Chicago hot dogs.... I've heard the hype for years. I've never before been to the windy city, so I could only imagine these renowned street vendor fare. Last night I took a walk with a friend who spent his teen to young man years here. He had not been back to Chicago in thirty years, and he marveled at what he remembered and what he did not. We went to the place recommended by the hotel doorman. It was interesting. The walk itself was delightful. The hot dog wasn't bad, but it wasn't "to die for." Still, we took loads of pictures of Chicago at night and the balmy night air was a welcome change from the earlier morning rain-snow mix.
My friend assured me that the hot dog we had last night was not the one he remembered from his youth and thought today might afford us another opportunity to find that experience. We checked out of the ritzy Sheraton, the one that charges $48 per day to park in their garage, and headed out toward the suburbs south of the city. As we drove, he showed me places he'd lived as a youth, storefronts he'd rented early in his career, and places that "used to be there." I love seeing the town through the eyes of someone who shares its past.
As we drove along, he bemoaned the lack of hot dog stands -- vendors who used to be on every corner thirty years ago were no longer part of the Chicago visitor's experience. Then, just as we were about to give up on the old-time Chicago hot dog experience, he spied a small hot dog restaurant, nestled between nondescript businesses and sporting a colorful awning, in contrast to the gray, beginning-to-drizzle-again day.
"I used to eat hot dogs here, 30 years ago," he told me, as we pulled in. "I dunno, if it'll be the same, but it was good back then. You wanna try it?"
Inside, the owner assured us he did not know the former owner of the establishment, in fact, was only a toddler himself thirty years ago. But he also assured us he made authentic Chicago style hot dogs, and his prices were excellent. We placed our order and grabbed the camera to start the photo journal of this meal. We chatted with the owner as his wife filled our order. A very personable man, he was happy to hear about the business as it was thirty years ago, and hopeful that his would be as successful.
"How long have you been open?" I asked.
"Today is our first day," he replied.
Well, I cannot tell you how odd that felt... we had been looking for just this experience, had been just about to give up on it entirely, and this "Mary's Place" popped up in front of us, beckoning from thirty years past, and yet, it turns out, only opened at 6:30 AM, May 1, 2009. And when he told us he had not expected to open until another week or two, but that everything had come together to allow him to open for business this morning, it felt even more "meant to be."
The food was really tasty. The hot dog did WOW me. The "tom toms" (another of the memories from his youth) were as my friend recalled and were very delicious. The owner and my friend chatted about the way the interior used to look all those many years ago, and apparently, looked until less than five months ago...this owner had made the interior changes, which they both agreed were positive.
My friend explained how the city bus used to stop across the street, delaying to maintain the schedule, and the driver and passengers alike would jump off the bus and run to get a hot dog from this place. In short, the place was once hopping with business. I asked the owner how long the place had been closed before he bought it. Three years.... Now, three and a half years after the former owner closed up shop, this guy opened for business....and just in time for us.
My friend took a $1 bill from his pocket and wrote a note of best wishes for prosperity, from the two of us to him. When he gave the owner the $1 bill, he was thrilled. He took it and put it in the back somewhere. My friend assured him he hoped that $1 would turn into $27,000 for him... in fact, he is confident it will. We asked if we could take pictures of him and he happily obliged. In fact, we took photos of the whole staff (of three).
"Who's Mary?" my friend asked, presuming Mary would be his wife.
The owner answered by taking us behind the counter, to look into the back room, where a statue of the Virgin Mary was standing. Next to the small statue was the $1 he had just received. "This is Mary, " he said.
We left Mary's Place completely satisfied with the food and the experience. And the feeling of "this cannot have been a coincidence" was overwhelming.