(2016) Documentary (Random) Doug Sohn, Homaro Cantu, Steve Albini, Carlos Garcia, Barbara Tyksinski Benjamin Roman, Alex August, Steve Labedz, Michael Cantu, Brenda Maher, Octavio Garcia, Jose Luis Garduño, George Serveris, Alex Baez, Dan Sinker, Marco Roman, Michael Helminiak, Christian Garcia, April T. Directed by Christopher Markos
Ah, the humble hot dog. Not even apple pie is as conscientiously American in the world’s imagination. While there are those who see New York City with their ubiquitous pushcarts as the hot dog Mecca, in recent years most outside the New York area would agree that Chicago is the epicenter for hot dog heaven and the Chicago dog the gold standard for dogs.
Douglas Sohn was the proprietor of Hot Doug’s, a hot dog in Chicago that was known for its rabid following. The line to get in normally stretched down the block and rare was the day when the average wait to get in wasn’t two hours or more. What made those dogs so special that Chicagoans, who aren’t exactly lacking for places to get a fine hot dog, were willing to endure waits – often in terrible weather – for his?
Sohn recalled that he started his establishment because he wanted a place that used the finest ingredients for their hot dogs. Early on, they stuck to basic frankfurters but eventually Doug decided to get a little wild; first off was the Atomic Dog, laden with spices and peppers. He asked his sausage supplier George Serveris for more exotic sausages and he responded with encased meat (as sausage lovers prefer to call them) from wild boar, rabbit and eventually such off-the-wall items as escargot and foie gras.
No less an authority than the late Anthony Bourdain – best-selling author, classically trained chef, TV host, world traveler and noted hot dog junkie – proclaimed Hot Doug’s one of 13 places you must eat at before you die. When he featured the show on his popular No Reservations program Hot Doug’s was transformed from a local hangout to a global phenomenon. Sure, the high-end hot dogs had a lot to do with it but much of the appeal lay with Sohn himself, who for fourteen years took every order at the front counter, interacting with his customers with goofy charm and a down-to-earth Midwestern sense of humor. He made each customer feel like part of the gang and that attitude carried on to the staff.
It all came to an end on October 3, 2014. Six months prior, the store announced on social media that it would be closing its doors for good on that date. When October 3 rolled around, the line was unbelievable as people waited in line in cold, rainy, miserable weather to get their last fix of Hot Doug’s. It was a testament to Sohn and his staff that although the staff knew well in advance that the run was coming to an end, almost all of them elected to keep working right up until the end.
The documentary clocks in at a brisk 56 minutes and Markos does an excellent job of giving the viewer a “you are there” experience. While there is some behind the scenes kind of stuff and a fair amount of talking heads, most of those he interviews are so engaging (particularly Sohn himself) that he can be forgiven.
Unfortunately, what he delivers in atmosphere he lacks in context. We get little reason for the store’s closing other than “it was time.” We also get no update as to what Sohn is up to now that his store is closed – he’s a pretty young guy so I assume he hasn’t retired on his hot dog earnings. One also wonders about the timing – did Markos know in advance about Sohn’s plans, or was he making the documentary and the closing just happened to occur while he was doing it. It doesn’t feel contrived so I’m inclined to believe the latter but one can’t know for sure.
One of the regular customers at Hot Doug’s summed up his impression of the store thusly: “It was a hot dog stand but it was a damn good hot dog stand” and that is about as fine an epitaph as any eating establishment could ever hope for. The film succeeds in portraying what it was like to enjoy a dog, the stand’s signature French fries cooked in duck fat and a cold beverage in a happening place. Legendary alternative rock producer Steve Albini’s studio was just down the block from Hot Doug’s and he enjoyed the rare privilege of being one of the only clients that could order ahead by fax, allowing the very busy Albini to skip the land although he felt guilty enough about it that when he visited the store on his own he would wait in line with everybody else and proclaimed that part of the overall experience of the joint was in fact waiting in line. While Hot Doug’s is no more, their legend will live on not only in the memories of the Chicago faithful who loved them but also in those who see this documentary and immediately have the urge to go and consume a dog at their local purveyor themselves. What more could you ask of any documentary?
REASONS TO SEE: Really gives you a sense of the time and place. Makes you want to eat a hot dog.
REASONS TO AVOID: Comes off as an infomercial in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Markos previously directed videos for the Obama presidential campaign.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Hot Dog Program
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10