The blog continues with reviews of personal favorite hot dog establishments and others recommended by readers. I can’t eat every hot dog in town folks, but I did my best.
Let me be quick with this one. The food item people may call a hot dog which is served at DiDoughs at 228 W. Main is not a hot dog. It’s a wiener wrapped in pretzel dough baked in an oven. In other places at other times that dish may have been referred to as pigs in a blanket, although I think of those as the classic little cocktail weenies in biscuit dough. Pigs in a blanket had variations; bigger sausages, dough more akin to croissants, lots of things. The thing served at DiDoughs is not a pig in a blanket either.
For starters it contains a pretty good all beef wiener. There is no pork and thus no pig involved. If you go down that road it could only be called a cow in a blanket. And the blanket is nontraditional as well, being made of pretzel dough. If you want, call it a cow in a quilt. But don’t call it a hot dog.
All beef wieners are beginning to rule these days. They may be the new standard of excellence. That’s what DiDoughs is serving. It is a good wiener wrapped in their delicious pretzel dough made fresh each day on site from very good ingredients. The baked product is salty, savory, and delicious. The wiener and the pretzel dough combined make a fine thing to eat; a nice lunch item, a snack, or just good when you are hungry. But it’s not a hot dog.
There is no place for condiments and because of that there are none. With this food item, which they label a “DiDough Dog” they offer either a cup of plain or beer mustard for dipping. Hot dogs aren’t dipped. I had the beer mustard, runny but good. Further, the pretzel dough wrapped around the wiener doesn’t qualify as a bun. There are, as you may know, pretzel buns which open and hold condiments so you can get that blended bite of wiener and the good stuff that is so essential to a hot dog. But you can’t experience that eating DiDough’s baked pretzel wrapped wiener, cow in a quilt, call it what you will.
Don’t get me wrong. DiDough’s is a nice clean place. They make and bake their own pretzels and offer other great looking sandwiches. However they don’t offer a hot dog. The thing I ate is really good. I’ll probably go back for more. But don’t be fooled. A wiener does not a hot dog make. A hot dog is a sandwich with a bun holding condiments alongside the wiener. You won’t find that at DiDough’s. End of story. No rating.
The building at 323 W. Madison Street like most old commercial structures in Ottawa has been many things. There are histories begging to be written that will never be authored because they would be read by so few. The history of establishments occupying this particular concrete block building is one such history. You won’t learn it from me.
Ambience: Mr. J’s is one of three, a small LaSalle County chain, the others existing in Streator and LaSalle. Ottawa’s Mr. J’s is connected to La Mexicana, a Mexican grocery with take out food just to the west. When I sit there I remember it being part of Chuck Varney’s Video Store, when DVD’s were all the rage, the aisles crowded with movie lovers. The Video Store occupied both the grocery and the restaurant. Chuck created an old time soda shop where Mr. J’s now operates. There were big big mechanized computer run stuffed animals that eerily performed on a timer ala Chuck E. Cheese. One played the drums. My kids were little. Both they and I were amazed. Those were the days.
Mr. J’s windows face north and the counter faces south and west. It’s a little dim. What immediately strikes you when your eyes adjust is the giant menu. It stretches all along the wall behind the counter. Billed as “Hot Dogs and Gyros” Mr. J’s is much more. Hot dogs get top billing, with various dogs including chili, corn, and a polish sausage following. But it goes on. And on.
You can get ten varieties of hamburgers at Mr. J’s seven kinds of beef and sausage sandwiches, seven plate dinners (2 Gyros plates, Chicken kabobs, two spaghetti plates) and BBQ ribs, both full and half slabs. There are ten appetizers available along with eleven sides. They have four seafood entrees at Mr. J’s and a whopping 23 Mexican favorites before you reach the comparatively small breakfast menu which includes an interesting chorizo and potato burrito. Before you get to the chicken, which offers both fingers and nuggets, you got your choice of six subs, five salads, twelve specials, ten chef’s specials, but surprisingly only two desserts: Tres Leches Cake and Churros. I was amazed at the menu. Imagine being the cook. I sat at the old black and white ceramic tile counter on a red stool. The place was clean. You could smell the deep fryers. I ordered the hot dog with everything and a medium coke. Seemed a shame to ignore the rest of the menu, but I was on a hot dog mission.
