By Louisa Chu Chicago Tribune
The oldest hot dog stand in Chicago dates back to 1938. That’s not, however, what makes Dave’s Red Hots special. It’s not even a milestone anniversary this year, its 83rd in the Lawndale area on the West Side of the city.
“I don’t see it as just a hot dog place. This restaurant is owned by Lawndale. It’s not owned by me and my mother,” said Eugenia “Gina” Fountain. She runs Dave’s with her mother, Shirley Fountain. Their late family patriarch bought the business from the original owners 50 years ago. “This is genuinely a community restaurant.”ADVERTISING
Their signature hot dogs remain skinny and snappy. They use Vienna Beef all-beef, natural-casing franks (12-count, for my fellow hot dog connoisseurs), tucked into softly steamed poppyseed-free buns. “With everything” means yellow mustard, sport peppers and dill pickles, in the minimalist Depression dog style.
“A lot of people tend to shy away from natural casings, as opposed to skinless products or whatever,” said Gina Fountain. “But that’s what we’ve had before me, before my dad and everybody else. That’s been our zhuzh forever.”
Forever began when a Jewish couple opened the shop on Homan Avenue and what was then called 12th Street, now Roosevelt Road. Hy and Rose, whose surname has been lost to time, named the restaurant for their son, according to Fountain and the legacy customers who have shared their oral histories with her over the years.
After the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the couple decided to sell the business.
By 1971, Eugene Gaines had already established his Black-owned hot dog shop on the South Side. Both restaurants shared a supplier, who told Gaines that Dave’s was for sale. He bought the West Side business that year.
The original menu offered a quaint quartet of kosher-style classics: red hots, Polish sausages, pastrami sandwiches and salami sandwiches, always with a side of fresh-cut fries.
Shirley Fountain started working at her future husband’s shop two years later. She ran the counter with Miss Bea. (Beatrice Thomas retired years ago, but lives on at nearly 100 years old.)
After the property was sold to develop into townhouses, they moved Dave’s across the street to its current location in 1976. On first approach, you may wonder if the faded sign still applies to the peeling red facade with boarded windows upstairs and black metal gates out front.
“We do not own the building,” said Gina Fountain. “There’s no way in the world that it would look like that if we did.”
Inside, coffee-brown booths from the original location line up on your left. Community flyers curl along the length of the paneled store to your right. A menu board, featuring the original four items and much more, stretches along the back wall over the counter.
Behind the plexiglas shield, Fountain hears your hot dog shop confessions. She grants absolution and deep-fried comfort in the form of Polishes and spinach pizza puffs.
“I like the fact that I can sit and talk to my customers, because a lot of them know me,” Fountain said. “Some are huge Bears fans, and so am I, so we’ve gone to games together.”
Relish and onion are available upon request. Note that the relish is not neon green. Their pickles are not spears, but unusually cut from whole dills with their fry cutter every morning.
Nearly every order includes a side of their glorious fries. Fountain calls herself a potato-ologist. She’s earned the title with fries we rank among the best.
“Your fries are 10 minutes from being a potato,” she said. Probably slightly longer, because they’re fried twice, with a rest between, as one must with truly great frites.
It’s not just the exquisitely traditional menu that keeps customers coming back (nor, quite frankly, the decor). It’s Fountain and the family she shares. They have become Dave’s, and in embracing their community, the family brings us all into the fold.
While Fountain has honed her skills starting as a 14-year-old working weekends, she left after graduating from college and worked as a legal advocate for survivors of domestic violence with the state’s attorney’s office.
“Then my dad got sick,” she said. “He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003.”
She quit her job to become his full-time nurse. Her father endured 11 months. Mother and daughter took over the business in 2004.
“This restaurant means so much to me,” said Gina Fountain. “I’ve met so many people here, and it’s not at all like people in the neighborhood are portrayed. The neighborhood I know is absolute greatness.”
Her ambition now is to move Dave’s to the Lawndale Plaza strip mall up the street.
“I’ve been applying to the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund since last November, but I’ve been turned down twice,” she said.
The city fund supports projects in underserved neighborhoods in Chicago. It’s bankrolled by fees developers pay to build high-density downtown buildings.
“There isn’t a restaurant in this neighborhood where you can actually sit out on the sidewalk and enjoy your hot dogs,” Fountain said. “This neighborhood deserves that.”
She’s far from naive, knowing some neighbors belong to different gangs.
“You see people look at each other a little cross-eyed, but there’s never a cross word,” she said. “Never any physicality.”
If Dave’s does move, she plans to bring a piece of history with them.
“I will probably keep two booths in the new place,” she said. “Like a special reserved table.”
Meanwhile, she’s concerned with the future of four generations of the women in her family who work at the restaurant. Dave’s closed completely after the first state-mandated COVID-19 closures in March 2020. It reopened a year ago, remaining takeout-only and fully masked regardless of the changing mandates — though they do now take credit cards.
“The young lady that makes the sandwiches, that’s my oldest niece,” Fountain said. “Her daughter, who’s 10 years old, comes in to fill the pop machine and gets paid. She has a stash account with a portfolio. That’s how you create generational wealth in the Black community.
“I want Dave’s Red Hots to be around well after I’m gone,” she said. “Well, well, well after I’m long, long, long gone.”
Dave’s Red Hots
3422 W. Roosevelt Road
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Open: Monday to Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Prices: $4.25 for hot dogs with fresh-cut fries; $2 corn dogs to $11.92 pastrami sandwiches with fries
Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible, no public restroom
Original article: Chicagotribune.com