Ivy's: Building a better hot dog for the neighborhood | Bleader

Ivy's: Building a better hot dog for the neighborhood

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Tony Tzoubris at Ivys

When Hot Doug's was in its first bloom of world-historical fame, I often wondered why, in a city full of hot dog stands, almost no one else seemed to be following in the footsteps of the only hot dog stand with a line wrapped around its building. Wouldn't it be worth adding a few specialty sausages with exotic toppings and charging $6 instead of $1.75? Wouldn't it be worth trying something, anything different to stand out?

Well, we're approaching the Hot Doug-alypse in less than two months, but when I recently wrote a citywide hot dog survey for another publication, I was pleased to find that quietly, without a lot of fanfare, hot dog creativity had broken out in many parts of the city. It's not so much that there were so many places going full Doug. It's more that many neighborhood spots, from Albany Park to Bronzeville, had expanded the standard dog joint menu to include at least a handful of more modern, unusual tastes. Which brings us to Ivy's Burgers, Hot Dogs, and Fries, in Edgebrook on the northwest side.

Ivy's didn't make the aforementioned list for the simple reason that I hadn't heard about it yet. (Which saved me having to choose between it and northwest-side icon Superdawg as the choice for that area.) But it's a place that learned a thing or two from Doug's success—and its owner is someone who opened a hot dog stand in order to have Doug's hours for his family.

Tony Tzoubris comes from a Greek family with multigenerational restaurant experience—his father recently sold his Northbrook restaurant, the Captain's Quarters, which he'd had for almost 40 years. Tony ran the track restaurant at Arlington International Racecourse and worked in some other restaurants owned by friends, when one of his sons developed a rare autoimmune disorder. He left the restaurant business as the family dealt with the adjustments to his son's condition, and he became involved in fund-raising for research for the disease.

Eventually he needed to go back into the restaurant business, and about two years ago he decided on a neighborhood hot dog stand for small-town-feeling Edgebrook as a business that would allow him to be home at a reasonable hour for his family. He found a space along Devon with ivy growing against the back patio, and decided to call it Ivy's with a nod to the Cubs fans in the area. There's a standard approach for hot dog stands, and at first that's what the architect he hired gave him—the template that would make it easy to get city approval and be up and running quickly, with garish colors and Formica countertops.

He didn't like it.

"I didn't want to open any hot dog and hamburger place, I wanted to serve the best quality possible," he says. "You gotta go that extra mile. We could have easily opened up a hot dog place, put up the Vienna sign, painted the walls yellow and red and said here we are." Instead, while not doing anything as attention-gettingly unusual as Doug Sohn did, he thought through every part of the business with a fresh perspective to offer what he thought was best.

The burgers are single-source beef from whole muscle, ground into fresh patties by a butcher and served on a handmade knotted-roll bakery bun. The meat "doesn't come from three different states, or three different countries. It comes from one 300-mile area in Nebraska, and we know where it comes from," he says. "At least once a day, I have someone say 'That was the best burger I've had in my life.'"

The hot dogs are black Angus dogs from Eisenberg, a lesser-known Chicago supplier; the standard Chicago hot dogs use a natural-casing frank, while some special dogs use a larger, six-to-the-pound frank. Why did he pick Eisenberg over the ubiquitous Vienna? "Over the years, whenever I tried a hot dog place that seemed a little better, I'd look around and eventually I'd see that little Eisenberg sign, almost hidden. To me, that was the taste of the best Chicago hot dogs." He handpicked some other suppliers for individual items, like Italian sausage from Nottoli & Son on Belmont near Harlem.

The fries are freshly cut and they're served unsalted—so you can salt them yourself from the bar of 14 different sea salts. Their milkshake is another selling point, made with Homer's Ice Cream, a 14 percent milk fat ice cream from Wilmette.

Sea salt bar at Ivys

So far it's a pretty standard menu done at a higher level of quality. But Ivy's signboard includes some more exotic choices, like the international dogs with flavors like Danish (brown mustard, crispy fried onions, and pickles), Mexican Sonoran (green salsa, avocado, pinto beans, and bacon) and, least likely for a sleepy neighborhood like this one, Japanese with seaweed salad and teriyaki sauce. Surely that one's just a stunt, right, something to get people talking about the menu? "That's the best seller off the international menu," Tzoubris says.

Japanese dog

Quality comes at a price, and "people are sometimes a little shocked at the prices," he says. (Which might seem high by Edgebrook standards, though nothing a Hot Doug's regular would be surprised by.) That's one reason he wanted the place to look like more than a hot dog stand. "All of our tables are reclaimed wood—black walnut from the midwest, and we also have reclaimed oak burls. The walls are reclaimed Chicago common brick." A plaque—wood, naturally—on one wall hails the restaurant for using sustainable wood in its design. "We're part of the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition, and we're moving toward green restaurant certification."

As we're talking, Tzoubris' wife and sons come in. They greet him, then greet some other customers from the neighborhood who they recognize. It's exactly the sort of small-scale, everybody-knows-everybody friendly interaction that you move to a small part of the big city to have. "It is a neighborhood place. We try to get know all of our customers, by face if not name," Tzoubris says.

As his sons socialize and goof around like the kids they are, I can't tell at first glance which one has had the health issues, which is heartening. When one of my sons was born, he had a health scare which could have been very serious and have had long-lasting effects, though we were tremendously fortunate that, in the end, it went away as quickly as it came. But I remember the feeling a parent has in such situations—feeling that you're being sucked into a radically new life dominated by health care (and big health care institutions) over which you have very little control.

The way to deal with that—the only way to cope—is to fight hard to create your own little pocket of normal life and to try to give as much of it to your kids in the midst of all the bigger things you're trying to keep from them. That's Ivy's, the better neighborhood hot dog place with its tables made from wood that's trying to look out for the future, its food made the old-fashioned way from well-raised beef, and some damned tasty shakes.

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