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October 28, 2011

Gene & Jude's

Midnight Hot Dog Run Dominic Armato

From the outset, my first visit to Gene & Jude's may have aroused more suspicion in this Chicago Catholic family than if I'd said I was going to go hang out at the local Krishna temple. I come from a long line of Superdawg devotees, dating back to that fine establishment's inception, and while other dogs may occasionally be introduced to the collective family gullet -- most notably at ballgames -- it's always with an implicit, "Hey, it's no Superdawg, but it'll do." Staying with family while visiting home, getting ready to head out the door, two independent conversations with my folks went like this:

Yeah, That's ItDominic Armato

Me: "I'm going out for a hot dog."
Mom: "Superdawg?"
Me: "Nah, I'm going to go check out Gene & Jude's."
Mom: "Oh, Cousin Sammy took me there. He said it was the best hot dog in the city."
Me: "What'd you think?"
Mom: "I hated it."

Huh.

Dad: "Where are you headed?"
Me: "Hot dog."
Dad: "Superdawg?"
Me: "Gene & Jude's actually. You been?"
Dad: "I hated it."

Well, at least we have consensus. This is a Superdawg family. I brought my sister for backup anyway, and explained to her that we'd be checking out a different breed of Chicago Style Hot Dog... a minimal version of the one to which she was accustomed.

Minimalism is a funny thing. I like to think that in the food world, there are few things nobler than something simple done well. But this is very much a situational feeling, by no means universally held among those who cherish good grub, and everybody has their limits. For every piece of produce that an Alice Waters serves unadorned, there's a snappy retort from a David Chang. Sometimes, simple cult foodstuffs are as likely to inspire indifferent shrugs as they are rapturous enthusiasm. Is the place that's been slinging the same hash since the '40s serving minimal perfection or figs on a plate? And how, exactly, do the uninitiated wade into the middle of that debate?

Cutting PotatoesDominic Armato

The minimalism at Gene & Jude's goes beyond the dog itself. Part of what's so refreshing about the place is that it doesn't have loftier aspirations. It's content to serve hot dogs, fries, and the occasional Supreme Tamale. Don't ask for ketchup. Not even for the fries. Doing so will get you laughed at and sent to the McDonald's across the street. But this is a perfect example of do less, do it better. Even at midnight, a small army of teenagers stands at the ready, and though this is a brigade that would make Escoffier wince, what the fellas may lack in economy they make up for in energy, bounding around and spitting out dogs at the pace necessary to keep up with the often formidable line, a dozen deep even at this late hour. A narrow counter for eating lines one wall and most of the front windows, though back at the car seems to be an equally popular spot to park and tuck in. We placed our order. We got our drinks. The same kid who took our order handed me an already greasy paper bag. We took it to the counter, got everything unwrapped, and had ourselves a pretty outstanding meal.

Gene & Jude's is a throwback to a bygone era of Chicago hotdoggery that existed for decades before Vienna Beef decided that to qualify as a Chicago Style Hot Dog, your sausage has to be dragged through the garden. Every time I hear somebody complain that a dog isn't authentic because it left off the tomato or pickle spear, I have to resist the urge to get rhetorically medieval on them. Don't get me wrong, I both adore and fully recognize the legitimacy of the contemporary edition (more a function of Vienna Beef marketing than the reality on the ground), but when most Chicago hot dog stands that have been in operation since the '50s or earlier eschew the more elaborate toppings, you ever stop to think that maybe that celery salt is more new-fangled than you'd like to admit? This isn't a dog with a nine item checklist. It's a depression dog, a natural casing Vienna Beef frank -- skinny one -- on a plain bun with nothing more than mustard, onion, relish, and sport peppers. That and a mountain of fries that are practically stuffed into the dog before it's wrapped in paper.

