One hot dog in Chicago towered over all the others. Actually two hot dogs, both towering over Milwaukee Avenue near Devon: Superdawg, the Tarzan-dressed 12-foot-tall hot dog with glowing eyes, and his skirted female companion. They were nicknamed "Maurie and Flaurie," which by an amazing coincidence happened to be the names of the couple who owned Superdawg. This weekend Maurie Berman, the 89-year-old owner of the most beloved hot dog stand in a city famous for loving its hot dogs, passed away.
Superdawg is one of the area's few remaining carhop-style dog-and-burger joints, doing a steady business of drive-up, tray-on-window traffic even given Chicago's distinct lack of the southern Californian climate usually associated with such places. Despite, or maybe because of, the short peak season for that kind of eating, hitting Superdawg for a Superdawg, crinkle-cut fries (cut freshly in house), and a thick chocolate shake has been an instant mood-lifter for Chicagoans for generations, capturing the freedom and prosperity of postwar American car culture in a meal.
It's ironic then that cars were not the original mode of transportation that Superdawg was built for in 1948. Maurie Berman was a returned war veteran attending Northwestern to become a CPA; his wife Florence, aka Flaurie, was a school teacher. The initial idea was to open a summer-only restaurant near the Whealan Pool on the northwest side, at the end of the Milwaukee streetcar line. In the style of the day, Maurie designed a modest square building with brash signage and two anthropomorphic hot dogs to draw attention.
They were soon running it year round and the building steadily expanded in size and Eisenhower-era iconography, as well as putting in the electronic speaker system that would allow customers to order from the comforts of their two-tone Chevys; Flaurie herself was the very first carhop. The building has changed its footprint several times over the years, but the graphic style stayed firmly in the mid-50s, with the blue and white diamonds straight off a pair of Argyle socks and the wonderfully corny copy on the food boxes ("From the bottom of our pure beef hearts"). When they opened a second outlet in Wheeling a few years ago, it was an only slightly modernized version of the original. And when I designed a logo for LTHForum a decade ago, those retro-50s diamonds seemed the perfect way to sum up the happiness that great joint food could bring.
For being an iconic dog-and-burger joint, though, Superdawg was by no means a typical Chicago dog. Instead of the classic Vienna Beef dog, they used a Sinai 48 dog from Best's Kosher, a little more garlicky and closer to an east-coast dog, until the Best's brand was killed by Sara Lee Corporation in 2009. (Who makes their dogs now is a closely held secret.) In any case, it's an especially plump, 1950s cruiser of a dog, served in the trademark cardboard box with fries, and pickled green tomatoes and peppers. Some fans object to the fries and dog steaming themselves a little soggy in the box, but the melding of all those flavors is part of the point. If ever there was a total-package restaurant where you shouldn't nitpick the details, it's Superdawg, though it is worth pointing out that it's not a one-trick pony; the griddled burger and the Whoopskidawg (a Polish-style sausage) are pretty terrific too. (If I'm making you hungry, note that both locations will be closed for the funeral on Tuesday.)
The hot dog business was good to Maurie and Flaurie. One son, Scott Berman, and his family run both Superdawg locations today, while another, Myles, teaches law at Northwestern, where his parents once went to school. Maurie loved to welcome and interact with customers, taking pleasure in their pleasure, but he was also a street-smart businessman and a tough cookie, as entrepreneurs of his generation tended to be. This is evidenced by the story that Hot Dog Chicago coauthor Rich Bowen told me in an interview a few weeks ago, about when Berman attended the book's publication party in 1983:
He came up to me and said [speaking in gravelly voice]: 'Rich, you did a great thing for the hot dog industry. You didn't name us number one, but you know what, Rich? Fuck you, we don't need ya!'
The official response from the Superdawg Chicago Twitter account: "Sounds like something Maurie would say. :)"