Doug Sohn at the now-shuttered Hot Doug's. His "retirement" has been Jay Z-like.
I have a way of digging in my heels. My enthusiasm for anything is usually inversely proportional to the vehemence with which somebody gets bug-eyed and lays his hand on my arm to squeal, "Oh my god—you've got to [see/eat/read/try] it! You just have
So it was with Hot Doug's.
Accompanied by an avalanche of fanfare, encased-meat conjurer Doug Sohn shuttered his Avondale restaurant and retired in 2014. In the waning days, extremists called off work, camped out overnight in front of the door, and ordered one of every sausage on the menu, believing it would be their final taste of Hot Doug's. Except Doug didn't go away. He's been doing a seemingly unceasing stream of ersatz comeback gigs that have included a pop-up at Publican Quality Meats, a pizza collaboration with Piece, and a partnership with the Cubs that allowed Sohn to sell sausages at the team's spring training games in Arizona. Each time Doug peeks his head out, what follows is a wave of fawning food-media puffery and breathless social media exclamations. Sohn's prolific retirement continues on April 11 with the Cubs home opener at Wrigley Field, where for the second year fans will spend many an inning queued in front of a concession stand near the center field bleachers to once again partake in the purportedly transformative hot dogs.
I've gotta say: I don't understand all the hype. And I don't miss Hot Doug's.
Back when Sohn was still doing brisk business at his storied restaurant, the decade-long pummeling of Oh my god, you've never been?
was so unrelenting and clamorous that I finally succumbed. (I'm human, and therefore susceptible to the urgings of the herd.) So there I was, standing in the famous line stretching down the block, waiting for the dubious privilege of paying too much for a hot dog. It was an early spring day, which meant it was about eight fucking degrees outside. But I was driving up California Avenue, had eaten no breakfast, and had been told—repeatedly, insistently, feverishly—that Hot Doug's would forever alter my experience of space-time, that the flavor profile of even its most modest offering would open my chakras, that I'd drop to the floor in rapturous tremors after a single bite.
The line was populated by the expected irritating groupies. I stood in the alley atop the flattened carcass of a rat, endured stultifying conversations that were, in essence, the sausage geek's version of Phish heads swapping bootleg cassettes in the parking lot outside a show. A fistfight nearly broke out over the question of whether it's permissible to add condiments or otherwise season the offerings of the master who held forth behind the counter inside.
Finally, at the front of the line, I recall a frisson of accomplishment comparable, I imagine, to what marathoners must feel upon crossing the 22-mile marker. I don't recall my exact order. I do remember opting for maximum exoticness. So I asked for the—I don't know—the Caiman Dog Garnished for Some Reason With the Left Foot of a Pheasant and Drizzled in Self-Congratulation. Or maybe it was the Kodiak Bear Dog Swaddled in a Net of Saffron and Topped With Shavings From the One True Cross.
Since word had traveled down the line that this was my first hajj to Meat Mecca, there was a ring of wide-eyed acolytes surrounding me when I bit into the first sausage, each person bending at the knee slightly as if anticipating a new convert. As a prospective proselyte, I would ultimately disappoint. It was a good hot dog, a fresh hot dog, a hot dog prepared with evident skill and obvious care. But it was just . . . a fucking hot dog.
My fellow pilgrims could see I remained unrapturous, that I was the lone man in the compound who wasn't guzzling the Kool-Aid. They began scanning their temple for fuel to feed the bonfire to which they wished to consign me. During their baffled paralysis, I managed to make my escape.
Now I'm bracing myself for the death threats that are certain to follow this essay. But I'll reiterate with my final breath: Come on, guys—it's just a fucking hot dog.