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July 17, 2006

Superdawg Drive-In

Dominic Armato
The marriage of genuine kitsch and tasty grub is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Superdawg is one of those places, like Stan Mikita's Donut Shop or Jack Rabbit Slim's, that is believable only as fiction. The difference with Superdawg, however, is that it does actually exist, and serves an impressive dog to boot. In a town where hot dog stands dominate the fast food landscape, it takes a lot to stand out... a lot, in this case, meaning a giant Tarzan-outfitted fiberglass sausage with blinking eyes, towering over the drive-in's lot, flexing and posing while his similarly-sized frankfurter femme swoons at his side. Though Superdawg has undergone a number of renovations over the years, the look is remarkably similar and the spirit identical to the Superdawg of the '50s, when the previous two generations of Armato men were regulars.

Dominic Armato
I am, in fact, a third generation Superdawg aficionado. My father fondly recalls summer evenings with his father, sneaking out to the drive-in late at night for a "second dinner". It was opened in 1947 by Maurie and Flaurie (no joke) to provide a little summertime income while Maurie wasn't studying to be a CPA and Flaurie wasn't busy with the young'uns of the Chicago public school system. Thankfully, the pair recognized that they had a good thing going, and eventually opted to keep the place open year 'round. Situated way out in the northwest corner of the city, it's a little distant to satisfy my late-night whims. Last week, however, a late morning appointment took me within a couple of blocks, which was more than close enough for Superdawg's magnetic personality to drag me in.

Dominic Armato
Though the giant fiberglass dawgs are what's visible from a distance, it's a funky place top to bottom. Decked out in blue and white diamond trim and endless neon, the building has a certain mothership quality after dark. As previously mentioned, Superdawg is also a drive-in, and the bridge of the starship Superdawg contains the nerve center of the operation, a mammoth switchboard that runs the "Suddenserv" network, communicating with diners via the colorfully decorated menus. As hot dog joints go, it's a fairly extensive (and amusing) menu, containing signature items like the Superdawg, Whoopskidawg (Polish sausage) and Whoopercheesie (double cheeseburger), as well as all of the typical accompaniments and a few less common items. Though most everything is tasty, it's hard to get away from the signature item. My usual is a Superdawg, everything with hot peppers, and an order of onion chips. A few minutes after ordering, the tray lands on your window, and it's time to dig in.

Dominic Armato
Pictured on the outside of the box is our super pal, happily lounging and thanking you for stopping by. Upon opening the box, the Superdawg isn't lounging so much as he is contentedly nestled in a pile of Superfries. It's a dense package, steaming hot and exploding with aroma. A meal at Superdawg will keep your car smelling beefy for a week. This is a good thing. Tightly packed with the fries, extracting the dog is more akin to surgical procedure or a mining expedition. Yes, the dog is in there, and keeping the whole thing contained within the box whilst searching for it can be a challenge. The Superdawg is essentially a Chicago-style dog, with two minor variations. The requisite all-beef dog, steamed poppyseed bun, chopped onions, yellow mustard, Chernobyl green sweet relish, dill pickle spear and optional sport peppers are all present. But the Superdawg is missing fresh tomatoes, and it also includes a megatart pickled green tomato wedge, which I personally think works much better as a side and I believe is intended as such. Though any good Chicagoan knows that ketchup has no place on a Chicago-style dog, Maurie's exact words on the subject have earned him my undying respect:

"We, standing true not only to tradition but to what we feel is an abomination, we will not put ketchup on a sandwich. We will serve it, and if somebody wants to mess it up with ketchup, we will serve it to them."

Dominic Armato
The Superdawg is fantastic. It's a really, really good dog. Maurie and Flaurie refer to their secret recipe on the website, and I have no idea what it is, but it works. The Superdawg isn't a thin hot dog with snap. Rather, it's a thick, beefy, exceptionally juicy sausage that, due to whatever magic they work behind closed doors, tastes much, much better than your average dog. It's skinless, which is blasphemy among many Chicago dog aficionados and I understand the reasons for their disdain, but the flavor is so nice that I'm inclined to judge it for what it is and overlook the missing snap.  The condiments are spot on, with the mustard the right level of pungency, the relish as sweet as it should be without going overboard, and the onions ever so lightly steamed to just barely mute the harsh edge without killing the raw flavor. Some dislike the fact that the bun gets a little smooshed in delivery, but I can't say that bothers me. It's moist and steamy and hot and far more enjoyable than many other buns I've encountered.

Dominic Armato
What's more, the Superdawg has some fantastic supporting characters. The Superfries deserve just as much praise as the dog, fresh crinkle-cut potatoes that are crispy and brown on the outside, soft and potatoey on the inside, and perfectly pleasing in every way. As mentioned, I'm also a big fan of the onion chips. It's true, they're essentially a slight twist on onion rings, but it's a twist that works. They're battered and fried, hot and crispy with big chunks of onion in the middle. The chip form means that the batter to onion ratio is a little higher than it would be with your average ring. I'd ordinarily consider this a downside, but it just works for me here. While this may just be a function of nostalgia, either way it's a great fried treat, and a great accompaniment to a superlative hot dog.

I'd like to think that even if I didn't have a lifetime of experience and the love of two generations guiding my feelings on the subject, I'd adore Superdawg just as much. The crowd in the lot on any summer evening indicates that I'm by no means alone. The place is chock full of character, and it's always refreshing to hit a spot where the character is the result of decades of love rather than a market study. But even with character and history aside, it's a fantastic dog. The bottom line is that while I frequently have a Chicago-style dog craving, a craving that I can satisfy at any number of stands citywide, the Chicago-style dog craving isn't the same as the Superdawg craving, which can only be satisfied in one place.


Thanks... I just drooled all over my new MacBook Pro. And it's only 8:30am.

We aim to please, even at the expense of consumer electronics.

Is this place even still around? Or did it get hit back in 2009 with a lot of other uniquely awesome restaurants? Be a shame, really...

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