The big dogs

Oct 31, 2007 at 12:00 am

Barring construction delays or traffic jams it takes something like four hours to drive from downtown Detroit to Chicago, where you can tour world-class museums, shop the "Magnificent Mile," play at the Navy pier or munch on a famous Chicago-style hot dog. No time for touring, shopping, playing or the four-hour drive but still want one of those tasty dogs? No problem. It's only 20 minutes to Rochester Road just north of Maple for a Hippo's special.

But what makes a dog Chicago-style? Start with a steamed, all-beef, natural-casing wiener. Slide it into a poppy seed bun and then "drag it through the garden" by topping it with mustard, onion, outrageously green sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices, sport peppers and a dash of celery salt. It's a triple-napkin dog. A little extra cleanup is a small price to pay for the incredible fusion of flavors and textures that was invented across the lake sometime in the late 19th century. But Chicago-style isn't the only dog in the house.

There are loads of choices between a bun. The slaw dog comes heaped with coleslaw and mustard. Sauerkraut and relish top a New York dog. Local cultural sensitivity is evident with the inclusion of the coney dog. Big stomachs will crave an "Ultimate Dog." That's a quarter-pound hot dog complete with Chicago-style toppings, sauerkraut and giardineira (hot, marinated vegetables) all smothered under double chili. You might want to bring help for that one.

Or try a "Great Scot Hippo" — it's double-sized. A local 3-year-old recently ate two of them in a sitting. His photo is pinned up near the entrance along with names of other "big eaters." Hippo's does have a typical children's meal for three bucks if your little one has less of an appetite. It consists of a plain hot dog, small fries and a soda.

On the inside, Hippo's is relatively sparse. Seating consists of a counter that runs along two sides of the building beneath large windows. Walls are adorned with accolades, signed photos of local news celebrities and nods to the Windy City. Bright yellow is the color scheme. During the busy weekday lunch hour, it's not uncommon to see metalworkers rubbing elbows with executives. The cheerful staff seems always ready with a greeting, and there's a stack of newspapers near the door if you like to read a bit as you lean into your lunch.

In addition to the diverse list of dogs you can chomp a char-broiled Polish Hippo, Cajun sausage, Italian sausage, bratwurst, a Maxwell Street Polish sausage covered with grilled onions or a Chicago Avenue Polish sausage complete with sauerkraut and a pickle. Hippo's has an entire library of tube steaks, most of which cost less than four bucks. They pride themselves on being able to offer the classic Hippo dog for $1.93. Not turned on yet?

Then aim for another Chicago classic: The Italian beef sandwich. Sliced top round beef comes packed into chewy Gonnella bread, topped with sautéed green peppers, grilled onions and your choice of marinara or the more traditional Italian gravy. Ordering the combo adds an Italian sausage to this already crowded sandwich and requires even more napkins than a Hippo dog. The Roma Italian meatball sandwich is another choice, if you actually needed more choices. If there's any room left consider finishing it all with a root beer float.

Besides the storefront dining, Hippo's does a brisk catering business with many items not found on their regular menu. A full-service hot dog party comes replete with a hot dog cart and umbrella. Last year, Hippo's was inducted into the Vienna Beef hot dog hall of fame. But it's truly the customers that have decided the worth of this place. Take a look online at the "Hippo dog log" for testimonials from patrons all over the country.

At Hippo's you're not going to find much health food. The menu fits on two sides of a letter-sized sheet of paper, the utensils are plastic, and during the incredibly busy lunch hour parking can be a pain. However the hot dogs are some of the best in metro Detroit and the Lukas family obviously cares about its products and community. It's no wonder this cozy brick stand has been around almost two decades now. If even a tiny fraction of the locally overabundant franchise fast food restaurants adopted this philosophy, the region would be a better place.

Open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Saturday. No smoking.

Todd Abrams is a freelance writer about food. Send comments to [email protected].