If Dorothy Parker, the irreverent wit of the Algonquin round table, and Elvis Costello, the British rocker, conceived a love child, Doug Sohn would be their offspring. Sohn, the owner of Hot Doug’s restaurant in Chicago, wears thick black square frame glasses and peppers everything he does with a tiny bit of his Ginzu sharp wit. When I asked him to reveal something intimate, he said, “I don’t like to wear pants, I mean if it weren’t mandated….I just don’t care for them.” Convention is not Sohn’s game.
After a stint in desktop publishing, Sohn attended culinary school at Kendall college in Evanston. Classically trained, many Kendall alumni find their way on to lines in fine dining establishments, and some, like Shawn McClain (Green Zebra, Spring, and Custom House) build restaurant empires.
After culinary school, Sohn worked the line for a corporate restaurant and catering operation, and then after a year, he got a job as a cookbook editor for Publications International. One day, one of his co-workers, Paul Kelly came back from lunch and announced that he had had a bad hot dog. After some debate on how one prepares a bad hot dog, Doug and three of his coworkers started a hot dog pilgrimage to find out.
For two years, this group went out, ordered char-dogs, fries, and sodas, and wrote up reviews of their experience. The reviews grew from a few sentences to whole pages. After eating hot dogs at over 40 different places, Sohn started to identify the elements of a good hot dog, and thought he might be able to do better.
There’s a hot dog stand on every corner of Chicago, and opening another is like trying to sell matches in hell. On the other hand, it was probably the punk rock thing to do. Sohn, who is a devoted fan of punk pioneers like the Dead Kennedys and Buzzcocks, ignored his own wisdom in opening Chicago’s first “Sausage Superstore.”
“I never had any intention of opening my own restaurant.” After Hot Doug’s opened in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood, Paul Kelly, the guy who had the bad hot dog, reminded Sohn of his own advice when Kelly wanted to open a BBQ restaurant, “Never, ever, ever, ever open your own restaurant.”
Sohn’s secret was making a minimal investment, putting away a year’s salary, and even employing a deep fryer from Target to make the early batches of his famed Duck Fat fries.
Sohn’s inspiration came from the Duck fat fries at La Tupina restaurant in Bordeaux, where they deep fry handcut potatoes in a wood fired cauldron of duck fat, and then season them with rock salt, thyme, and pepper. Sohn made the duck fat fries more out of novelty and personal taste, rather than as a culinary statement. The first batches took 45 minutes in the Target fryer, but customers were undeterred, and today, on Friday and Saturday, Doug bubbles up forty pounds of duck fat in a commercial fryer, pumping out order after order of the confited potato gems.
Sohn also named his sausages after celebrities like Madonna, Raquel Welch, Rick Reuschel, and Buzzcocks front men Howard Devoto, and Steve Diggle. The Steve Diggle earned a small write-up in the British music magazine, Mojo, and Diggle himself emailed Hot Doug saying, “’I’ve always wanted to eat my own sausage.”
Sohn revisited his culinary training, experimenting, testing, and whipping up fancy condiments like truffle mustard and Thai chili sauce. These sauces accompanied the weekly game sausages which could be anything from rattlesnake to cognac infused pheasant.
Doug now works with a sausage maker in the Randolph street corrider to make the corned beef, gyro, and rib eye sausages. The rest of the sausages hail from France, Colorado, Wisconsin, and he gets a Portuguese linguica from New Hampshire. Sohn says, “With Fed Ex and dry ice, you can get anything from anywhere.’
Early in 2004, after gaining some notoriety, the original Hot Doug’s burned down. Typical of a student of punk rock, Sohn said, “It was great, it was done. It had achieved sort of a cult status thing, and then was gone. How perfect was that?”
Fortunately, Hot Doug’s had become less of a cult icon, and more of a pop sensation, ala one of his aptly named hot dogs, the Britney Spears. One day, Sohn was driving down Southport with the car windows open and “There was this disembodied voice saying, when are you opening? I was like, I don’t even know where that came from, and then I figured, I guess I gotta do this.”
