The New Hot Doug's, the Latest Lettuce Joint, and More 

Transformations

Hot Doug's

3324 N. California

773-279-9550

On the evening of Saturday, April 24, 2004, Doug Sohn was hosting a wedding shower in his celebrated Roscoe Village wiener shop when one of his employees smelled smoke. Sohn looked up and said, "Yeah, because it's coming out of the ceiling." The party was evacuated, and Sohn stood on the sidewalk watching his three-year-old temple of encased meats go up in flames. "Well," he thought, "I guess I'm not going to work tomorrow."

At Hot Doug's Sohn, a graduate of Kendall College's culinary school and a onetime caterer, had elevated the humble tube steak to a cuisine if not quite haute at least respectable. He offered Polishes, brats, Thuringers, andouille, and Chicago-style dogs, dressed and cooked to customer preference--whether char-grilled, deep-fried, steamed, or fried then grilled. He featured daily gourmet specials and a "game of the week" sausage--gator, boar, rattlesnake, rabbit, duck, or kangaroo. Fridays and Saturdays fresh-cut fries were cooked in duck fat, and the only request Sohn would refuse was to smother them in cheese sauce. Despite the store's daytime-only hours, loyal customers from the neighborhood and nearby Lane Tech packed the awkward space every day and drivers desperately frittered away their lunch hours looking for precious parking.

After the fire, Sohn says, he was ready to hang it up. He spent several months kicking back--reading, going to movies, traveling a bit. But steady inquiries caused him to rethink retirement. "Part of it was just the sheer number of people who would e-mail, call, or literally stop me on the street," he says. "It was unbelievably flattering and heartwarming. And I couldn't really think of anything else to do." He planned to reopen in his old space last August, but the landlord dawdled on repairs and Sohn began scouting for a new location. One afternoon he and his brother stopped for a soda at Papa George's--the beef stand at the corner of Roscoe and California. The owner, George Valkanas, overheard Sohn explaining his search to another customer. Valkanas, who'd been wanting out of the restaurant business, pitched the space, and he and Sohn inked a deal.

The new Hot Doug's opened January 4. Sohn has duplicated the goofy decor of the old place, chockablock with Elvibilia and hot-dog-related kitsch. Sausagewise he's planning to expand, developing plated dishes like cassoulet, choucroute, and sausage chili. Another difference is the relative desolation of the neighborhood--Roscoe dead-ends two blocks east at the river and a sprawling ComEd parking lot lies to the north--but Sohn sees advantages. The new place is roomier, with potential for sidewalk seating in warm weather (he hopes to have a permit by this summer), and there's plenty of street parking. Gordon Tech is just three blocks north, and the employees of Midway Games and WMS Gaming work right across the street. If opening day was any indication, he doesn't have anything to worry about. One hour before the 4 PM closing time, the line was still backed up to the door. --Mike Sula

Osteria Via Stato

620 N. State

312-642-8450

The virtues of Lettuce Entertain You's new Italian restaurant, OSTERIA VIA STATO, far outweigh the loss of Papagus Greek Taverna, the Lettuce restaurant that formerly occupied this space in the Embassy Suites Hotel. The courses at Osteria progress in the true Italian tradition: from family-style antipasti and pasta to a small selection of entrees and side dishes to an optional cheese course. "There are no more than three or four ingredients on a plate," says general manager Steve Hofferth. "If there's more, we don't consider it Italian." Ordering is simple too--executive chef Rick Tramonto (Tru) and chef de cuisine David Di Gregorio (Maggiano's) offer a fixed-price menu at $36; diners make only one choice, from a selection of eight to nine entrees, then the cavalcade of courses begins, with appetizers and sides changing nightly depending on what's fresh and in supply. One night the antipasti included chilled house-cured salmon with radishes, drizzled with fruity olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper; paper-thin roasted fennel topped with melted Parmigiano Reggiano and butter; and a simple but delicious plate of salumi with olives. The first course changes frequently too: on one visit we got a toothsome papardelle with a hearty tomato-based duck ragu; another time it was orecchiette, an ear-shaped pasta, with braised bitter greens. On a given evening entrees might include a wonderfully tender four-ounce veal tenderloin or a flaky monkfish osso buco. Wine director Belinda Chang (Charlie Trotter's) offers well-conceived Italian wine samplers priced at $15, $28, or $50 for three four-ounce glasses. They'll start serving lunch later this month. --Laura Levy Shatkin

Masck

35 W. Ontario

312-440-8880

With its odd location (on the main floor of a River North condo building), shimmering white floor-to-ceiling curtains, huge, brightly painted mural over the bar, and oversize plates holding big portions of global fare, MASCK feels more like a banquet hall than like the trendy destination it aspires to be, despite its exposed kitchen and fashionable address. If it wants to compete with neighbors like Allen's, Kevin, and 22, Masck has a long way to go in terms of service and food quality. We'd been seated for a good 20 minutes before a passing manager noticed our bare table. Ten minutes later a server took our drink orders; it'd be another 15 before he asked what we wanted to eat. This is Masck's second location and, like its Deerfield predecessor, it tries too hard to please everyone with an unfocused, overly ambitious menu. There's a spinach-and-artichoke dip with sun-dried tomatoes, escargots in herb-and-garlic butter, a vaguely Asian ahi tuna steak in coconut-lime butter, and a trademarked Chicago Floppy Burger (the little tm is actually printed on the menu), which is just a regular burger whose thin meat patty dwarfs the bun and consequently flops over the sides. The pounded-chicken schnitzel emulated that delicate panfried German dish, except its pasty, flavorless breading was so thick the chicken inside didn't get a chance to cook thoroughly and had to be sent back to the kitchen. The crab-crusted halibut might have been a fine piece of fish, but between the salty crab topping, the soggy potato-pancake base, the guajillo sauce, and the slug of tequila splashed over everything, who could tell? The wine list, though it includes several domestic bottles that work well with the food's big flavors, feels slapped together--there aren't enough global selections, and not a single old-world wine is available by the glass. --LLS

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.

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