Get to Know the Chicago-Style Hot Dog

Liz Barclay
Liz Barclay / Liz Barclay

If you know only one thing about eating a hot dog in Chicago, know this: no ketchup. It’s natural to think of a Chicago dog—traditionally served with a heaping combination of toppings as improbably delicious as it is bizarre—as defined by its accoutrements, but its essence is articulated not by what’s on it, but rather what isn’t.

And ketchup isn’t.

Most Chicagoans will tell you, exasperated, that there’s no ketchup on Chicago dogs because there just isn’t. Bill Murphy, who’s served them at Murphy’s Red Hots in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood for 28 years, has a better explanation: “Ketchup is very powerful; it throws the whole flavor profile off.” And if you want to go off the rails, unless you’re a child or a pregnant woman, you’re on your own: Murphy’s cooks will refuse to dish out the verboten condiment.

The most accepted version of the Chicago dog’s origin myth dates back to the Depression, when vendors would load up their hot dogs with common vegetables and sell them to broke customers as a cheap full meal. For a food that’s never gone out of style, the Chicago dog exists in a throwback universe: The most popular vendors are big-mouthed and talk fast, serving from antiquated stands with menus that haven’t changed in decades.

In other words: Save the ketchup, and savor a classic.

The Chicago dog you see here was photographed (and eaten), rather sacrilegiously, in New York City, at the Shake Shack in Battery Park. At locations globally (including Chicago), Shack makes what many Chicagoans regard as a passable, tasty “Shack-Cago” dog—though it’s missing poppy seeds. If you’re in Chicago, however, we suggest visits to Murphy’s Red Hots, Gene & Jude’s, Jimmy’s Red Hots, The Weiner’s Circle, or Wolfy’s. Or all of ’em. Photo by Liz Barclay.

The fixin's include:

1. Poppy Seed Bun
Purists accept only Rosen’s—their buns best withstand a dog’s heat.

2. Vienna Beef Hot Dog in Natural Casing
Usually steamed. Charred: also fine. The casing gives the dog that key first-bite “snap.”

3. Yellow Mustard
The simple part of this.

4. Neon Relish
Usually sweet, and alien-green colored.

5. White Onions
Only white, and diced.

6. Tomatoes
Preferably wedges.

7. Dill Pickle Spear
Something cold and crisp—crunch is key.

8. Sport Peppers
Served whole.

9. Celery Salt
A distinct seasoning improbably tying the mess together into a thing of culinary beauty.


Char Dog
A dog grilled and charred rather than steamed or boiled

Never say it.“Style” implies Chicago’s hot dogs are a variation
of an original. Diehard Chicagoans argue that theirs is the original.

Depression Dogs
[a.k.a. the Minimalist] Some claim this is the original Chicago dog: a regular bun, mustard, onions, peppers, sometimes with relish, sometimes topped with a pile of skin-on French fries.

With everything on it; also acceptable: “loaded up,” “dragged through the garden,” and “with the works.”

Red Hots
Synonym for “hot dogs”; refers to the temperature of the dogs and the red dye the Vienna brand added for aesthetics. Trust vendors that use this terminology.