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Chicago Not Dogs, not for purists

This vegan shop is for “beaf” eaters; beef eaters should look elsewhere

All the traditional toppings of a Chicago-style hot dog, but made with a vegan frankfurter
All the traditional toppings of a Chicago-style hot dog, but made with a vegan frankfurter

Plant-based eateries aren’t as tough a sell as they used to be in San Diego, but they’re still part of the volatile restaurant business, so even some of the good ones close before their time. If there’s a silver lining in recent times, it’s that once a physical restaurant location has gone vegan, there’s a good likelihood another vegan entrepreneur will step in to take it over. So it was in North Park after Anthem Vegan closed a couple years back, ultimately to be replaced by The Village. And so it was this summer, when the former 30th Street site of The Modern Vegan became home to a newish farmers market concept: Chicago Not Dogs.

Place

Chicago Not Dogs

4332 30th St., San Diego

As its kinda clever name suggests, this is a plant-based spot devoted to Chicago food traditions, which as an idea is kind of genius. After all, most Chicago food traditions tend to revolve around meat and dairy, almost as though an entire city cuisine were designed explicitly to exclude vegans.

Obviously, the first point of order here is the veganized Chicago hot dog. True Chicago dogs are always built upon all-beef franks, of course, but what actually makes them Chicago-style hot dogs are the toppings. And as meat-centric as Windy City food tends to be, there are actually more vegetables on a Chicago dog than any other frankfurter tradition. Along with mustard and relish, the classic set of toppings includes chopped white onions, tomato slices, pickled peppers, a dill pickle spear, and the signature dash of celery salt.

A small, vegan counter shop operating in part of the former Modern Vegan space

As one might expect, the native Chicagoans behind this concept wholly embrace the breadth of vegetables, employing thick tomato wedges and a hefty pickle spear. They’ve also diligently sources items from back home, including those pickle spears, the pickled sports peppers, giardiniera (a spicy relish of pickled, chopped vegetables), and the traditional poppy seed hot dog buns.

I only wish they’d sourced a better plant-based hot dog. This one starts strong, with a dead-on hot dog-like bite. But each bite winds up taking a bit more chewing than the real thing, and the more you chew, the more clear it becomes there’s not a lot of hot dog flavor to go with it. On its own, this vegan frank winds up being too bland to enjoy. With all the condiments and toppings, it holds up just enough to satisfy a dedicated herbivore. For the rest of us, a chili dog option will hold up better.

The Italian "beaf" sandwich could convince a vegan to go back to eating meat.

I can’t be as supportive of the Italian beaf — and no, that’s not a typo. The Italian beef sandwich sits above hot dogs on the pantheon of classic Chicago foods, just below deep dish pizzas, and were I ever to forsake meat altogether, it’s the Chicago mainstay I would miss the most. So I was particularly intrigued by the seitan-based menu item dubbed “Italian beaf sandwich.” I was even able to get it topped with that straight-from the-midwest giardiniera.

Italian beef is typically a dipped sandwich, and while I had braced myself to dip the thing in something like a mushroom broth, rather than the usual beef stock, it wasn’t served that way; but rather with a cursory dunk at best to wet the sandwich. More importantly, though it may sort of look the part, the thinly sliced seitan “beaf” tastes nothing like beef. It tastes like wheat gluten (which it is), and simply cannot hold up a sandwich concept roughly 100-percent predicated on the winning flavor of beef and beef fat. Were I vegan, this sandwich would only make me miss meat all the more.

Chicagoans tend to be a brash people, and if you’ve ever put ketchup on a hot dog in the presence of a Chicago native, you’ll know they’re fiercely protective of Windy City culinary traditions, and have no trouble telling you that ketchup on a hot dog amounts to heresy. So I’ll say this much: are you the sort of Chicago meat-eater who leaps at any opportunity to point out how a specific meal may not be Chicago enough? Then skip this one, and head to Lefty’s down the street instead.

Plenty of plant-based restaurants have dishes stellar enough to turn the most ardent carnivore. But Chicago Not Dogs is for the vegans and the vegans alone.

