with a Chicago focused menu and some new twists on old favorites.

You will find this hot dog hot spot at:

248 South 4th Street
Downtown / Red Brick District

Dirty Franks on MySpace

While we are waiting, Liz, Harold and company are building the palace. In the pursuit of the perfect hot dog, Liz arranged a tour of the Vienna Beef plant in Chicago as well as a few days to research as many places as possible. The key to having an authentic Chicago style sandwich making Mecca is to get immersed in all things Chicago. And the only way to do that is to go there and “get it”.

By getting it, I mean learning every little thing that is needed to do a Chicago Dog outside the Windy City. The ingredients are the easy part. The hard part is getting a million other little things right. What temperature is the best for cooking a hot dog? Where do you find the best equipment? Who has the best bun?

When Liz mentioned she was making a run to Chicago – I volunteered to go as a one-man focus group. Liz was gracious enough to let me join her crew for a day so I put my money where my mouth was and flew up for a thirteen hours of relentless research. The night before I had dreams of hot dogs dancing in my head.

 Chicago Hot Dog land

The tour started at 9:00. I arrived at Midway just after 6:00 AM. So what does one do to get ready for a day of heavy eating? If you are me, you head to the original Billy Goat Tavern for a Cheeseburger and a coke. This is one of my favorite places in Chicago, I always feel at home the second I walk in the door.

 Billy Goat

Vienna Beef Factory Store & Deli

2501 North Damen Ave
773 435 2277
Vienna Beef

 Vienna Beef Sign

Hot Dog Truck

Our Crew (from left to right) consisted of: Tonya Harris – chef for all Liz Lessner restaurants and a key fixture at Betty’s, Harold LaRue, Dirty Franks visionary, Liz Lessner (of Bettys, Surly Girl, Tip Top and Dirty Franks), (brother) Tim Lessner, (Tip Top) and CMH Gourmand – self appointed taste tester, focus group, and comic relief.

 The Crew - before

By stroke of luck, we were joined by Mark Reitman, (PhD, Professor of Hot Dogs) who operates Hot Dog U. Mark helps people start their own hot dog cart business and he was in town to give one of his students a tour. Mark knows all things hot dog. He was an incredible resource to have before, during, and after the tour.


Photo Courtesy of the Dirty Franks Crew
taking notes

Our tour was led by Bob Schwartz, Vice President at Vienna Beef. Bob is one of the nicest and most knowledgeable people I have met in the food business. He knows his meats – hot dogs, Italian Beef, Pastrami, Corned Beef, Brisket and more. He is the author of an excellent book of Chicago Hot Dog lore – Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog. Bob is in the middle of the photo below.

Photo Courtesy of the Dirty Franks Crew
 Bob in the Middle

It is a fair assumption that meat permeates his work day.


Chicago takes hot dogs seriously. There is a true culture to the Chicago hot dog with an unwritten code, mores, rituals and the like. The prime directive of a Chicago Dog – no ketchup!

 NK 17 sign

Vienna Beef signs can be found throughout the Chicago metro area. There are hundreds of restaurants, hot dog stands and the like that serve Vienna Beef products 24/7.

Photo Courtesy of the Dirty Franks Crew
 into the plant

Our tour lasted well over three hours and we saw everything. Bob led us throughout the plant. Vienna Beef produces multiple types of hot dogs and sausages. Hot dogs make up a faction of the business. Vienna Beef also cooks up pastrami, brisket, corned beef, soup, and beef for Italian beef sandwiches.

Hot Dogs

 HD Tour

 HD tour

The meat of the matter is the meat. We started with meat processing. We followed the meat as it was cut, sliced, and cooked into final forms. The process uses minimal automation. We saw workers hand slicing cuts of meat, individually seasoning pastrami, and everything else that transforms meat into what we eat. The plant is cleaned three times per day and has USDA inspectors on site. Going behind the scenes was really amazing. We were all impressed with the quality of the products and the pride that everyone takes in their work. It was like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in some ways. I have toured all types of factories: chocolate (Cadbury in New Zealand among them), ice cream (countlress places), beer (several in Australia and the West Coast), and many others. I would pick the Vienna Beef tour as the best.

Photo Courtesy of the Dirty Franks Crew
me at the plant

At the end of the tour we went to the test kitchen to “assist” with quality control. Bob tasted one type of hot dog that did not quite met muster so that entire batch was scrapped. Vienna Beef takes quality and consistency seriously. We we also able to sample several of the soups which were the best pre-made soups I have encountered anywhere.

