About three years ago Howard Lopata was driving around Lawndale with his son, Rob, and Peter Engler, the noted investigator of south-side culinary oddities such as the double cheeseburger known as the Big Baby and the tamale-chili combo dubbed the mother-in-law. The trio was exploring what old neighborhood guys like the elder Lopata call the "GVS," or (with a Yiddish inflection) "The Great Vest Side," looking specifically for old synagogues that had survived the riots and were reborn as Christian churches. Lopata Sr. is a retired radiologist who now lives in Northbrook. He hadn't been back to the neighborhood where he grew up since 1952. When Lopata was a young kid, Lawndale was overwhelmingly populated by eastern European Jews, but his family was among the thousands who left during the decade of white flight in the 50s.
As they drove north on Homan, Lopata was reminiscing about Dave's Red Hots, where he ate his first hot dogs as a boy. The shop was located on the southeast corner of Homan and Roosevelt, where the Plaza Court Townhouses now stand.
"It was the 40s so it was probably my early teenage years," he recalls telling his son and Engler. "I used to go every Saturday. I used to get 25 cents from my mother and go to Dave's on Homan. For ten cents I'd get a hot dog. For five cents I'd get an RC Cola. I'd get the RC Cola rather than Coke because RC Cola was 12 ounces. Coke was only eight. And then I'd go to the Gold Theater, which was a quarter of a block away, and they would show two cowboy movies every Saturday, featuring Johnny Mac Brown or Roy Rogers or Gene Autry."
At that moment Lopata hung a left on Roosevelt and about a half a block down the street Engler interrupted his reverie. "He said, 'I think I just saw a sign that says Dave's,'" Lopata remembers. "And I said, 'That's got to be some other [Dave's]. We're talking 60 years ago it went out of business!' So he said, 'Let's go back and check it out.'"
Sure enough, across the street and a half block west of the original Dave's hung a Vienna Beef hot dog sign above a shabby red painted storefront with its windows protected by a collapsing metal gate.
"I was reluctant to go in when I saw the barbed wire on the windows. I thought I was looking at a vacated place, you see?" But Engler went in and Lopata followed, and there they met Gina Fountain, whose father bought the stand from the original Dave and moved it across the street in the mid-70s. And there Lopata ordered his first dog and French fry combo in over 50 years. For $3.83, it was a sight more pricey than a nickel and dime, but still a pretty good deal.
I went back with Lopata and Engler a few weeks ago for a hot dog. As we drove down Roosevelt Lopata pointed out things that were no longer there: "Zukey the Bookie used to be over here. This was a pool room. We used to play poker in the back and this guy was a bookmaker. Zukerman, Zukey the Bookie they called him, and he got rubbed out by the mob. They shot him in front of the place."
Dave's Red Hots opened in 1938, four years after Lopata was born. A survivor of the 1968 riots and subsequent decades of decay, it's one of the city's oldest continually operating hot dog shops (if not the oldest, depending on your parameters), and an anchor in the community. It was inducted in the Vienna Beef Hot Dog Hall of Fame the same year Lopata rediscovered it, and in the three years since he'd been back he noticed some cosmetic improvement. "The windows are all clean. They used to be covered in all grime. This place is getting too fancy."
It's hard to think of many hot dogs stands that have been doing it right this long. Gina Fountain serves thin, snappy, natural-casing Vienna dogs, with a formidable portion of thick, crispy, hand-cut fries. Inside Lopata ordered his usual with mustard, relish, and tomato.
"I never had peppers," he said. "Nothing like sauerkraut."
"No, definitely not. That's a no-no. Ketchup for hamburger, mustard for hot dog. That's inviolate. Inviolate. No one ever said it was wrong. It just wasn't done."
He took his dog and packed himself into one of the tiny wooden booths that made the move across the street in the 70s. "These booths were made for kids," he said. "It's always better when you're a kid. When you look back and you remember what the old days were, you always think nothing is like what it was. That's just a natural thing."
But how is the dog?
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect that Howard Lopata is a retired radiologist.