In Leone Beach and adjoining Loyola Park, Rogers Park apartment dwellers share a communal backyard along the lake — a place not only for swimming and lounging, but also for picnics, barbecues, weddings, baptisms, new moon rituals, drum circles, public art projects, theater and dance performances, movie nights, community singalongs, volleyball games, group meditation, yoga classes, hammock naps, tightrope walking, and a million other things.
The only thing missing, really, was a place to buy food. Enter Ropa Cabana, a small concession stand that opened in July at the very end of Greenleaf Avenue with hot dogs big on flavor.
The stand previously sold crepes and then oversized piña coladas, but by 2019, it was empty again. Heather Miller, a longtime Rogers Park resident, noticed the vacant space for years, first on solitary runs along the beach and then on walks with her husband, Tobias Bechtloff. During the pandemic, they found themselves with some extra cash and decided they would do something about it. After many, many phone calls, Miller discovered the Chicago Park District owned the stand and it was available to rent. In May, she and Bechtloff signed a three-year contract and began fixing the place up.
They decided to call it Ropa Cabana, a nod to both the neighborhood’s nickname — Ro Pa, a shortened form of Rogers Park — and the Barry Manilow song, and to serve food that could be eaten one-handed on a sandy beach: hot dogs, walking tacos, beignets on sticks, slushies, and shaved ice.
Since they began serving food over Fourth of July weekend, word spread rapidly throughout the neighborhood and there’s been a steady stream of customers all day long, many who walk up from the beach barefoot and still in their bathing suits. There are also dogs, who enjoy free overcooked and leftover hot dogs.
Miller has kept her day job as a graphic designer and handles the business side. Bechtloff, a freelance film gaffer, has assumed all the food and operational responsibilities and is at the stand every day, from early in the morning to long past closing time in the evening, supervising the tiny staff and preparing the chili and other sauces for the hot dogs. When they’re together, they bicker cheerfully over the practicality of Bechtloff’s culinary ambitions.
“A Sonoran dog will be a challenge,” he says. “You need to wrap the dog in bacon.”
“You may have to improvise with bacon crumbles,” Miller suggests.
“No!” Bechtloff replies. “Then it would not be a Sonoran dog.”
One thing Miller did give in on was Bechtloff’s insistence on an espresso machine. They use Metropolis beans to produce coffee better than what customers might expect from a concessions stand.
They’ve been slower to come around to Bechtloff’s specialty hot dogs. Ropa Cabana is contractually obligated by the park district to serve Vienna Beef hot dogs and so there’s a Chicago dog on the menu, but there’s still plenty of room for experimentation. (All hot dogs are available vegan or vegetarian, with the veggie sausages from Lightlife.) The Danish Dog (pickles, crispy french onions, and Bechtloff’s homemade remoulade) and the Sleepy Dog (breakfast sausage with scrambled eggs, cheese, salsa, and jalapeño), have enjoyed modest success, but Bechtloff, who is German, has been disappointed at the lack of interest in the sauerkraut and mustard-topped German Dog.
“I take it personally,” he says. He admits that his sauerkraut recipe, which contains raisins, may not appeal to the American palate. “Maybe I’ll use pineapple. There’s a sweetness....”
Miller, who has tried this combination, says she was dubious at first, but admits that pineapple sauerkraut is actually pretty good. “Tobias’s superpower is putting flavors together,” she says.
In the future, the couple hopes to add tables to the outside patio and a roster of musical performances and expand the menu to soft serve ice cream. There will also, of course, be more hot dogs, including, perhaps, a dessert hot dog with bananas, beignets, ice cream, and chocolate sauce. But first, a Scramble Dog.
“It was Jimmy Carter’s favorite,” Bechtloff explains. “It’s cut up and fried hot dogs with a scoop of chili and oyster crackers. I don’t know why we don’t have it yet. It’s really easy!”
Miller laughs. “That’s what he says about everything.”
Ropa Cabana, 1230 W. Greenleaf Avenue, Open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.