"What's this?" says Carla. "Where's my sauerkraut? Where's my chili? Where are my onions?"
She chews a bit more.
"What's tomato doing in it? I've never had tomato in a hot dog. And what's this green mess? It looks like radioactive fish eggs."
"Sweetheart. It's a Chicago dog is all."
Gosh. Just brought it home to her. I thought she'd love it. Instead, here she is, dissing the dog.
Me? Au contraire. I liked it. A lot. Well, one similar. Earlier today, I'd found this budding Little Chicago while heading north in the trolley from 12th and Imp. One stop up, I see a new corner eatery with a moby white-and-silver Harley glistening in the window.
I keep coming back to East Village. Something new's popping up every day. This one's at Park and Market, all glass and steel and cinder block. Kinda gritty. But then there's the sign: "Happy Hour 3:30--6:00." What can you do? I walk in the door. "Hi!" comes a chorus. Couple of babes behind the counter actually look eager to see me. "Soon to be World Famous," the menu says.
First up, I ask for a beer. Decent-size glass of domestic is $2.00. I get a Bud, grab a paper menu, and haul off to a table. Wow. The 12- by 18-inch photo stuck on the wall beside the flat-panel TV shows about a hundred skydivers free-falling in a neat, square pattern. Guys here skydive?
Hmm. Scanning the menu here. Hot dogs seems to be the medium, Chicago the message. "Sluggers proudly serves only the finest-quality Vienna Beef hot dogs and Polish sausages. Served Chicago-Style...topped with tomato wedges, a blast of mustard, kosher pickle, Vienna relish, diced onions, sport peppers, and a dash of celery salt." They're $3.25.
Plus it comes on a steamed poppy-seed bun.
"Can't get the buns here," says this guy on a ladder. He's fixing the wall menu. Turns out to be Peter, the owner. "We ship them in from Chicago."
"You anything to do with that crazy skydiving photo?" I ask.
"Absolutely. Over Quincy, Illinois. There were 81 of us. Can you imagine the logistics?"
Turns out Pete has 10,000 jumps to his credit. The guy ran two skydiving schools back east. There are other pix of him and his wife and sister-in-law jumping, bursting with those wind-filled grins. So why the switch from skydiving to Chicago dogs? "Ever since two cops took me to a Chicago-style hot dog stand in Las Vegas, I've had this thing about creating a genuine Chicago hot dog joint. When I heard about this place, right near the new ballpark, hey."
Pete says he's in full windup mode, preparing for "The Day."
"April 7. Home opener. Petco Park is two blocks away." His eye gleams.
Aha. That's why "Sluggers."
"So what's your most filling dog?" I ask.
"Italian Stallion," says Pete. I zip through the menu. "Italian Stallion: Charbroiled Italian sausage with our secret spicy natural gravy on a Gonella," it says -- $5.25.
It comes with a choice of peppers. "Sweet red, mild pepperoncini, or hot jardinière peppers." Gonella's a kind of hardy bun.
So, right, but first I check the rest of the hot dog patch. Comiskey Park Pole ($4.25) is a charbroiled "monster size" Polish sausage. Maxwell Street Madness ($4.95) is the Firepole butterflied out with fried onions in the split, and then there's a whole raft of steakburgers and "specialties." Pete says he actually sells more burgers than dogs. Maybe that's 'cause he only does half-pound and one-pound sizes. And he buys the meat fresh every day. Pretty good prices too. Basic Bullpen Burger is $4.50 half-pound, $7.95 one-pound. Shroomzburger is $5.95 and $10.75.
I'm feeling the draw of the Ted Williams Clam Roll. "The finest Ipswich clams," deep fried with tartar sauce, in a bun, $6.95. Babe Ruth Lobster Roll looks even better, but it's $8.95.
'Course I end up doing the Italian Stallion. Price talks. And quantity. Wanda writes down the order, stands on tiptoe, clips it to a wire, and scoots the order over to the kitchen, where Joe the cook's awaiting.
Kssst! Shshshk! Soon he's handing over the goods.
"No, no," says Pete. "More onions. Got to have lots of onions, Joe."
"He's new," he explains. "Everything's new."
Must say, with the beer, it works. Sausage is good and herby, and yep, there's per-lenty of onions. The spicy sauce soaks into the bun. The peppers add speckles of yellow and a bit of heat.
"That was my first Italian Stallion," says Joe. "How is it?"
Mouth's full. I shake my head up and down. The only problem is the sausage keeps falling through the bottom of the bun. One regret: I didn't order slips, the crunchy fried-potato slices you can get for $1.45.
Can't help noticing: is new, but it's already got a kind of neighborhood-pub thing going. Guys from the construction sites around here come in paint-spattered, order a brewski and Pizza Puffs ("a Chicago specialty, $2.95"), and stand or sit around chewing over the day. The girls, Wanda and Gloria, are bright with them all.
"So how come you guys are so nice?" I ask Gloria. I'm up ordering that Chicago dog for Carla. Electric-green Vienna relish and all.
"Well, Pete's created a real good feeling here," Gloria says. "So we really try. Besides, employee of the year gets to go skydiving with him. Right, Pete?"
Maybe I can talk them into taking Carla. She could never say I didn't have friends in high places again.