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All the traditional toppings of a Chicago-style hot dog, but made with a vegan frankfurter
All the traditional toppings of a Chicago-style hot dog, but made with a vegan frankfurter

Plant-based eateries aren’t as tough a sell as they used to be in San Diego, but they’re still part of the volatile restaurant business, so even some of the good ones close before their time. If there’s a silver lining in recent times, it’s that once a physical restaurant location has gone vegan, there’s a good likelihood another vegan entrepreneur will step in to take it over. So it was in North Park after Anthem Vegan closed a couple years back, ultimately to be replaced by The Village. And so it was this summer, when the former 30th Street site of The Modern Vegan became home to a newish farmers market concept: Chicago Not Dogs.

Place

Chicago Not Dogs

4332 30th St., San Diego

As its kinda clever name suggests, this is a plant-based spot devoted to Chicago food traditions, which as an idea is kind of genius. After all, most Chicago food traditions tend to revolve around meat and dairy, almost as though an entire city cuisine were designed explicitly to exclude vegans.

Obviously, the first point of order here is the veganized Chicago hot dog. True Chicago dogs are always built upon all-beef franks, of course, but what actually makes them Chicago-style hot dogs are the toppings. And as meat-centric as Windy City food tends to be, there are actually more vegetables on a Chicago dog than any other frankfurter tradition. Along with mustard and relish, the classic set of toppings includes chopped white onions, tomato slices, pickled peppers, a dill pickle spear, and the signature dash of celery salt.

A small, vegan counter shop operating in part of the former Modern Vegan space

As one might expect, the native Chicagoans behind this concept wholly embrace the breadth of vegetables, employing thick tomato wedges and a hefty pickle spear. They’ve also diligently sources items from back home, including those pickle spears, the pickled sports peppers, giardiniera (a spicy relish of pickled, chopped vegetables), and the traditional poppy seed hot dog buns.

I only wish they’d sourced a better plant-based hot dog. This one starts strong, with a dead-on hot dog-like bite. But each bite winds up taking a bit more chewing than the real thing, and the more you chew, the more clear it becomes there’s not a lot of hot dog flavor to go with it. On its own, this vegan frank winds up being too bland to enjoy. With all the condiments and toppings, it holds up just enough to satisfy a dedicated herbivore. For the rest of us, a chili dog option will hold up better.

The Italian "beaf" sandwich could convince a vegan to go back to eating meat.

I can’t be as supportive of the Italian beaf — and no, that’s not a typo. The Italian beef sandwich sits above hot dogs on the pantheon of classic Chicago foods, just below deep dish pizzas, and were I ever to forsake meat altogether, it’s the Chicago mainstay I would miss the most. So I was particularly intrigued by the seitan-based menu item dubbed “Italian beaf sandwich.” I was even able to get it topped with that straight-from the-midwest giardiniera.

Italian beef is typically a dipped sandwich, and while I had braced myself to dip the thing in something like a mushroom broth, rather than the usual beef stock, it wasn’t served that way; but rather with a cursory dunk at best to wet the sandwich. More importantly, though it may sort of look the part, the thinly sliced seitan “beaf” tastes nothing like beef. It tastes like wheat gluten (which it is), and simply cannot hold up a sandwich concept roughly 100-percent predicated on the winning flavor of beef and beef fat. Were I vegan, this sandwich would only make me miss meat all the more.

Chicagoans tend to be a brash people, and if you’ve ever put ketchup on a hot dog in the presence of a Chicago native, you’ll know they’re fiercely protective of Windy City culinary traditions, and have no trouble telling you that ketchup on a hot dog amounts to heresy. So I’ll say this much: are you the sort of Chicago meat-eater who leaps at any opportunity to point out how a specific meal may not be Chicago enough? Then skip this one, and head to Lefty’s down the street instead.

Plenty of plant-based restaurants have dishes stellar enough to turn the most ardent carnivore. But Chicago Not Dogs is for the vegans and the vegans alone.

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