 Test Kitchen

Photo Courtesy of the Dirty Franks Crew
 test kitchen 2

We wrapped up our tour in the company cafeteria. Bob brought Vienna Beef products in their final form for us to sample the final cut. We consumed hot dogs, Italian beef sandwiches, Polish sausage, pastrami and corned beef. I liked all of them. Their corned beef was the best I have tasted.

Bob asked what we had in mind for the rest of the day. Liz let him know the plan was to sample from as many places as possible so that Dirty Franks can create the true Chicago experience. Bob put together a list of places to hit and we were off.

Before I get started on the hot dog road show, there will be an intermission to explain what we were eating.

A Chicago Style Hot Dog:

pure beef frankfurter
steamed poppy seed bun
yellow mustard
relish (often of the neon variety)
two serrano “sport” peppers
kosher pickle
dash of celery salt

An Italian Beef:
thin slices of seasoned roast beef
long Italian-style roll (dense and chewy to hold in the meat and juices)
Chicago-style giardiniera (called “hot”)
– a mix of jalepeno peppers, carrots, celery, olives, vinegar, spices and a few other ingredients
sauteed, green Italian sweet peppers (called “sweet”)
au ju – aka: “gravy”

There are several ways to order a beef, here are a few:

Hot, wet: Italian beef on gravy-soaked bread and giardiniera
Combo, hot: Italian beef and polish sausage with giardiniera
Sweet, dry: Italian beef piled into dry bread, topped with sweet peppers

Cheesy beef or “cheef”: Italian beef with cheese (provolone, mozzarella or, rarely, cheddar). There is some controvesy on this one. Hard core beef eaters, including Bob, will tell you – NO cheese on a Beef.

If you want to learn more about Chicago food, take a look at my Sidedish Sidetrip – Chicago at the top of the blog.

Johnnie’s Beef
7500 W. North Ave
Elmwood Park
708 452 6000


Our first stop was at one of my favorites. Johnnies has been one of my preferred beef stands for several years. This place often has long lines but the wait is minimal because they move customers quickly. It is easy to panic when ordering so you really need to know what you want before you go through the door.

To help you out, this is what you want to say:

“Beef – Hot, Wet, Fries, Large Ice, Hot Dog – Everything”.

Johnnies does not take American Express, or Visa but a beef and an ice are priceless. Take cash. And for goodness sake if you are in line keep the door closed – trust me. They serve one type of Italian Ice – lemon. This is one of the finest Italian ices I have had in my life. Just get a large and don’t plan on sharing.

 Johnnies Spread

 Gene and Judes

Gene & Jude’s Red Hot Stand
2720 River Rd
River Grove
708 452 7634

Johnnies is fast. Gene and Jude’s is faster. Strangely, the guy that served me looked like Donnie Wahlberg plus he had a New Jersey style accent and attitude. He crisply let me know “no photos”. Below you are not seeing a photo of a Gene and Jude’s hot dog with fries. The fries are served on top of the dog and the whole package is wrapped in wax paper to move the line along at breakneck speed.

 G J Dog with Fries

Frannies Beef and Catering
4304 N. River Rd
Schiller Park
847 678 7771

The award winner here is the combo. Italian beef and Polish sausage are sandwiched into the same roll. It is the perfect thing to order if you are undecided or if you have a good HDL count and health insurance. The combo is topped with their homemade giardinera. It was at this point that I started to wonder which Chicago Hospital has the Vienna Beef Heart wing. A word for the wise, Frannies has Italian ice in several flavors. If you are just going to have one ice in Chicago go to Johnnies. When you decide to have two, go to Marios Lemonade in Little Italy. I’m just sayin’.



3832 Dempster St.
847 673 0100


 Poochies Spread

Poochies has the look of a classic Chicago Hot Dog shop. It is a cool and friendly place to hang out. Two things that stood out to me were the Char Dog and their fries. Their Char dog is steamed in water and then char grilled to give it just a bit of extra snap when you bite in to it and some searing for extra flavor. I can not describe why the the fries struck a cord with me, but after a day of eating french fried potatoes, these stood out. Another item of note is their grilled salami sandwich – served simply on a bun with mustard.

 Group at Poochies

Herm’s Hot Dog Palace
3406 Dempster St
847 673 9757

 Herms Palace

Photo Courtesy of the Dirty Franks Crew
 Herms Food

By the time we arrived at Herm’s we were started to wear down and bloat up a bit. Herm’s had the largest menu we encountered all day. They seem to offer just about everything. The Herm’s crew were also the most friendly behind the counter people I have met in a long time. The family takes a lot of pride in their place and their products. Marla Shane runs Herm’s with her sons Scott and Craig. She fell into the business as a fluke. The location was in the neighborhood. She started out helping out and eventually her family bought it. The family is a fixture at Herm’s and in the community. Tim and I walked in first. I ordered an Italian Beef cut into four pieces and a hot dog the same way for sampling. Then I started asking a lot of questions as I am prone to do. The family figured out what we were up to when the rest of out team arrived. More food starting flowing out of the kitchen. Even though we were stuffed, we ate it all since it was so good. We did defer on their hamburgers even though it is one of their signature items. Herm’s made the best steamed hot dog I had all day – the crunch and the temperature were perfect. The presentation of their hot dogs were really impressive as well. Thanks Herms – I’ll be back.