Presentation: The hot dog as it turns out is another “Red Hot Chicago-Pure Beef Products” of the kind I had at Triple J’s. Is this a franchised food? Do they require it be cooked and served in a particular fashion? Is this coincidence or a disturbing trend? Do we want our hot dogs to be uniform like Big Macs? I don’t. When it came out there was the little red plastic basket, the white waxed paper, the dog with the dill pickle spear lying in the bun along with your Red Hot Chicago pure beef wiener. I have to say it was a disappointment. I might have felt the same way at Triple J’s if I’d gone to Mr. J first.
Condiments: Mr. J was skimpy with the chopped tomatoes. He had chopped onions but they seemed almost removed, stand offish, sullen. His sport peppers looked tired. I couldn’t tell if there was celery salt on that dog or if it was only a rumor. But most alarming was a stripe of ketchup way down in the bun almost as if it were hiding. I think that’s against all the Chicago Hot Dog rules. No ketchup allowed.
Bun: The bun was dry. If it was only dry that would not have been a deal breaker. But it was also cold. It’s hard for a bun to overcome cold and dry and make it all the way to pleasing. Pleasure was encountered nowhere in that bun on that day.
Dog: The dog was hot, plump, and tasty. It was cooked nicely and had some snap. But it just couldn’t make up for its team mates. It was like the only good player on a small town basketball team. No matter how many points it scored it couldn’t make up for the shortcomings of the others around it.
The whole deal: I think the hot dog deal at Mr. J’s is simply and unfortunately lost in the menu. The menu is vast. How many hot dogs could they possibly be selling in a day given all those choices. You could walk in wanting a hot dog and be immediately distracted. There is nearly everything you ever wanted on that menu. Ironically, the hot dog bite, that mix of flavors you get when you take in the mix of dog with condiments, was helped by the ketchup. It made up for the lack of tomatoes. I never thought I’d say that. But the ketchup was OK. I know that’s blasphemy to some. I don’t care.
I give Mr. J’s two sport peppers.
The damage: $3.73 for the hot dog with everything and a medium coke.
P.S.-Mr. J’s dog was my second of the day so I passed over other menu items. My eyes lit up when I saw Tres Leches cake. I used to have it in a little coffee place run by an old woman in Oaxaca. She baked one of those cakes every day. I wanted to order it so badly, risking the almost certain fact it would never be as good as that fresh cake there in the market in Oaxaca in 1976. Mr. J’s may be the only place in the county where you can get Tres Leches cake. To make matters worse when the waitress came to take away the basket she asked if I wanted dessert
“Churros for you? How about a piece of Tres Leches cake?”
It’s one thing to silently pass over a coveted dessert on a menu. It’s quite another to be forced to verbally turn down something you want so badly. I hesitated, then uncharacteristically replied
“No. Not today. Another time.”
I amazed even myself. But I meant it. I know I’ll be driving by on Madison one day and impulsively pull in to Mr. J’s parking lot drawn by the memory of that cake. And when I do I’ll give you a full report. But for now, I’m focused on hot dogs.
Thorntons is a gas station on Ottawa’s North side by Interstate 80 that typically sells gas cheaper than anybody and everybody else. But when you add it up the pennies you save there should not prevent you from buying gas elsewhere. It’s a mental thing I think. If Thortons is $.02 cents a gallon cheaper, fifteen gallon tank, $.30 total is it worth not supporting an independent business man like Doug Conroy down the street, who does so much for the community, when it costs so little to do so? I don’t think so. But Thornton’s sells other things, among them pretty damn good hot dogs.
Ambience: Thornton’s is a new style gas station, designed to sell goods as much as fuel. Walk in and you find yourself in a place engineered to take your money. Attractive displays, fruit in little baskets, cold pop and beer in ice chests, racks of liquor , fake wood grain, a walk in beer cave, brightly lit cold cases festooned with beverages of all kinds, a coffee bar with all the bells and whistles, and in the middle of it, grandly lit by fluorescent bulbs, the roller grill with wieners in constant motion.
