Jun 18, 2014

A commoner reviews University Dogs, Decatur, Ill.

I don’t know why, but it seems like it’s hard to find a really well-prepared Chicago-style hot dog outside of … well, Chicago. 

For a while, there was Fat Moe’s in Springfield, which did a passable job.  It sure had the look and feel of a Chicago dog and gyro joint.  But there’s something special about a perfectly char-grilled all-beef dog topped with all the right trimmings (keep the ketchup away, please!) that few places outside of the greater Chicago area seem to be able to perfect.  

So, you can imagine the slight trepidation and skepticism I had when my girlfriend suggested we go to University Dogs in Decatur, Ill.  With obvious hometown pride, she praised University Dogs as the real deal.  With other food options in the Millikin University area as a “Plan B” (including the recently blogged about Lock Stock & Barrel), I decided to give it a try. 

Ok, it doesn't look too much like your classic Chicago hot dog joint on the outside, if only because of its corner position in a small strip mall just off the busy block of Oakland Ave. which caters to the college crowd.  It may, in fact, suffer from looking too nice and clean.  But the neon Vienna Beef sign was definitely a positive sign of tastes to come. 

And once you step inside, you can tell the people who opened this place knew what they were doing.  For one thing, they have the look down – from the yellow and blue color scheme, the wall menu that greets you at the ordering station, the open grill to watch all the action, and very little seating (grab your order, chow down and go!)– a handful of booths and a stand-along rail are your only indoor options, although they have recently opened an outdoor patio area.    

In fact, a little research reveals they should, as the founders are Chicago natives who wanted thought the hot dog restaurant would be a huge hit among homesick Millikin students who were Chicago natives.  The late night weekend hours have also proved to be a big hit.

In addition to the dogs, you’ll find other Chicago staples such as the Maxwell Street Polish, bratwursts, Italian beef sandwiches and pizza puffs (but, surprisingly, no gyros).   I've already promised myself to try the Mike Ditka one-third pound Polish on my next trip.  And for those “downstaters” who just don’t get it, you can have your dog char-grilled or steamed.  But honestly, why you would prefer it steamed is beyond me, especially once you see and smell the grill masters at work.

The big question, of course, is whether University Dogs’ Chicago-style hot dog lives up to expectations once you get there.  I would answer with a resounding yes. 

The all-beef frank is char-grilled perfectly, giving you that definitive snap when you bite into it.  And the trimmings, from the sport peppers to the celery salt and neon green relish are all spot-on.  It’s simply a pleasure to bite into one and experience all of the taste sensations.

And for what it’s worth, the fries are pretty darn good, too.  The video on the University Dogs website shows you they slice the potatoes right there.  Fresh, of course, is best. 

Finally, my girlfriend, being the nonconformist that she is known to be, prefers to order Carolina slaw dog whenever she comes here.  You can see her cutting into it in the picture above.  I took a bit and have to admit it’s a great combination of flavors – the chili and slaw they use are quite tasty and complement each other very well. 

So, yes, I can definitely look forward to University Dogs satisfying my Chicago-style hot dog craving whenever one hits and I am unable to make it all the way to the Windy City.  Now, if only I can convince Hot Doug's to stay open past October -- or at least pay homage with one last visit.        

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