When he reopened in the Avondale neighborhood at 3324 N. California, the lines were out the door. It was like a record store Ticketmaster line for Pearl Jam tickets in 1994. If you go on any Friday or Saturday for lunch, this is still the norm. Now, Hot Doug’s goes through almost a thousand of the basic Chicago dogs in a week.
Don’t let the wit, the pop culture leanings, and general playfulness fool you, Sohn is a man of principle and reason. He opened the hot dog stand, because most of places he reviewed while working as a cookbook editor were “B-/C+, and sort of mediocre.” Sohn says, “They all sell, gyros, pizza puffs, and chicken breast sandwiches, and the hot dogs, well the profit margins are so low, so they aren’t getting the best dogs, and the best condiments.”
There is no greater testament to his principle than Sohn’s love for the Chicago Cubs. He compares being a fan to following “the myth of Sysyphus”. Sohn came of age in the era when the Cubs were at their most hapless. He stuck by them, rooting for favorite players, Rick Reuschel and Shawon Dunston, and pouring over baseball cards and the box scores in the mid 70’s and early 80’s. Sohn predicts that in 2006, they will finish in 5th place, only “cause Pittsburgh’s that bad.” Today, Sohn even packs his own dogs when he makes the trip to Wrigley.
“I wrap them up in foil and throw ‘em in a bag. I am convinced that Wrigley cooks all the hot dogs for the year in February, and there’s a hot box under second base where they keep them, because it’s phenomenal how bad they are.”
When he eats out, Sohn looks for independent restaurants run by a chef with personality. He looks for the same quality he tries to provide at Hot Doug’s, “good raw product at a fair price.” While he does eat out at fine dining establishments, Sohn is more likely to be found eating a simple bagel with lox, or digging in to Kellogg’s Product 19 cereal on a Sunday morning.
When I asked him if he was on death row, what he’d eat for his last meal, Sohn first said, “A corned beef sandwhich on good fresh rye bread with a good brown mustard.” He quickly added, “a plate of the duck fat French fries, a plate of fried chicken from Gus’s in Mason Tennessee, and choucroute from Chez Yvonne in Strasbourg France.”
When he isn’t eating or rooting for the Cubs, Sohn loves listening to music. He says, “To me, the two great artistic achievements of the twentieth century are movies and the three minute pop song.”
Sohn loves music that other people make fun of. He loves “chick singers” and one hit wonders. He says he loves the new Kelly Clarkson song, “Since You’ve been gone”, saying “If you told your friend this is the new Kate Bush, they would think, oh this is great.” He says, “People mock the safety dance. It’s a great song. You know what, you go to a party right now, and you wanted to make the party fun and get it going, and you want to put on Safety Dance or Nirvana, you’re putting on Safety Dance.”
Sohn’s true loves are early eighties icons like Blondie, Elvis Costello, Steve Miller Band, and Devo. Sohn also maintains indie credibility and an ear for modern sounds, going to see bands like the New Pornographers and Hot Hot Heat, and grooving on the Killers, The Decemberists, and Fountains of Wayne. Of Fountains of Wayne he says, “I was thrilled when Stacy’s Mom became a hit. People say oh they sold out, but it’s like you know what, let them go, you know, eat out to dinner, it’s not like they’re all on (MTV’s) Cribs. Maybe they’d like to send their kids to college.”
Allan Richman, the James Beard award winning food writer, once wrote about how many chefs are failed or wannabe musicians. Sohn is no different. He says, “That’s actually my goal after retirement, the two things are to teach myself to play guitar and make salami.”
Sohn’s love of music feeds his philosophy and goals for the restaurant. “The great thing about the store is I can play my records all day. Whether it brings a smile to your face or makes your day a little bit better and it doesn’t hurt anyone else, I am all for it.” He adds, “To me I want to make your day a little bit better. Whether it’s like you know you’re coming up in line and I try to make you laugh, or to serve something good, to be playing the music, just something a little different to make that time that you’re in my restaurant a little bit different than the day to day crap that happens to everybody. So, music if it provides that little spark, or that little something, that’s a good thing.”
Hot Doug’s is open Monday-Saturday 10:30 A.M. – 4:00 P.M. and located at 3324 N. California in Chicago. Phone number is 773-279-9550.