You make your own hot dog at Thorntons. You get your own bun, put it in a cardboard tray, dress it, pay for it, and eat in or out as you wish. I prefer to eat in. There’s a stand up table right next to the roller grill which is fine for a quick bite with plenty of napkins. You can get yourself a fountain drink and knock them both down. Unknown I’m sure to many is a table tucked away by the front window behind a stack of Bud Light cases of cans and the aisle with the slim jims. A table for four, up against the window, a view of the pumps and beyond it Conroys. I didn’t know it was there until one day I was headed to the back corner for a gallon of milk and found Rich Myers there by himself with two handsomely dressed hot dogs, a fountain drink, and the Tribune sports page.
“Rich, what are you doing here?”
“I’m having a quiet lunch. This spot is the best kept secret in town. Perfect for getting away.”
I agree. That’s where I had my test dog. It’s not the Uptown Bar and Grill but it’s not bad.
Presentation: When I first mentioned Thornton’s and the roller grill in my Face Book post soliciting favorite hot dog stands, I got two distinct reactions. The first, from a guy I know who likes to eat, was wildly complimentary. "The invention of the roller grill is right up there with the light bulb, flight, and a giant leap for mankind." My own daughter, when I mentioned this review said "I would skip the gas stations if I were you.” And she’s a graduate of the University of Illinois’ food science program. The roller grill, found primarily in gas stations, is controversial. But like all new technology we have to deal with it. I think of the roller grill as a rotisserie for cased meats. It sounds better.
The roller grill allows mankind to place raw hot dogs (aren’t they precooked anyway and only need to be warmed and plumped?) on hot steel rollers which slowly turn them continuously for hungry patrons to select themselves with plastic tongs, place in a bun, apply their own condiments and enjoy. Roller grills make possible quality self serve hot dogs. That’s how they are presented. Under bright light, slowly turning. At Thornton’s they are switched from the hotter cooking rollers in the rear of the grill to the warming rollers at the front of the grill by an employee charged with tending the grill and restocking condiments. I talked to her the day I had my hot dog.
“Do you know how many hot dogs you serve a day here?”
She seemed offended. “I know how many hot dogs I serve every day here. It ranges from just over 200 to just under 300. Higher on weekends, lower during the week. But always plenty.” That, my friends is high volume hot dog sales. Why is that important? Because when you sell a lot of hot dogs, they tend be fresh. And when they’re fresh they’re better.
At Thorntons you see your hot dog close up. Like picking a lobster out of a tank you can take the one you want. The biggest downfall in the roller grill wiener presentation is the dog’s skin. Under the lights it glistens and shines. The dog rolls over and over in its own grease. We realize more readily the grease is there thanks to the roller grill. Folks, that same grease is in every hot dog you eat. You just don’t see it. More later on the dog and the grease.
Condiments: Thornton’s maintains a smorgasbord of self serve condiments, the largest selection I’ve yet seen in the area. You’ll see things there you never imagined putting on a hot dog. This is where Thorntons excels. They offer both the dyed green sweet relish and the standard sweet relish, salsa, sauerkraut, chopped onions, sport peppers AND pickled jalapenos, and tomatoes in thin half moon slices only. I prefer chopped tomatoes. But at least they’re fresh, along with fresh dill spears with snap. Thorntons offers two mustards (one yellow one spicy), one ketchup, and BBQ sauce all in generic squeeze bottles with fine point openings that afford a lot of control over amount. They have packets for undressed to go dogs. They have mayo. They have a veritable palette of condiments for the creative dog dresser all available there next to the roller grill, all regularly restocked and fresh. One giant omission, which I can’t believe they don’t rectify; no shaker of celery salt. What would it cost? Why not?
Bun: The buns are in a shiny metal drawer under the roller grill. Something keeps them hot in there. A hot bun is a soft bun. The ones at Thorntons are individually wrapped in cellophane. It’s a pretty good bun as buns go, but it’s a shame they don’t stock poppy seed buns. They did try pretzel buns for a while, but they faded as fads do. What is left is your standard soft white bun, brown only on the very outside.
