Sunday, August 26, 2018

Gene & Jude's is right not to serve ketchup

Gene & Jude's, 2720 N. River Road, River Grove.

     Google Map offers alternate routes if traffic gets bad. But I'm more of a stay-the-course kind of guy. So when it suggested Friday that I slip off 294 and onto Mannheim Road in order to save four minutes on a trip to Oak Park, I ignored it. 
      At first. But I could see traffic building ahead, and four minutes is four minutes. So I touched Manheim Road on the little map and the directions reoriented themselves, taking me overland, down River Road and, to my surprise, past Gene & Jude's.
    It was about 10:40 a.m.
    I knew it was somewhere. I had been hearing of Gene & Jude's for years, as a mecca not only of franks and fries, founded by a city worker in 1946, but the center of the High Church of No Ketchup, an orthodoxy that I have always met with fierce apostasy. But I never expected to roll right past the place. To be honest—and this is embarrassing to admit—I always assumed the place was in a distant corner of the map, way to the southwest, down by Oak Lawn somewhere, by the "Here Be Dragons." 
      Of course, I felt unease, a vague concern. I had heard—or read, or perhaps just imagined—something about hectoring signs. At Gene & Jude's, you couldn't even get ketchup for your fries. The idea being that some might then contaminate your hot dog. I don't think I've ever eaten a french fry without ketchup. What would be the point? I love ketchup. There, I said it.
     The Oak Park interview went well, was over in about 45 minutes, and I was on my way. I got there shortly after 12 noon. Prime time. 
     The place was mobbed. Twenty people in line, all salt-of-the-earth sorts. An Elmwood Park police officer with bright pink handcuffs on his belt. There seemed to be a story behind that and I almost asked him about it, then thought better. The line moved very fast. 
     "It's almost like a shrine in here," said an egg-shaped guy in front of me, to his buddy. That is true. A certain purity. The choices are "Hot dog & fries," "Double dog & fries" or a corn tamale. Or you could get just fries, and a variety of drinks. That's it. No burgers. No brownies. You could dress your dog with mustard, relish onions or a sport pepper.  Your choice.
     I could paint myself as a weisenheimer and lie, and say I considered asking for ketchup, just to go with the fries. But that wasn't happening. The clerk repeated my order back to me: "hot dog, mustard and relish," and a Diet Coke with a tone of ... I'm not sure what. Questioning, or censure. I almost thought I did it wrong somehow. "It's my first time here," I explained, sheepishly, and he reassured me that I had done fine. Maybe I under-ordered. Most people seemed to be getting double dogs, but I wanted the basic Gene & Jude's experience. 
You can catch a glimpse of hot dog to the upper right.
     They serve their hot dogs buried in fries—"Depression-style" I've seen it called— wrapped and inserted into a brown paper bag. I took mine, tried to hand money to the guy who handed me the bag, which is how it's usually done. But he directed me to pay another clerk—specialization keeps the line moving. "I could take it from you," he deadpanned, "but then you wouldn't have money to pay for lunch."
     I liked that; it showed spirit.
     I took my brown paper bag and repaired to the white formica counter. The fries were hot and good and perfect, slightly well-done to give them flavor and interest. They looked like they should taste greasy but they didn't. 
      The hot dog had snap to the casing. To be honest, I inhaled it all so fast—hungry—that I barely had time to register the details. I was also listening to the conversation all around me.
     "I told her, 'You're too young to be unhappy,'" a man explained to his buddy—paternal advice to a teenage daughter, I would bet. I considered intruded with, "And how well did that work?" but thought better of it.
     What surprised me about Gene & Jude's is that there was no harsh sign condemning ketchup. I somehow expected that. "NO SEATS," is their slogan online, "NO KETCHUP NO PRETENSE NO NONSENSE." But I didn't see that at the stand. True to their beliefs, they didn't make a big deal about it. Also good. Nobody wants to be yelled at while they're eating.
     There was a sign saying that they take cash only, and that is something to bear in mind if you go. Bring cash. My lunch set me back five dollars.
     I left the placed buoyed, thinking I have to bring my wife here to try those french fries. She loves fries. I really don't love them, generally, though I liked these fries very much. Very very much. I even felt as if my mind was expanded a little bit. Make no mistake; I still believe that condemning people who use ketchup is unbefitting the proud citizens of a free nation. But Gene & Jude's french fries are so good, they can be consumed without ketchup—easily. That's the way they should be served. I found myself picking up every crumb of potato, down to the last speck.



  1. A Chicago hot dog is a savory dish. If you put ketchup on it you’ve fundamentally changed the nature of the dish ( that’s why that neon green relish must never be replaced by the abomination of sweet relish.)

    It’s like putting sugar on noodles. A kugel is a fine dish but it’s not the same thing as fettuccine Alfredo. If you want a Chicago hot dog put The ketchup away.

  2. I worked in Elmwood Park back in the early 90's and once a week all of my coworkers and i would send someone over to Gene and Jude's for lunch. For $1.25 you got a really decent dog smothered in those beuatiful freshly made and twice fried fries. The way spuds were meant to be fried.

  3. How about an "add a caption to the photo" contest, like The New Yorker does with cartoons?
    Here's my entry for the wonderful photo of the guy pointing at you: "Hey, Vinny -- 5 bucks says that clown right there is gonna ask for ketchup."

  4. The thing about Gene and Jude's, and the handful of old school "authentic" Chicago places remaining, is that they were unremarkable in their day. It was just another hot dog stand. That they are celebrated now is less a comment on their greatness but a comment on what we have lost along the way towards generic franchise blandness. And for the record, Trader Joe's organic ketchup is the Cadillac of Condiments. I'm going to start keeping a bottle in the car.

  5. I started salivating as I read this. There aren’t many Chicago style hot dog places in the Denver area that are worth the drive, although Mustard’s Last Stand in Boulder is pretty good. I won’t get into the ketchup controversy but I did convert a son in law who grew up in Philadelphia to appreciate the Chicago style. He, in turn, sent me to Pat’s for the quintessential Philly cheesesteak sandwich. We’re heading back to Chicago in a couple of weeks to visit my brother. He and I are working out the list of places to visit for lunch. I haven’t had a good Italian beef in a long time.

  6. I try not to use ketchup on my fries, BBQ sauce is far better!

  7. Having been born and raised right down Grand in Elmwood Park, I was raised on Gene and Judes! The Thirsty Whale was right across the street. You always had to be careful with the bag of fries cuz the grease would soak through and ruin your pants/car seat! Great for the Italian beef it was Johnnie's over on North ave!

  8. I lived there too early (1971) to experience the Mustard’s Last Stand in Boulder, which has been there for forty years. Any connection to the Mustard's Last Stand on Central Street in Evanston? Best hot-dog joint in town. They will celebrate their fiftieth anniversary next year.

  9. You gotta love the fresh cut fries, which like Five Guys or the original McDonalds are excellent with just salt. Being heaped atop the dog is the only drawback, unless you like your fries with mustard. But still a satisfying meal and without the snarky Cubs/Ketchup jabs like at Morrie O'Malleys. Sorry Jinger. When I encounter a 'ketchup on the dog person' I ask them this question, "When you make a bologna sandwich at home, do you put ketchup on it?" Some don't get it, and that's why they ruin their hotdogs. They probably put mustard on their tacos.

  10. Their fries are really what makes G&J. Very good hot dogs, charming atmosphere, but those fries... I’ve seen people order a whole extra bag of them in addition to the hot dog w/fries meal.

  11. When I was a kid, we would get the bottom half of a paper bag filled with hot fries for a nickle!


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