Dogs for Days

Kelsey Gee

Through the window of the #47 bus, two words calls out to me as if uttered by the lips of an angel: “veggie dogs.” Frosted onto the tall windows of H-Dogs, the new burgers-and-dogs restaurant in chicken-and-waffles-heavy Bronzeville, the words come as both a surprise and an invitation.

One of the few South Side vendors to offer the veggie rendition of the encased meat treat, H-Dogs was founded by a culinary master and a vegetarian real estate developer. According to Eileen Rhodes, the vegetarian half of the team, H-Dogs’ menu aims to promote wellness in Bronzeville. “For us, it was about more than opening a business,” she says, “it’s about getting the community to be healthier and healthier.”

Rhodes lives on the near West Side, but works in Bronzeville with East Lake Management and Development. Co-owner and head chef Cliff Rome, meanwhile, has worked under the world-renowned chefs Wolfgang Puck and Francois Dongo at Spago in Beverly Hills, California. The two met in 2002 while collaborating on the redevelopment of the Parkway Ballroom, a space where weddings, political fundraisers, and Nat King Cole performances took place from the 1940s through the ’70s. Rome’s catering group, Rome’s Joy, has kept the reopened ballroom busy. Taking this initial success as a sign of good chemistry, the pair decided to work together again to start a full-service restaurant.

Their goals, however, are not merely culinary. Both are serious about using H-Dogs to spur new development in the neighborhood.

Inside, the place looks a bit like Five Guys. The space is wide open, with the sleek kitchen exposed behind a low counter. The countertop and free-standing tables provide endless chrome surface area, and bright primary color accent pieces that break up the black-and-white tile floors give the place a retro diner look. Hanging over waiting customers, one flat-panel television remains fixed on the Food Network, while another, perched over the family-sized tables, shows college football.

Unlike that other fast-food restaurant (which, coincidentally, just opened a location on the South Side), H-Dogs offers a meal creatively designed with the neighborhood, and their cholesterol levels, in mind. Though H-Dogs does carry hefty (1 pound, to be exact) beef and bacon burgers, the more popular items on the menu are the lower-fat, lower-price turkey, salmon, and veggie patty-based meals.

One of the cheapest dishes, the “Sloppy JoAnn” will give you a hearty helping of slow-ground turkey, mixed with a sweet tomato basil sauce in lieu of the ground beef slop served up by cafeteria workers across the country. The “Big Easy” could make a meal in itself, with its thick, smoked andouille brat, hidden under a helping of vibrant N’awlins jambalaya, mustard, and cubes of fried okra.

But it’d be a big mistake to fill up without trying the side of French fries. It costs only fifty cents to replace the regular fries with crispy, crinkle-cut sweet potato fries, cheese fries, or fried okra, and another 50 cents for savory, squishy, truffle-salt dusted fries. If you have enough spare change, it’s worth trading up. But what drew me in from the street, the “Healthy Hound,” is a split veggie dog on a white bun nestled beneath a bed of cucumbers, sprouts, roasted peppers, and red onion.

Such a menu isn’t developed overnight, and Rhodes readily admits the two “spent a long time figuring out what the neighborhood wants to eat.” Her efforts seem to have paid off. One month after the restaurant opened, I am one of the many returning customers. A father, wasabi mayo hanging from the corner of his mouth, offers to help me as I consider a second order: “Try the salmon burger, you can’t go wrong with it, I promise you.” While waiting for their take-out orders, a group of customers peers into the kitchen, asking one another hungrily, “What’d you get?”

Rome is not the only big name to try his hand at gourmet fast food. In the last few years, foodie-endorsed remakes of American junk food staples–from fancy Kit-Kat bars made of toasted hazelnuts and sea salt caramel, to organic black truffle mayo French fries–have popped up everywhere. What distinguishes H-Dogs is its audience. “It’s about hot dogs, but it’s really about making more people and more businesses come into Bronzeville,” says Rhodes. But more than just feeding Bronzeville with better, fresher ingredients at a low price, the duo is excited about the prospect of bringing in outsiders, like students living on the nearby University of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology campuses. “It’s such a diverse area,” Rhodes sighs. Off to a great start, the owners seem just as excited as their customers about getting people to try new things: “There are no vegan options yet, but that’s the next step.”

4655 S. King Drive. Monday-Thursday, 11am-7pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-8pm. (773) 633-2978. hdogschicago.com