 
The Dog Dominic Armato

I grew up in Chicago, which means I grew up with hot dogs, and after nearly 35 years, I still don't fully understand the alchemy at work in a good one. Gene & Jude's is a great one. It's a sausage and a bun along with three jarred condiments, all of which are produced somewhere else. The only thing prepared on the premises other than the fries is the chopped onion, and it hardly seems possible that that's the basis for the reputation. How does one place distinguish itself from the next? And yet, for those who have eaten scads of these things, there's no denying that some places get it right and some don't. When it's right, it's like some kind of mystical sweat lodge in that steam table, where the dog goes in only to discover its true nature and emerge a more spiritually complete version of itself. Gene & Jude's nails that mix of beefy, steamy, tangy, sweet and spicy that defines the genre, but it's somehow more harmonious than almost anyplace else you've had it. The bun squishes, the skin on the dog snaps, and all of those toppings gently support the sausage rather than burying it. And bonus, the fries are fantastic, cut minutes before you consume them, fried to order, lightly crisped on the edges and tender in the middle, bursting with fresh potato flavor and a hint of beef tallow. If you order them well done, they might even stay crispy long enough for you to unwrap them. This is a Chicago Style Hot Dog -- old school edition -- in its purest form. And despite my devotion to the big fella with the pure beef heart (a devotion that I will defend with my dying breath), there's no denying that Gene & Jude's dog is a beautiful thing to behold.

Even my sister was on board. Apparently laser-focused hot dog preference skips a generation. So after dropping her off and returning to my folks' place, I found my father still sitting at his computer, working. "What'd you think?" he asked. "I thought it was great. I don't see what's not to like." "Eh... to each his own," he responded, though I'm sure it was a struggle to phrase it so diplomatically. This is the sometimes cruel reality of food and family, when a change of pace jaunt to a different hot dog stand flies in the face of generations worth of tradition.

I'm still going back, though.

Gene & Jude's
2720 River Road
River Grove, IL 60171
708-452-7634
Sun - Thu10:30 AM - 1 AM
Fri - Sat10:30 AM - 2 AM

Comments

Nice work, Dom. Good to see quality writing on the blogosphere.

If you're ever driving through New Haven, stop by Hummel Bros (just off of I-95) and try their hot dogs. They're the best natural casing dogs I've ever had.

Gene and Jude's!!! This is my college pal Tim's favorite eatery in the world (he grew up in Franklin Park) and a bunch of us used to make the trek every few weeks or so. Mustard's Last Stand subbed in occasionally (for convenience), but there's nothing like Gene and Jude's.

If you're on a Chicago greasy spoon trip, please tell me you're heading to Sarki's in North Evanston.

I'm not a Chicagoan, so I have no opinion on what makes a Chicago dog what it is. I know I like the "modern" version, since that's what I usually get during a brief stay there. But, that looks like a decent version of one.

This comment struck me, though:

I grew up in Chicago, which means I grew up with hot dogs, and after nearly 35 years, I still don't fully understand the alchemy at work in a good one.

Have you tried making some? I've been doing a few sausages at home, largely following the Ruhlman Charcuterie methods, and he's got a hot dog. I just haven't had the cajones to try and make mousseline-style sausage yet. But, with the sausages I have made, I've found several cool things that make one better than another. I'm sure you could tackle this project with your usual talent.

Love the post. The writing is awesome and now I'm craving for a dog of which style I wouldn't even think to try!

way to throw the folks under the bus! lol. tasty post. :)

I love the pic of the restaurant . . . the second I saw it I thought "I don't know that place, but that's gotta be in Chicago"

This is another review to add to your classics! It made me hungry for a dog too --

ah, interesting. Liz and I talked a while back about checking out Gene & Jude's but there's never enough time when she visits to plan a trek out to River Grove (especially when we always end up near a Portillo's anyway). One of these days we'll get over there. Unfortunately with your aunt living elsewhere it will be hard to further test your hypothesis about hot dog preference skipping a generation, as she also remains a diehard Superdawg devotee. ;)

No Top Chef 9 primer, or are you waiting for the first ep to air?

Rahul... see addendum to Top Chef post, below. On the nosey.

Reminds me of my dearly departed Demon Dogs. While I appreciate the gusto of a Superdawg, and the glories of Hot Doug in all his various forms, sometimes a simple dog with mustard, onions and sport peppers (you can keep the relish, thanks) is all I need. Great work Dom!

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