Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
After interviewing Dr. Bruce Kraig about the mammoth Street Food Around the World (which he coedited with Colleen Taylor Sen) at his home in Oak Park, I asked him what was nearby that would be a good stop for lunch. As the author of a volume on hot dogs, he had an answer that seems obvious in retrospect: Big Guys, a sausage stand about a mile away, on the Berwyn side of Roosevelt Road.
And in a lot of ways, it's a perfect illustration of some of Street Food's underlying themes—how street food serves as a free market laboratory for the guy who's willing to make what everybody else makes, but just a little bit better, in the hopes that he'll draw customers to his stand over the next guy's.
The location, on Roosevelt Road a couple of blocks east of Harlem, had been a hot dog stand called Parky's since World War II, which Brendan O'Connor went to as a kid growing up in the area. It closed in 2001 and had stood dilapidated for a few years, he says, when he became interested in getting out of sales and carrying on the tradition of a neighborhood hot dog joint, but with a modern twist—"more contemporary cuisine, but good and not pretentious stuff."
O'Connor still lives a few blocks away, and this is actually his second venture as a hot dog vendor—as a teenager he would help a friend, whose family owned a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Oak Park, run a makeshift hot dog stand once a year when the Frank Lloyd Wright houses held an open house. "We would put up a stand and a charcoal grill and sell coffee, hot dogs, and pop, and we'd call it Wright Lloyd Franks," he says. (You knew that was coming.) "Once a year, we would strike gold out there. We cleaned up then, for being 15 and 16 years old." By the time he was downsized from a sales job, he had been running a catering company from his house, and he took his severance and joined up with some friends to take over the old Parky's location.
The building, he says, was "built to be a hot dog stand, and me having some nostalgia for it, it spoke to me." But from the start he had higher ambitions for it. "I didn't want to just sell hot dogs, I wanted to do something that I really had a hand in making, rather than just reheating Vienna Beef products. There's a lot of hot dog stands within a mile of this location."
Making their own sausages in-house, he says, "was like it was meant to happen—this place had a grinder, an old grinder that works great. I thought that was kind of like a sign." They started out buying most of the sausages (the hot dogs remain Vienna Beef to this day), but from the very beginning they were making their own chicken sausages because "we couldn't find a chicken sausage that wasn't dried out, or . . . weird. We wanted a really good Italian chicken sausage, so we had to make it ourselves." As time went on, they replaced more and more of the sausages with their own recipes, ranging from a Cajun crawfish sausage to a south-side-style hot link to the Thanksgiving-month special, starting today—a turducken sausage with sage stuffing, cranberry sauce, and scratch-made gravy on top.
O'Connor tries to strike a balance between artful sausage combinations (a la Hot Doug's) and an unpretentious sausage stand. "We have a real straightforward menu, no fancy names—it's a cheddar brat," he says. The monthly specials are where he cuts loose a little more—"I get a little more clever and try to play with the seasons," he says, citing last year's holiday special, El Rudolpho, a reindeer sausage with spicy mole. "We kind of come up with an idea, and then try to make it work."
Along the way to opening, the stand wound up being on a Food Network show called 3 Days to Open, with Bobby Flay. (It was actually about two months before they opened for real.) O'Connor and his partners went along with the premise of the show, but admits that few of Flay's supposed insights into what would make the stand successful lasted very long once they opened. "We thought the show would have more of an impact than it did, we thought more people would want to see the items on the menu in the show. But after a couple of months, we phased most of them out and went back to the original concept."
"You know, your original concept for those shows is never good enough," he says. "Basically it just kind of confused me to the point that it made me second-guess everything that I was thinking. We opened with like half his concept and half my concept, and we just had to go back to the drawing board."
So how does O'Connor describe that concept, exactly? "Blue-collar gourmet," he says. "What sets us apart is that we pretty much take the time to do everything homemade except the bread and the hot dogs. We make pretty gourmet sandwiches, but we use pretty familiar flavors, and I think that's what people like about it. It's not all gourmet, we sell Maxwell Street Polish, we sell—our Italian sausage is an Italian sausage. But we do it a little different, we grill our garlic bread, we load it with peppers and onions, and we take our time to make sure those peppers and onions are seasoned well and cooked well, but that's about it."
As a line forms and he goes back behind the counter, O'Connor sums it up. "Gourmet's a little bit misleading. Half of the menu's really common, but it's just executed the way I think it should be."