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The line outside of Hot Doug’s
Next I tried my luck at Great Lake, a.k.a. Chicago’s most notorious line. Last year, when GQ named the Andersonville pizzeria’s mortadella pie the best pizza in America, hype-fueled bloggers were so put off by the long waits that they took out their frustrations on the pizza—and its meticulous maker, Nick Lessins. Not that Lessins helped matters. Last summer I saw him spend an eternity situating basil strips on a pizza, then slam the beautiful creation on a testy customer’s table and return to the kitchen, where he could be alone with his basil. Here was a man who seemed to love pizza and hate people.
As expected, when I arrived on a Thursday night, the brick-lined room was full of people killing time while Lessins did his thing behind the counter. The mood at the little pizzeria, though, had mellowed: no angry customers or pizza slamming. At one point, Lessins actually smiled. “Oh, some customers are still grumpy,” said Lydia Esparza, Lessins’s wife and partner. “They always will be. But we mostly just have our regulars now.”
My wait was only 35 minutes—long enough to see Lessins molest the basil four times. And the pizza was a beauty, full of crispy black pockets and sporting a puffy collar embedded with sea salt. I marveled at the crisp exterior and pliable interior, and I loved the aggressive combination of toppings (spicy homemade chorizo, aged mona cheese, purple and white onions, fresh cream). Lessins brilliantly takes the good elements of a classic Naples pie and goes in more exciting directions because he’s not beholden to all those dreary Neapolitan standards. Nor is he beholden to his customers—in fact, he almost seems to like them these days.
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In the end, though, only one person could offer me enlightenment. Upon my arrival at Hot Doug’s—high noon, duck-fat Friday—I counted 50 souls outside Doug Sohn’s beloved Avondale hot dog joint. The goofy cross section included a hipster in a hoodie that said TASTY SALTED PIG PARTS and an old lady with a walker. “We’re screwed,” one guy groaned to his buddy when he saw the crowd. Then they got in line. People sang, asked trivia questions, snapped pictures. Their only anxiety was: Should I order two dogs or three?
“The majority who get to the front of the line are happy,” says Sohn. “If someone is angry, my first response is: I didn’t send you a summons.” When I finally reached the cash register and met Sohn, it was like having an audience with the pope: a lovable, sausage-obsessed pope. I went for the Sauternes-and-foie-gras-enhanced duck sausage with foie gras mousse and truffle aïoli (obscenely decadent), garlic-doused pork sausage with chili-garlic mustard and horseradish Cheddar (spicy, snappy, and wonderful), and duck-fat fries (available Fridays and Saturdays and only slightly better than normal fries).
Then I posed the question I had climbed the mountain to ask: Is all this waiting-in-line business worth it? “That’s entirely up to the person in line,” Sohn said. “But as someone who goes out of his way to avoid lines, my idea of a good restaurant is an open table and a liquor license.” Wise man, that Doug. Though hardly helpful, considering his restaurant—where I had just waited in line for an hour—has neither.
BIG STAR 1531 N. Damen Ave.; 773-235-4039 HOURS Lunch, dinner daily FYI Cash-only policy hurts; ATM in corner helps.
DMK BURGER BAR 2954 N. Sheffield Ave.; 773-360-8686 HOURS Lunch, dinner Tuesday to Sunday FYI Don’t overlook the impressive beer list with its amusing tasting notes.
GREAT LAKE 1477 W. Balmoral Ave.; 773-334-9270 HOURS Dinner Wednesday to Saturday FYI Ice creams by HotChocolate’s Mindy Segal take the place to the next level.
HOT DOUG’S 3324 N. California Ave.; 773-279-9550 HOURS Lunch Monday to Saturday FYI Your food will arrive within five to eight minutes of ordering—and you won’t be rushed from your table.
XOCO 449 N. Clark St.; 312-334-3688 HOURS Breakfast, lunch, and dinner Tuesday to Saturday FYI Repeat this mantra while waiting: Rick Bayless is making my sandwich. (Unless he’s not, in which case you’re on your own.)
Photography: Anna Knott