You have to mustard a lot of energy to take a three-week road trip across America eating hot dogs. There’s the Buffalo (N.Y.) Dog, garnished with hot Buffalo sauce, blue cheese and celery salt; the Atlanta (Ga.) Dog, finished with coleslaw, chili and mustard, and the swinging Kansas City Dog with melted Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and yellow mustard.

In 1993 brothers George and Manolis Alpogianis embarked on an excellent adventure in search of America’s assorted hot dogs. Things went down so well they reprised with another road trip in 1995. Rather than bringing back souvenir salt and pepper shakers, they introduced 13 regional hot dogs to their America’s Dog hot dog stand on Navy Pier.

Manolis, 33, cooked up the road trip to burn off some steam after he obtained his degree in business psychology from the University of Illinois. “We were big hot dog fans, being raised in Chicago,” George said over an out-of-this-world Cosmic Dog (chili, mustard, shredded Cheddar cheese, celery salt, relish, tomato) at America’s Dog. “If Chicago is known for their hot dogs, we wanted to know what other hot dogs were like. It was Manolis’ idea.”

Manolis added, “We went straight west to Denver. Then we went down to New Mexico, Arizona, up through California, back down to Nevada and through the South. We ate hot dogs most of the way. The idea hit us in Denver. They didn’t have a ‘Denver Dog.’ But when we got to Santa Fe, we saw they were putting salsa on hot dogs. We were at one spot in Los Angeles where they used alfalfa sprouts, bell peppers, cucumbers and brown mustard. Two years ago we decided to travel east of Chicago.”

That’s where George fell in love with the Baltimore Dog. “It’s different,” he said. “It’s deep-fried. With [melted] Cheddar cheese and grilled onions.”

Manolis is partial to the Charleston (S.C.) Dog, with chili, onions, coleslaw and mustard. “Coleslaw on top of a hot dog?” he asked. “It adds a crunch to it. It’s awesome.” George added, “Our mother used to put coleslaw on our hamburgers when we were kids.”

The brothers traveled incognito in a Jeep. They loaded up with CDs by Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel and U2. They didn’t talk shop with restaurant owners, but took loose notes on napkins. “Originally it was going to be a three-month trip. . . .” Manolis said, “. . .until we hit Las Vegas. We went from Holiday Inns to Motel 6 to where we slept in the Jeep one night.”

Can you eat a hot dog with all the fillings while driving a car?
“Drive with your knees and two hands,” George answered.
The Alpogianis brothers are obviously not married. They are not weenies and did not rely on their road trip for opening lines. “Well, in San Francisco they didn’t have sport peppers so we told them about them,” George said. “Hot dogs definitely became the theme of the trip.”

Manolis even ventured off into ballpark hot dogs on his own. He sampled stadium dogs at Coors Field in Denver, Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco and Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles. But that’s a different ballgame. “The ballpark hot dog is atmosphere and not much more,” Manolis said. “They’ve usually been sitting in the steam box too long. Our hot dogs don’t sit on the steam table for more than 10 minutes.”
Here, I beg to differ, at least when it comes to the 10-inch grilled and beer-marinated Dodger Dog at Chavez Ravine. I’ve eaten them on my pilgrimages to Los Angeles to watch the Cubs, and Dodger Dogs are more appetizing than a Todd Hundley trade. These tube steaks are so good that last year the Dodgers opened baseball’s first hot dog expansion franchise with a Dodger Dog quick serve restaurant at Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles.

On Labor Day weekend in 1995 the Alpoganis brothers opened Carnelli’s Deli, the first restaurant in the Navy Pier food court. America’s Dog opened in March 1996. During the summer they operate an America’s Dog at Buckingham Fountain. Next week a third America’s Dog debuts at the Grand Prairie Mall in Peoria.
Navy Pier hosts more than 8 million visitors annually. “About 75 percent of our customers are tourists,” said George, 37. Manolis added, “You hear, ‘What about this type of dog from my town?’ It’s hard to serve them all. We rotate a lot of the hot dogs. There’s seven or eight [regional] hot dogs off the menu right now. There’s a Louisiana Dog [grilled onions, tomato and barbecue sauce] that’s not on the menu. A Dallas Dog [chili, onion and shredded Cheddar cheese].”

The Chicago Dog (mustard, green relish, onion, hot sport peppers, tomato, pickle and celery salt on poppy seed buns; NO KETCHUP) is the most popular choice on the menu. The Houston Dog (loaded with chili) ranks second.

America’s Dogs hot dogs cost $2.49 and $3.19 for a jumbo (twice the size of a regular dog). The restaurant also serves sandwiches, cheeseburgers, Buffalo popcorn chicken, fries and onion rings. The hot dog stand is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until midnight on Friday and Saturday.

The Alpoganis family was reared in the shadows of Wrigley Field, where one of baseball’s biggest hot dogs patrols right field. Their grandfather George was a Greek immigrant who found railroad work in Mason City, Iowa, before coming to Chicago in the late 1920s to work in North Side restaurants. His son Gus ran the Tavern Inn at Clark and Newport during the 1930s.

Gus, 71, is patriarch of the Alpoganis Group. Besides America’s Dog and Carnelli’s Deli, the family’s Alpoganis Group owns and operates Kappy’s Restaurant & Pancake House in Morton Grove and Arlington Heights and the Nino Panino Sandwich Shop in Union Station.
“When my father returned from the Korean War in 1953, he went in business with his father,” George said. “His father sold the Tavern Inn and bought the Palace Grill [at the northwest corner of Madison and Loomis.] It’s still in business and it’s still in our family. My cousin George [Lemperis] owns it now. It was the original DeMars Diner in Chicago. I started working at the Palace Grill when I was 6 years old in 1972. It was cheap help.”

Since then George has been in search of a good meal. He attended the Culinary School of Kendall College and mentored under John Hogan when he was at Kiki’s Bistro and Tony Mantuano when he was at Tuttaposto. “My first chef job [sous chef] was at [the late Dennis] Terczak’s restaurant [in Wrigleyville], which was regional American,” he said. “The regionalism led right into this. Now, any time we take a trip we go to a hot dog stand. And you can’t go into one of them. You have to try three or four different stands.”

The Alpoganis brothers can’t help themselves. America’s hot dogs have become a driving force in their lives.media_hotdog_108.jpg


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