By Christine Badger
Back in the nineties, Doug Sohn and three of his friends went seeking the truth. A truth that many of us have pondered—what makes a good hot dog? Over the span of two years, Doug and his cohorts ventured to a little over forty hot dog places. “It became very self-involved,” Sohn says. “You know, we’d grade it and write a little review and it was funny to us, referencing other places, referencing what happened at lunch and so forth.” Out of this wiener madness, a light bulb went off in Doug’s head. He knew what worked. He knew what didn’t. Bing! Why not open his own place? Thus begot Hot Doug’s, his two-year-old gourmet hot dog stand.
Nestled in the Roscoe Village neighborhood, Sohn’s shop appears small and unassuming. But when you enter his world. the yellow-, red- and blue-painted walls strike you. The pictures of Elvis—young Elvis mainly, Britney Spears, Madonna, Cubs memorabilia, and the Morrocan tiled tabletops reel you in. There’s a fun, almost carnival feel to the place, like you’ve just entered summer. Toss the ball and you win a prize.
The barely 40-year-old Sohn wasn’t wet behind the ears when he fashioned the idea. Immediately after graduating from Kendall College’s Culinary School in 1993, he worked in restaurants, did some catering and corporate dining gigs, and edited for a cookbook publisher. “I never had any intention of owning a restaurant, ever,” he says. But after his wild wiener escapade he wondered whether he should take the next step and try it out while he still could. “It’s an extremely physical venture, running a restaurant. And, you know, the older you get the harder it’s going to be. It’s like, I’ll take a shot at it now.”
Why would a gourmet chef choose to open up a place that serves solely the baseball snack that our city famously styles? If you think Hot Doug’s is just wieners, guess again. As his theme song proclaims, “I love the feel. I love the taste. I love the meats that are encased.” Doug has put a twist on the traditional wiener stand, bringing in game sausage from international distributors. He’s had everything from alligator, ostrich, rabbit, pheasant, rattlesnake and blood sausage on his menu and for the vegetarians, a Veggie Dog. And he is quick to give credit where credit is due. “I know how to do it [make sausage], but it’s an art. And it’s something that people have been doing longer than I’ve been alive, who are better at it than I am.”
From looking at the menu, Sohn’s interests are more than just encased meats. With references ranging from baseball (The Rick Reuschel) to movies (The Luca Brasi), to the more obscure news personalities (The Jackie Bange and Mash), to music (The Howard DeVoto for you Buzzcock fans), patrons can get a glimpse into his sense of humor, his love of baseball and particularly his love of music.
Still listening to The Clash, the Ramones, the Buzzcocks, and supporting local indie bands, his link can be found on several indie-rock sites. “You know, I’ll put a poster up in the window. I play their CDs. I mean, to me it’s also part of being in the neighborhood and keeping the just real nice local feel as well. The local businesses have been so supportive of me, I’m just trying to do the same.”