This article originally appeared in the North Texas e-News.
Frisco, Texas — For those who have never tried one, it can be both shocking and bewildering. There’s the green relish that seems to shine like neon offset with a jolt of bright yellow mustard. A dill pickle spear lances across one side while two tomato slices support the other. The softest bun you can imagine nestles the whole celery salt and onion topped creation. Oh, and there’s the snap. A distinctive hallmark bite to the natural casing of the meat that the famed Vienna Beef is known for.
That’s the Chicago-style hot dog. For some, it’s a mystery. For Rick Henry, the 58-year-old owner of Chicago Avenue HotDogs, it’s both a science and an art form.
“There’s no other fanfare food like it,” Henry said. “And until you try it, you don’t know what you don’t know.”
There’s a certain gleam in Henry’s eyes as he describes his Chicago-style dogs. Everything about his dogs has a purpose, from the buns and meat straight from the Windy City itself down to the placement of the pickle spear and stripe of yellow mustard. That attention to detail shines through as he makes the dogs, explaining the value that each ingredient provides to the overall eating experience as he carefully layers them together. There’s a clear sense of passion and pride that goes into the creation of the dogs and the way they capture the essence of the hot dogs Henry grew up with just outside of Chicago.
Those sentiments extend to the whole of Chicago Avenue HotDogs itself. Henry may describe the buns he uses as a “nice soft pillow,” but that same feeling could easily describe the experience a former Chicagoland resident like myself has when visiting the restaurant.
Everything from the décor to the menu is authentic to Chicago. Classics like Polish sausage and Italian beef dot the menu while sports banners and memorabilia from the city’s teams line the restaurant. There’s even an all-important Mike Ditka reference.
The food itself backs up that authenticity. Henry provided a sampling of some of the highlights from the menu. The Chicago-style hot dog had that promised snap with each topping balancing the other as harmoniously as one might expect coming from such a nuanced restaurant owner. The sausage, locally sourced and crafted to exactly match the size of the buns, had a rich and distinctive flavor. Henry delivered the Italian beef exactly to spec as well, the ends dipped just enough in the beef au jus to soak the bread to the ideal chewy texture.
With the food and décor on point, it’s probably no surprise then that Henry says his recently opened restaurant has been a hit with Chicago area transplants.
“I have to say, it seems there’s more Chicagoans that come in here to eat than local people, barely,” Henry said.
That’s not to say that a native North Texan couldn’t appreciate and enjoy all that Chicago Avenue HotDogs has to offer, even if there may be some initial confusion.
For example, Henry explained that a dipped Italian beef means just the ends go into the au jus, or gravy as it’s sometimes called, not the whole sandwich itself. Henry would call that fully dipped sandwich “wet” instead. Regardless, while some of the terminology may be different, good food is simply good food under any terms.
“I get local people that fall in love with the food, and to me I think that was such a big part of the mission,” Henry said.
That “mission” started primarily as a one-man operation, just Henry and an unused restaurant space. Construction on the restaurant began in June and July of last year with Henry doing a lot of the heavy lifting alone. From painting and hanging almost all of the decorations in the restaurant to securing a supply chain for the Chicago-imported ingredients, Vienna Beef for the hot dogs and most of the sausages and Turano Baking Co. for the buns, he did it all himself.
An enjoyment of cooking and a desire to create a space that reminded Henry of the area he moved from in 2005 drove the restaurant’s creation.
“I wanted some place that reminded me of home, so I thought it was a good time to think about putting together a hot dog stand,” Henry said. “And this turned out to be a little bit more than a hot dog stand.”
The menu is impressive in its scope despite Henry’s previously limited restaurant experience. Having recently worked in the medical space prior to the restaurant’s opening, his past restaurant experience came from having worked with hot dogs in the Chicago area decades earlier. Nonetheless, Henry has obviously worked hard on his craft given the quality of his current offerings and is continuing to do so as he expands the menu.
He recently added pizza to the menu, done in the official square-sliced Chicago tavern style, and plans on adding pasta soon as well. With both, he’s taken the same carefully calculated steps in creating them as he has with the rest of his menu.
“I had never really made pizza before but love the Chicago pizza, and specifically a couple of the stores that are up there,” Henry said. “So, I was able to work with one of the pizza places up there (Freddy’s Pizza in Cicero, Illinois) to actually get their recipe for the dough and the sauce.”
What followed were intensive efforts to ensure that the pizza-making process, from perfecting the proofing to hitting the right cooking temperatures, was up to par before the pizzas could officially crack the menu.
The intricacies of such a large and expanding menu, with several items likely unfamiliar to Texans no less, are clearly challenging for Henry and his staff. Nevertheless, with chicken sandwiches, burgers, tamales and desserts already on the menu along with the aforementioned Chicago standards, it’s safe to say that Chicago Avenue HotDogs offers something for just about everyone too.
The complexities of the menu and new restaurant ownership also haven’t prevented Henry from getting out there and meeting his customers either. He sounded happy to chat with customers in-between his cooking duties, some of whom are already regulars even though the restaurant opened just over a month ago on March 19.
“The community has just been so supportive and so awesome,” Henry said. “The customers have been just amazing.”
It’s another touch of hometown Chicago feel that sets this restaurant apart. Whether you’re a former Windy City native looking for a slice of home or a born-and-raised Texan wanting to see what genuine Chicago-style cooking is about, Chicago Avenue HotDogs is a must-stop destination.