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Many local diners will have their first look inside an unpretentious Evanston eatery when it appears on national television.
The Wiener and Still Champion, 802 Dempster St., will be featured this fall or winter on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” one of the most popular shows on television’s Food Network.
The show’s host, Guy Fieri, came to town a couple of weeks ago with a production crew of five or six to tape the nearly 15 hours of material they will pare to about six minutes of airtime, says Wiener owner Gus Paschalis.
While neighbors still tend to overlook the hot dog stand with the braggadocian name and unimposing façade, Mr. Paschalis says food mavens from elsewhere are lining up in the wake of rave reviews on TV and the Internet.
The eatery, says the owner, has appeared on Channel 7 News, as well as WGN radio and the online LTHForum. Channel 5 recognized it as having “one of the top three burgers in the burbs,” he says. Three times lately he has served customers doing hot dog tours.
Such acclaim is new to The Wiener, says Mr. Paschalis, who has owned the restaurant for three years. Although he actually stepped in on July 5, 2005, he chose National Hot Dog Day, July 19, to celebrate his third – and the restaurant’s 33rd – anniversary.
When he took over, he says, “[The restaurant owners] weren’t serving quality products.” He is well aware, he says, that “there’s a lot of bad food out there.” But bolstered by a university degree and more than 10 years of experience in the food industry, he set out to turn a sow’s ear into … well, a Vienna all-beef winner – the kind made with natural casings that “snap when you bite in,” he says.
First he shaped up the French fries, replacing the tired, frozen variety with those made from fresh potatoes he selects each morning at the Chicago or Des Plaines market.
“I’m fussy,” says Mr. Paschalis. “They have to be Idaho [potatoes].” He avoids certain growers. Their spuds, he says, “wouldn’t crisp up – they were soggy,” perhaps because “their starch content was off.”
Three burlap sacks of Idahos slump against the wall by the counter, destined for the mechanical cutter that hangs on the wall of the back room. Mr. Paschalis demonstrates, placing a potato on end in the cutter. When he pulls down the handle, squeezing the potato through the sharp grid on which it rests, out come square pieces in their nutritious skin.
Fried twice in vegetable oil, his French fries scored fourth in a CitySearch poll, he says. But he may be even prouder of his corn dogs. His place, he says, is “one of only two in Chicagoland” where corn dogs are freshly hand-dipped.
And they come with the array of dipping sauces that prompts their nickname, Dippin’ Dogs. Dressed for just 50 cents in the customer’s choice of wasabi, curry ketchup, Texas Ranch, Argentine Aioli and herb or more, da lowly Chicago dawgs assume a worldly air.
The notion of serving sauces came from a French-fry place in New York, he says. Customers contributed some ideas and recipes, while he based others on intriguing tastes from his dining experiences.
The owner’s favorite sauce is the Argentine Aioli. Tom Keith, self-proclaimed “taste-tester” as well as the restaurant’s publicist/marketing consultant, is partial to garlic aioli and wasabi. Mr. Keith is responsible for suggesting what became another house specialty, country-fried bacon, and is quick to tout The Wiener’s falafel burger, which they call their “meatless option.”
TV cameras captured a customer downing the stand’s Triple Undisputed three-pound burger, says Mr. Paschalis. But it is probably hot dogs (and their accoutrements) that are making his name.
He came naturally to the business. His dad, an Indiana steelworker, ran a hot dog truck on weekends “to make ends meet,” he says; his uncle ran a grill in Winnetka for 29 years. Just after he decided to leave the corporate world and strike out on his own, Mr. Paschalis read the ad: “Hot Dog Stand For Sale.”
Mr. Paschalis admits it is “easy to drive past and see just another hot dog stand.” But he has an explanation for the growing success of The Wiener and Still Champion. “If you put quality in, people will come and tell their friends,” he says.