Char dogs: the most underrated of Chicago hot dogs?

Chicago’s famed hot dogs have a few variations, but this kind isn’t discussed as often.

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chicago style hot dogs
Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post (Getty Images)

Oh, the famous Chicago-style hot dog. A properly prepared dog is a beautiful sight to behold, with lots of flavor, plenty of color... basically, a garden-topped tube steak. We love our hot dogs so much that we’ve got wiener stands in our local Home Depot locations (and I can attest to the fact they’re great). And while there are many Chicago dog variations, there’s one particular version that probably doesn’t get enough attention: the Chicago-style char dog.

Char dogs are pretty much what they sound like, which is to say, they’re grilled until they’ve got some dark color and crispness on the exterior. Normally we steam our hot dogs, but if you’re into backyard-barbecue-style hot dogs, char dogs are definitely your jam. Block Club Chicago did a great historical dive into this style of hot dog in Chicago, and it features hot dog historian Bruce Kraig, who traces out the origin of the char dog. Kraig believes that char dogs gained prominence during the late ’40s and early ’50s, when backyard grilling rose in popularity. The restaurant industry also adopted the use of charcoal around then, as it was an affordable and efficient style of cooking. Eventually, hot dog stands expanded their menu to include char-grilled burgers, and char-grilling became a Chicago restaurant staple.

The Block Club article also features none other than regular Takeout contributor John Carruthers, who we all know for his at-home pizza prowess. Carruthers is a fan of Fatso’s Last Stand, a stand known for its char dogs. Specifically, Fatso’s is renowned for the signature cross-cut on the end of its hot dogs, which flare out the meat as the hot dogs sizzle up on the grill. That special cut gives you extra surface area to get some extra crunch on each end. “You’ve got to cut it with the cross at the ends,” Carruthers told Block Club. “Don’t stick it with a fork. Don’t slash it. Cut the ends and you’ll retain the best amount of juices and get a nice little bite on the end.”

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Not everyone loves a char dog, though. In fact, Kraig himself is not a fan. “I would never char a good Vienna Chicago hot dog, or any other upscale hot dog, because I think it ruins the flavor,” he says. To his mind, in the case of good quality meat, steaming is the way to go.

Carruthers totally understands this. “I think it’s understandable if people don’t like char dogs because we’ve all been to that barbecue where some poor, overworked dad just lets them sit on the grill for way too long and they explode,” he says. “I mean, a bad char dog is like eating an incredibly tough racketball.”

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Personally, I like both steamed and charred dogs, and I think there’s a time and place for each. I usually veer toward steamed, but the char adds a satisfying and complex flavor, along with a crisp snappy texture that you can’t get from steaming. Next time you’re at a hot dog stand that offers char dogs, give ’em a go—but don’t forget to read through the Block Club piece first.