Photo Courtesy of the Dirty Franks Crew
 Herms Chicago Dog

Photo Courtesy of the Dirty Franks Crew
 Group Photo herms

Green Mill Cocktail Lounge
4802 N. Broadway St
773 878 5552

 Green Mill

Many people would have stopped after the first couple places. But when the mission is to create the finest hot dog palace on the planet the only option is to press on. However, after Herm’s, we needed a break to recharge, regroup, refresh, and try not to regurgitate. We all needed a drink as well. Tim led us to the Green Mill, which used to be Al Capone’s hang out. This place has 110% character. I felt like I was in the 1930’s. The Juke Box still has 78’s from that era and we filled it up with every quarter we had.

Green Mill’s History

1211 W. Belmont Ave
773 935 2882

Murphys outside

Murphy’s was our last stop, it was about 6:00 PM and I needed to slow down so I could fit into my plane seat in a few hours. There are a lot of interesting things about Murphy’s. The most intriguing is that there is a second location in Hiroshima, Japan. Everything was good here. However I was beefed out and dog tired when I finished up here so my memory was a little nitrate hazy and my notes are unintelligable.

Murphy Dog

Photo Courtesy of the Dirty Franks Crew
 Tim with Tray

Harold LaRue is also known as the Michael Moore of Chicago Hot Dogs. However, when Tim brought a tray of eats to the table, I think Harold was mildly shocked.

Photo Courtesy of the Dirty Franks Crew

This was easily the best 13 hours of eating I have ever engaged in. I could not have been with a better group of people to fine tune my Chicago cuisine knowledge. This trip is a sample of the passion that is going into the creation of Dirty Franks. It is worth the wait but the waiting is the hardest part.

If you want to add to the tour on your own, take a look at the site below to build your own hot dog hit list.

Chicago Hot Dog Style

7 Responses to “Hot Dog Daze: A Dirty Franks Field Trip”

  1. andrew said

    OH MY GOD YOU’RE KILLING ME HERE! Johnnies and Gene & Judes were both right around the corner from my house. Johnnies was my mainstay since I was about 4 blocks from there. In fact, many of my friends are still in the neighborhood so everytime I’m back “home” I hit Johnnies at least once. Best beef in the city by far IMO. Kinda surprised you didn’t make it up to SuperDawg while you were there, google it, good stuff. Man, I wasn’t sure which direction Liz was going with Dirty Dogs so I wasn’t getting my hopes up. People round these parts have some real misconceptions about hot dogs, piling on all sorts of spagheti and crap. A real dog is for certain a Chicago Style Dog.

    Poppy Seed Bun
    Steamed Vienna Beef
    Celery Salt
    Sliced Cucumber
    Sliced Tomato
    Neon Green Relish
    Diced Onions
    Pickle Spear
    Many Sport peppers

    Throw in a Hot/Wet Beef from Johnnies and you’re in heaven….

  2. Elizabeth Lessner said

    cmh gourmand + nitrites + johnnie’s ice = best afternoon ever.

    thanks for the recap, it was truly the funnest r&d i’ve ever been involved in. go team hot dog!

    thanks, thanks, thanks.

  3. Candice West, Dietitian AND Hot Dog Lover said

    So awesome! I especially like the comment about HDL and insurance… Can’t wait to eat at Dirty Franks and see the Chicago dog represented in Columbus!

    P.S. Next time you are going to eat a ton of dogs, take your Vitamin C – it’ll block the effects of the nitrates!!! Ok, that’ll be $100 for the consultation…

  4. great post… love it

  5. Holly said

    Maybe it’s just that I’m pregnant and any mention of food make me hungry, but oh my god, I have never craved a hot dog more in my life. This was a delicious post and I’ll be waiting on pins and needles for Dirty Franks to open. Thanks to Liz Lessner and team for giving Cbus so many cool eating spots.

  6. Erik said

    It pained me to pass through O’Hare last night, viewing some of the billboards but passing the hot dogs in the night on the way to my connecting flight. Your adventure sounds like the best 13 hours in hot dog history.

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