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April 22, 2006

Hot Doug's ... or ... Why All Meat Should Be Encased

Dominic Armato
Today, I tasted sausage for the first time.

Not literally, of course, but boy howdy, does it feel that way. What I had for lunch this afternoon was encased meat product like no other.

I first heard of Hot Doug's from my dear friend Kirsten a couple of years ago. She regaled me with tales of delicious, creative sausages. She teased me with the promise of duck fat fries. Then she mentioned that, oh yeah, they just had a fire and were closed indefinitely. This closure was the first in a line of occasionally legitimate excuses that kept me from visiting Doug Sohn's "Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium" until today. First, it was incinerated. Then, I was busy. Then, I forgot about it for a while. Then, it was featured on "Check, Please" and the place was a zoo. Then I traveled to China six times in one summer and was too jetlagged. Then I was busy getting married. And now? Now I weep for two years of lost link opportunities.

Since I'm way behind the curve on this one, I can't tell a dedicated food reader anything that he or she hasn't already read. But for those who haven't had the pleasure of hearing Doug's story, he now resides -- post blaze -- on a deserted-looking stretch of California just north of Belmont. A lively neighborhood, it isn't. Hot Doug's is across the street from Midway's nondescript grey bunker of an office building and an empty lot, and kitty corner from some sort of public utility building. It's a small joint, cute and clean with a perpetual line out the door. Seating is available indoors, where there is a window counter and perhaps ten tables, or outdoors, in the six foot wide walkway separating Doug's from the townhouse next door. Just inside the door, Doug himself stands posted -- Elvis Costello on an encased meat diet -- taking orders from and merrily jawing with every person who steps through his door.

Cajun Pork Sausage with Bleu Cheese Dijonnaise, Fried Okra and Spicy Smoked Almonds
The menu is essentially divided into two sections. The permanent menu consists of the classics: Chicago-style dog, Polish, brat, etc. But while the standards all appear to be (and are reported to be, by reliable sources) exceptionally well-prepared, the specials are what separate Doug's from the pack. Here, on a small 12x12" markerboard, is where you'll find link concoctions such as Calvados Infused Duck Sausage with Apple Mustard, White Truffle Cheese and Foie Gras "Butter", Beef and Lamb Gyros Sausage with Artichoke Tzatziki, Kalamata Olives and Feta Cheese, or White Wine and Dijon Rabbit Sausage with Sauce Moutarde and Tilsiter Cheese. Rounding out the menu are drinks and fries, which you can get fried in duck fat on Fridays and Saturdays. That and tater tots, which, in a gross and rare miscalculation on Doug's part, don't seem to be available in the duck fat variety.

Like everybody else, I'm all too familiar with the beautiful agony of looking at a menu and being absolutely paralyzed by all of the tasty-looking possibilities. But this decision was especially torturous. I decided to order two sausages, which was more a function of my resolve to try two options than it was of my actual hunger. Though I felt compelled to get at least one standard for benchmarking purposes, I couldn't resist the specials. Both the venison and the duck called out to me, but I absolutely couldn't walk out the door without trying a pork product. As such, since the venison appeared to be a fleeting special, I ordered the two you see pictured here... the Cajun Pork Sausage with Bleu Cheese Dijonnaise, Fried Okra and Spicy Smoked Almonds, and the Merlot and Blueberry Venison Sausage with Three-Berry Mustard and Stilton-Apricot Cheese. And, of course, duck spuds.

Merlot and Blueberry Venison Sausage with Three-Berry Mustard and Stilton-Apricot Cheese
My three compatriots and I took a seat at one of the outdoor tables, and a few minutes later our sausages and a mountain of fries followed suit, borne by one of Doug's staff. For reference, one order of duck fat fries = huge, and four orders = freaking enormous. We started out by giving the duck fries a try, except for Rob, who got regular fries because... well... I have absolutely no idea why he or anyone would pass on the duck fat fries. But as it turned out, the singular order of standard spuds provided us with an excellent opportunity to compare and contrast. The duck flavor was, somewhat surprisingly, rather mild, but the duck fries clearly had a depth of flavor that the standard fries lacked. That said, they were all fantastic... crispy and fatty and beautifully caramelized. And here, after the initial fry tasting, is where our lunch became an experience. All four of us inadvertently took our first bites of our respective sausages at exactly the same time. There was a brief pause, and then a spontaneous quadrophonic outburst of muffled moans and sighs of utter culinary bliss.

The sausages were incredible.

I mean, they were really, really, really incredible. The rolls had an unusual amount character for soft bread. The toppings, while bold in theory, were remarkably restrained in practice. The three-berry mustard, for example, could have easily been overly sweet. Any number of cheeses could have been chosen that would have absolutely overpowered the meat. And the spicy in spicy smoked almonds could conceivably cover a broad range. But all of the accompaniaments, while bursting with flavor, never crossed the line into distracting. They all knew that the star was the sausage. And, oh boy, the sausage. Flavorful, juicy and moist with just the right amount of fat. They were made from meats of impeccable quality, all beautifully seasoned. And perhaps most surprising, and pleasing, was the fact that they were exceptionally light and tender, with none of the tough, dense, chewy texture that I've come to expect from other sausages. We were, all four of us, absolutely floored, and planning our next visit by the third bite.

Dominic Armato
Though he's a graduate of Kendall College, my understanding is that Doug doesn't make his own sausage (though I'm not certain, so those in the know, please correct me if I'm misinformed). From what I read, he simply considers it too much work. Managing the store keeps him busy enough that he can't devote the time to the sausage that the art deserves. This would seem to fly in the face of the detail-oriented fanaticism that I tend to appreciate in my food purveyors, but in Doug's case, I only found myself respecting him more. There is one location, and there won't be any more. It's open only for lunch, from 10:30 to 4:00 Monday through Saturday. He could easily open up outlets in Lincoln Park or Wrigleyville, hire an army of minions, charge $15 a sausage, stay open 24 hours and make an absolute mint. But the man knows what he wants, enjoys what he does, works semi-normal hours, has a life and seems to be perfectly happy with it the way it is, thank you very much. Frankly, the guy could be open for two hours a week with a line around the block charging $20 a sandwich, and I'd be a regular. Thankfully, he doesn't make it so difficult, because it's a big, ever-changing menu, and I have a lot of lost time to make up for.

Hot Doug's
The Sausage Superstore
and Encased Meat Emporium

3324 N. California
Chicago, IL 60618
773-279-9550

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