Meet the Maxwell Street Polish, the unsung hero of Chicago’s hot dog stands

Aren’t these a beauty?
Aren’t these a beauty?
Photo: Dennis Lee

At this point, you’re used to us going off on how much we love Italian beef, Chicago-style hot dogs, and deep dish (when we’re in the mood for a lot of cheese at once). That’s the big trio we rattle off when it comes to Chicago’s most famous foods. But we also love other, less talked-about dishes, like pizza puffs, rib tips, sweet steaks, and gym shoe sandwiches (yes, they’re really called that), all subjects that we’ll tackle on a different day.

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Today we’re talking about the Maxwell Street Polish, sometimes referred to simply as a Polish or a Maxwell. You’ll usually find it at hot dog stands, nestled in the same section of the menu as the hot dogs. It’s one of those things I don’t think people talk about here too much, because it’s an item that’s always around. We’re used to it. Maybe we even take it for granted. It’s not as popular as Italian beef or hot dogs, but lately, it’s one of the things I crave the most when I want a quick bite.

Jim’s Original is widely considered the originator of the Maxwell Street Polish. Jim’s is a popular hot dog stand, which started on—you guessed it—Maxwell Street in Little Italy in 1939. In 2005, Jim’s moved to its current location on Union just a half block away. The hot dog stand is also known for its bone-in pork chop sandwich (be careful!) and is open 24 hours a day. Our sister site, The A.V. Club, visited in 2015, as seen in the video above.

Since grilling season is coming up, I think now’s the perfect time to cook your own Polish, especially if you’ve never given them a shot or if you can’t come have one with me in Chicago. It’s one of the easiest Chicago street foods you can recreate at home, as it only has three main components: Polish sausage, yellow mustard, and grilled onions.

Most store-bought kielbasa works perfectly.
Most store-bought kielbasa works perfectly.
Photo: Dennis Lee

What makes a Maxwell Street Polish great is the fact that it uses a smoked and highly flavorful kielbasa as its main ingredient. Ideally, you want one with a casing that has a big snap. The main supermarket brands in Chicago for this type of kielbasa are Vienna Beef and Bobak’s, which usually lurk in the refrigerator aisle next to the hot dogs. But if you can’t find these, no worries: any similar smoked, bun-length Polish sausage will do. If the only sausages you can find are too long for a hot dog bun, just trim them down to the length of a bun, and you’re good to go.

There’s no specific cooking method, so choose what you like. Grill, pan-fry, air-fry, steam, microwave, blast with a laser, you pick. Just as long as it’s nice and hot and crisp on the outside.

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Golden onions
Golden onions
Photo: Dennis Lee

You’ll want lots of grilled onions, since, aside from the mustard, they’re the main topping. I like mine sautéed in a pan long enough so that they become sweet and soft, just past golden brown but not quite caramelized. This is my own personal preference; hot dog stands around Chicago sell them at varying degrees of doneness.

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These are optional
These are optional
Photo: Dennis Lee

Sport peppers are one of the cappers on a Chicago-style hot dog, but in the case of a Maxwell Street Polish, you’ll usually be asked if you want them on or off. It just depends on if you’re in the mood for spicy or not. These can be pretty hard to find outside of Chicago, so don’t worry if you can’t find them (I personally prefer my Polishes without them). But if you’re looking for something similar, pickled serrano peppers are close in terms of shape and heat.

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Look at that glorious Polish
Look at that glorious Polish
Photo: Dennis Lee

Some places serve their Polishes on a poppy seed bun; Jim’s doesn’t. Personally, I’m fine with not discovering poppy seeds on the kitchen table and floor months later, and I’ll reserve those buns for Chicago-style hot dogs instead. Squeeze on plenty of bright yellow mustard, pile on the onions, and welcome to Chicago.

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Maxwell Street Polish

  • 1 large white or yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 1 Tbsp. vegetable or canola oil
  • Salt
  • 4 bun-length smoked Polish sausages
  • 4 hot dog buns
  • Yellow mustard
  • Sport peppers (optional)

In a large pan over medium heat, sauté onions with a pinch of salt until they’re slightly past golden brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.

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Grill, pan-fry, or steam Polish sausages as desired until heated all the way through. Place into buns, top with generous amounts of yellow mustard, sautéed onions, and sport peppers, if desired. Enjoy while complaining loudly about the Chicago Bears, the Chicago White Sox, the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago Bulls, the Chicago Blackhawks, or a combination of any of the above.

Staff writer at The Takeout. Also: Saveur Humor Blog Award Winner, professional pizza maker, and insufferable troublemaker.

DISCUSSION

manicotti
Manic Otti

I bought those Marconi sport peppers a few times to make Chicago dogs but have found that sliced pepperoncinis or jalapenos are a lot less trouble and mix in with the other ingredients better anyway.