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Turn Left At Chicago


“What is the best route to get from Atlanta to Southern California – more specific Rancho Santa Margarita?” a friend of mine once asked me.


“I like to leave Atlanta and go north straight to Chicago, eat a Chicago hot dog and then turn left,” I told him. “Just follow the afternoon sun and in about three days, you should be somewhere near So Cal.”


My friend just shook his head and laughed. “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of.”




I know that sounds stupid, but the last time my best friend Jimmy Ward and I went to visit his brother Donnie, who lives in Rancho Santa Margarita, that’s exactly what we did.


It was about 6 a.m. on a hot August Sunday morning in 2010 and Jimmy and I were crammed into my 2003 Ford Mustang, trunk filled with clothes and the back seat stuffed with two ice chests – one with water for survival on the desert roads, the other filled with cold Budweiser. The convertible top was down, as it would stay for the 6,000-mile journey which took us through America’s heartland and back (the Mustang is now just a few miles shy of 350,000 and still going strong). We were chomping at the bit to get on the road.


“Are you hungry Jimmy?” I asked him just before we left the ATL.


“Sure,” he said.  “I could eat something.”


“Have you ever had a Chicago hot dog?”


 “Naw,” he said. “I never have.”


“Would you like one?” I asked one last question.


“Yeah,” he said. “I think I’d like that.”




That’s all it took to get the car headed north to Chicago instead of west to Southern Cal. About 13 hours later, Jimmy and I were in some little Vienna Beef hotdog stand right next to Wrigley Field – home of baseball’s Chicago Cubs – eating one of the best Chicago hot dogs I have ever had, and watching the sun go down.


We ordered them “all the way” and Jimmy enjoyed his as much as I did mine.


I did some research on the origin of the Chicago hot dog and here is what I found out.


In 1893, two young immigrants from Vienna, Austria, brought their frankfurter recipe to the Chicago’s World Fair Colombian Exposition. Little did they know at the time they would not only start a taste sensation, but create what would become an American icon – the hot dog sandwich.




The classic Chicago dog is made from a pure beef frankfurter and served up on a steamed bun (preferable with poppy seeds), covered with yellow mustard, bright neon-green relish, chopped onion, tomato wedges, a kosher pickle spear, sport peppers and a dash of celery salt. It didn’t take long for the new sandwich to become a hit, not only in Chicago, but throughout the nation. Soon the entire country knew of Vienna – hence the popular name of Vienna Beef hot dog stands that can be found today all over the Chicagoland area.




After we finished our dogs – just for good measure – we piled on two Italian beef sandwiches with spicy peppers and dunked in the juice (after all, Jimmy and I don’t get to Chicago every day).


For anyone out there who has not had the good fortune to eat an Italian beef – or “Beef” as the locals call them – it is thinly-sliced roast beef piled high on a thick bun about 8 inches long. The hot peppers, a style of Chicago called Giardiniera, are usually a mix of collar flower florets, carrots, celery, onions and peppers in a spicy, thick, clear sauce of syrup-like consistency. Each hot dog joint has its own special hot pepper recipe. Dunking (or even double-dunking) in the juice is when you get the sandwich dunked into the liquid roast beef mix. The hard, dense Italian bread soaks up about a half cup of the elixir and the sandwich virtually falls apart by the time you can finish eating it. I personally believe it is the best sandwich made anywhere in America, just a notch ahead of a real Philly steak sandwich made in Philadelphia.


A couple of hours after we finished our meal, we got lost somewhere in Iowa and that was the first of 10 of the most fun-filled days I have ever had in my life. It is August again and the lure of the road is tugging at my heart strings.


“Hey Jimmy, you up for another California run?”