Mike Jones uses the phrase “leap of faith” when he talks about the first moment that someone bites into one of his Chicago Dogs.
It can refer to the act of eating a hot dog unlike any they’ve ever tried before, but also to the trust that there’s actually a hot dog somewhere beneath all those other ingredients.
Rest assured, nestled in that poppy-seed bun, under the yellow mustard, diced onion, sweet pickle relish, sport peppers, sliced tomato, dill pickle and celery salt, you’ll find a Vienna Beef hot dog that will resist a little when your teeth hit it.
“It’s got that snap to it when you bite it,” Jones says.
Jones has been selling Chicago-style hot dogs from a small storefront in downtown Asheboro since Dec. 12, 2013. He calls his restaurant Mike’s Chicago Dog (and more!) to refer to other menu items, such as Italian beef, Reuben and chicken salad sandwiches and something called a Chicago tamale – seasoned ground beef rolled in yellow cornmeal and served smothered in chili and cheese.
But the dogs are the main attraction, served in a mustard-yellow and red room so festooned with Chicago Cubs memorabilia (much of it donated) that you’d think you were on the North Side near Wrigley Field. The place stayed open late and was packed last fall on the night Jones’ beloved Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years.
Mike’s Chicago Dog is as emblematic of the change that’s taken place in North Carolina in recent decades as a taco truck in Raleigh or the Indian restaurants that populate the strip malls in Morrisville. Like so many other transplants to the state, Jones is serving the food of his homeland in this old Southern textile town, and has developed a following among fellow Midwesterners and native Tar Heels alike.
“It’s a lot of fun watching someone who’s never tried it take a leap of faith for the first time,” he says. “They often say it’s the best dog they’ve ever had.”
The Chicago-style hot dog is said to have originated at the dawn of the Great Depression and originally was known as a “Depression sandwich” or Depression dog. Jones says a vegetable vendor decided to begin selling all-beef franks, which could explain the cornucopia spilling from the bun.
Jones says there are about 1,500 places like his in Chicago, but only four in North Carolina – including two in Charlotte and one in Beech Mountain. There are other restaurants that sell Chicago-style dogs with Vienna Beef hot dogs in North Carolina, including Cloos’ Coney Island in Raleigh, though they usually aren’t the main attraction.
Jones, 62, grew up seven blocks from Wrigley Field and worked in a Franksville hot dog restaurant across from the ballpark when he was 15.
He made a career as a quality assurance manager for various manufacturers, and came to North Carolina in 2001 to work for a steel fabricator in Siler City. Two other jobs in the region followed, as bankruptcies and restructurings left him on the outside.
Jones always had toyed with the idea of selling hot dogs, so he tried grilling dogs and sausages on a push cart for six months to see if he’d get it out of his system. Instead, he kept thinking about all the things he could do if he had a restaurant, including a bigger menu that would include beer.
Jones makes a Carolina hot dog, too, with mustard, onions, chili and slaw. Lee Coan of Winston-Salem, who sells roofing materials, has tried the Chicago dog, but he comes in for his old standby when he’s in town on a sales call.
“I like both, but I’m a North Carolina native, so I prefer this,” he said, gesturing to the Carolina dog in front of him. “Good slaw. Good chili.”
People know Asheboro for the zoo, but zoo visitors need to go out of their way to find the city’s downtown. Jones says Yelp and TripAdvisor “have been very good to this place,” as people rank Mike’s Chicago Dog among the best restaurants in town.
The restaurant is a block from the courthouse, two blocks from the hospital and around the corner from the sprawling Acme-McCrary textile mill. “I literally don’t know what’s going to walk through the front door,” Jones says.
Among the regulars are Larry Roland and Gordon Soenksen, two old friends from Greensboro. Since they retired and Roland moved to Badin Lake, they meet regularly in Asheboro for lunch of a Chicago dog and a Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Soenksen, a former associate dean at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, grew up in Iowa and lived in Chicago. He finds Mike’s a familiar taste of home. “It’s nice to see a bit of Chicago here in the Piedmont,” he said.
But Roland had never heard of a Chicago dog until he saw a segment about Mike’s on UNC-TV more than a year ago.
“As a Southern boy, my exposure to the Chicago dog came through Mike,” he said. “It was a leap of faith.”
Good Eatin’, the News & Observer’s weekly visit to local eateries in North Carolina, will continue through Labor Day.
If you go
Mike’s Chicago Dog (and more!), 103 N. Fayetteville St., Asheboro. 336-610-6453. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. facebook.com/Chicagodogmikes
From the menu:
▪ Signature Chicago Dog: $3
▪ Carolina Dog: $3
▪ Coach Ditka, 8-inch spicy Polish sausage: $7.50
▪ Supreme tamale, with chili and cheese: $2.75
▪ Mother-in-Law (tamale with chopped onion, Texas Pete and hot giardiniera peppers): $4
What’s a Chicago-style hot dog?
▪ A poppy-seed hot dog roll
▪ A Vienna Beef hot dog with a natural casing. Skinless dogs available on request.
▪ Yellow mustard
▪ Neon-green sweet relish
▪ Raw chopped sweet onions
▪ Tomato wedges
▪ Dill pickle spear
▪ Sport peppers (They look like Tabasco peppers, but are green and a little longer. They’re brined and spicy, but not overpoweringly hot.)
▪ Celery salt
What you won’t find: One thing you won’t find on a hot dog or sausage at Mike’s is ketchup, in keeping with Chicago tradition. The menu playfully warns customers not to order ketchup on their dog “unless you are under 10.” Those who must have ketchup will be handed a bottle and told to defile the hot dog themselves.