How should a hot dog be? Juicy. Salty. Jumbo. Grilled and slashed open to show its tender, beef insides. And covered—ketchup, mustard, relish, sauerkraut, onions, pickles, you name it. I want a mouthful and I want to eat it fast. I want my taste buds to be smacked in the heart. That’s what I want.
This week—diet be damned—I had this experience. Twice. In the process, I discovered the best damn kosher hot dog I ever did have. In Chicago, no less, a town that knows a thing or two about franks.
On Monday, my uncle, a Southsider who moved to Chicago’s north ‘burbs in the late ‘60s, was craving a hot dog. It was his birthday after all, and he had just the place: The small BBQ restaurant next to—and run by—Shaevitz’s Kosher Market and Deli in Highland Park, Illinois. I expected standard albeit excellent kosher fare—a Hebrew National Beef Frank, perhaps, or even, if I was lucky, a hot dog from Romanian Kosher Sausage Company, a wiener Chicagoans rightfully swear by. We ordered the hot dog and got fries with.
The cashier—whom I would learn later more or less runs the hot dog operation there, from production to recipe—asked us what we wanted on it. The works, we told him.
Chicago takes hot dogs to an entirely new level, just like it does pizza. Their frankfurters are re(de)fined, honed variously over the years and popularized during the Depression. Here, along with the regular trio of toppings, Chicago-style hot dogs on a poppy seed bun classically come with a dill pickle spear, chopped white onion, neon green relish, tomato, sport peppers, and celery salt. They are, as they say, “dragged through the garden.”
The story of Shaevetz Kosher Market begins in 1910, when four brothers—Samuel, Mendell, Michel, and Shlamie—themselves sons of a butcher, opened up three shops on Chicago’s West Side. Forty years later, Samuel’s son, Label, who immigrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe when he was a boy, moved the butcher shop to Devon Avenue, on Chicago’s North Side, then an enclave for Jewish immigrants where a few kosher butchers still remain, serving the neighborhood’s dwindling Jewish community. Now, Shaevitz Kosher Market operates solely in Highland Park, an affluent north suburb of Chicago with a significant Jewish population. It’s run by Label’s son, Michael, and David Gilman, his son-in-law, who grew up on the South Side and joined the family business in the 1970s.
Gilman said Label first created the Shaevitz kosher hot dog in the ‘60s in his shop—the old-fashioned way: with a piston stuffer, a linker, and “a smoke oven that was on a rack and hung from a rail.” When they moved locations to Devon Ave., they modernized equipment and started to tweak the decades-old recipe.
The hot dog, said Gilman, is a mix of lean meat, or bull meat, that’s cured by salt and water. The protein is then extracted from the lean meat, which is then mixed with the fatty meat and seasoning, forming a “matrix bind.” Then, it’s emulsified, resembling, say, baby food, and made into links.
In addition to the production process, there are two important aspects of the Shaevitz hot dog. “It’s very hard to get kosher bull meat now,” said Gilman. “It’s very fancy meat.” (Hebrew National, Vienna—their hot dogs are on the other, much fatter end of the spectrum.)
They also use a special blend of seasoning that includes nutmeg, allspice, garlic, and pepper. “Just recently we made some minor changes to the hot dog seasoning that we think improved it,” he said. “Now we think we have absolutely a fantastic hot dog.”
At one point the shop wholesaled its kosher franks but it wasn’t a worthwhile venture. If you want one, you’ve got to come to Highland Park.
Hot dogs are not a refined food, if you will. It’s ballpark fare, the stuff you mix with beans in a pot, a long red meat pole. This is not meant to be insulting by any means. A hot dog doesn’t have to be classy; it’s innately cool, American, delicious. In fact, a good kosher hot dog in a bun with whatever fixins you like is perhaps the ultimate Jewish American fast food: It’s the smell of childhood, the food of memory, a cheap way to comfortably stuff your gut, a way to remember where you come from.
Shaevitz, who died in 2014 at the age of 91, worked until he was 90. “He used to come every day,” said Gilman. “He was a master craftsmen butcher, like a bulvan. Not many of them around anymore.”
On an oval plate, the Shaevitz kosher hot dog arrived. It was thick, thick as hell, scarred beautifully by a knife into three meaty knuckles, and covered with the good stuff. I started with the fries, because that’s what you do, then bit into the hamburger my uncle and I agreed to halve. It was not very good. Then I bit into the quarter-pound hot dog, chewed, and bit it again.
With every bite the soft bun loosened its grip, releasing the juices of the frankfurter—and those salty, sour accoutrement—into my mouth. I was in heaven. At a ballgame. With family I knew and loved and never knew.
My uncle and I caught eyes and he laughed. “Is that good or what?” he said.
You’re tellin’ me.
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.