An authentic Chicago dog, hold the ketchup

Ben Gregory
Photo by Susan France

The finer points of the Chicago-style hot dog have always been a bit cryptic for me. A few layover meals of sausage in a bun at O’Hare did little to deepen my understanding of this Windy City nosh. Unsurprisingly, I was happy to have friend and Windy City native Paul accompany me to Boulder’s Mustard’s Last Stand to help me demystify this classic American eat.

As we entered the environs of this minimalist hot dog stand, Paul laid out a few ground rules. Putting ketchup on a dog is verboten. Sauerkraut’s optional, and not all Chicago operations offer it. There’s only one brand of dog that’s considered the real deal, and that’s Vienna Beef.

He noted that the menu at Mustard’s closely tracks that of a Midwestern joint, with hot dogs taking the spotlight, aided and abetted by Italian beef sandwiches, burgers and fries. My friend said you likely wouldn’t see items like Mustard’s tofu Reuben or soy veggie dogs.

I’ve never tried an Italian beef sandwich, so I thought I’d give a $4.85 small one a shot. Resembling a French dip sandwich, this hearty hoagie consists of slow-cooked beef dressed with “gravy,” a brothy au jus sauce. The addition of green and hot peppers, grilled onions and giardinera pickled vegetables contributed crunch and a whisper of heat.

Without these toppings, I suspect the Italian beef would otherwise be a little blah with respect to flavor. Paul deemed this sandwich “really good” and thought the thinner-than-usual slices of beef made for an improvement over most Chicago versions.

While my dining companion thought the thin fries ($2.80 for a large portion) were overcooked, my feeling was they had the perfect measure of crispness. Mustard’s has also been one of my favorite spots in town for simple, straightforward fried potatoes. Bits of spud skin added flavor, although my friend noted most wouldn’t have this touch.

Paul’s initial reaction to his $5.59 double dog was that it was too light on the classic green pickle relish and a little heavy on the mustard. But he was buoyed by the fact that additional relish and celery salt were available at the counter, and that Mustard’s had nailed the aroma. He said, “It smells authentic.”

A steamed poppyseed bun is another component of the Real McCoy, and Mustard’s didn’t disappoint on this score. Mustard’s Vienna dogs have a natural casing — it’s probably only a matter of time before some pretentious foodie renames them “American Haggis” — which gave each bite a pleasantly distinctive pop. Overcooking can plague dogs left lying around too long, but this meat was perfectly prepared. The meatiness of the sausage was nicely offset by the tart heat of pickled sport peppers.

As we wrapped up, Paul gestured to what was left of his meal and pointed out, “The hot dog could be on Chicago’s city shield.” He explained this was the fare he grew up on with his buddies, and that it figured prominently in most Chicagoans’ culinary lives. Most important, the best places vary little with respect to using tried and true bun and sausage brands as well as traditional condiments. In this case, Paul said, “Different is not better.” Certainly Mustard’s adheres to the hot dog code, and my friend paid this Midwestern-inspired joint a high compliment, saying, “It’s authentic.”

Mustard’s Last Stand is located at 1719 Broadway in Boulder. Call 303-444-5841.