Dog: Thorntons does not brag up its dogs. Unlike many hot dog sellers there is no sign telling the buyer what brand of dog they’re eating. We don’t know if it’s all beef, all pork, part turkey, a little of all of those, whatever. It’s a wiener rolling around on hot rods of steel. And it’s damn good. It’s a jumbo wiener with all the juices trapped inside. The skin is never pierced and the roller grill keeps them from dripping out. Those juices are constantly turning with, and within, that meat of unknown origin until you pluck it off the grill, self selected. I look them all over myself and take the tastiest looking one. It’s not easy to choose.
The whole deal: The Thorntons hot dog is very, very good. Because it’s a jumbo dog you need to apply the condiments liberally. The buns will hold a lot of selections. Do I think hot dogs should be eaten with BBQ sauce or ketchup. No. Do I think Jalapenos should be used instead of sport peppers? I think the jury is still out on that. But the fact is it‘s all there. Whatever rows your boat, whatever you have always wanted to try, is there for you at Thorntons. If we require every wiener be eaten with the same exact set of condiments hot dogs will end up like classical music. No change. Innovation stifled. At Thorntons you get a big juicy wiener, a plethora of condiments, on a warm soft bun. What’s not to like?
The damage: As an added bonus, because its a self serve hot dog it and a dog and a medium self serve fountain coke (surprisingly weak and unsatisfying that day) is only $2.87. Sometimes they have deals. If you’re talking pure nutrition, calories per food dollar, its quite a value.
I give Thorntons four sport peppers.
At the intersection of Route 71 and Interstate 80 I found the only Nathan’s wiener being served in the area. Nathan’s is a storied hot dog originating from the famous stand on Coney Island. It is featured in the gut wrenching pseudo sports event each summer known as the National Hot Dog Eating contest. Nathan’s is a part of hot dog history. Nathan’s is an all beef wiener with cachet. Not only that they’re delicious. Road Ranger serves them from a roller grill in their gas station.
Yet they make a fatal mistake. They do not serve with them fresh condiments. Road Ranger is a high volume place. They’re selling a lot of gas and thus a lot of everything on that corner. They may rival Thorntons in hot dog sales because they accommodate truckers. It’s crowded in there. They have a busy roller grill. But what do you find, there right next to those tasty famous dogs?
A rack of condiments in packets. Let’s get right to it. Have you had the PPI (Portion Pac Industries out of Mason, Ohio) produced chopped onion product in the shiny green lettered foil envelope? Let’s quickly run down the ingredients found in small print on the packet. Here goes.
“Water, dehydrated onions, sugar, distilled vinegar, salt, modified food starch, xanthan gun, dehydrated green onions, Propylene glycol alginate, citric acid, sodium bisulfate, sodium benzoate, and postassium sorbate as preservatives.”
You take a famous East Coast all beef wiener, offer it to the public, and in order to put onions on it the hot dog hungry buyer has to tear open a packet (with no expiration or sell by date mind you) and squeeze that ooze of stuff onto it? Propylene Glycol Alginate? On a Nathan’s All Beef wiener? Are you kidding me?
Nothing is fresh there but the hot dog and the bun. You get packets of relish, ketchup and mustard bottles straight off the rack with those waterless caps that release their contents in big blobs. Where’s the concern for quality? Where’s the hot dog love? Not at Road Ranger. It’s the easy way out. Slap the wieners on the roller grill, keep the packet rack filled, and think no more about it. Thorntons may not have a famous dog, but they have a total hot dog experience that exemplifies quality and is a source of pride for staff. Road Ranger does not. Neither does Marathon downtown on Columbus by Norris Drive. Same set up as Road Ranger. That’s what I think my daughter is referring to when she expresses disgust with gas station hot dogs. Moe-give Thorntons a chance.
Road Ranger gets a single sport pepper for having Nathan’s dogs. Eat hot dogs there only if you must.
Next week: The final chapter of the hot dog blog.