For Nicole Jin, opening a Korean hot dog stand in Chicago was a matter of civic pride. She’d had the idea in her head for three years, ever since she first tried battered and deep-fried Korean hot dogs on a trip to LA. “Chicago is supposed to be the capital of food and drink,” she says. “How can Chicago not have this?”
Now Chicagoans can enjoy Korean hot dogs at two locations of Kong Dog, the stand Jin and her business partners opened last year, first in Glenview (where it was previously known as Eggsum Holy Cow and became a TikTok sensation) and then, in December, in Little Italy. Business has been brisk: Korean hot dogs appeal to Americans of all ethnicities. “Korean culture has been infused with American cuisine for a long time,” she says, citing Korean dishes like fire chicken that incorporate cheese, previously something not used in Asian cuisine. Americans also adore fried food.
The most popular flavor on the eight-item menu at the Little Italy Kong Dog is, in fact, based on an American snack food: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. It’s served with a side of house-made spicy mayo garnished with Cheeto crumbles. Also popular are Thai Chili Dorito, served with ketchup (ordinarily a scandal in Chicago, but exceptions can be made for Korean dogs), and ramen spaghetti served with a side of marinara in honor of the neighborhood’s heritage. But for those who are uncertain about tasting a Korean hot dog for the first time, Jin recommends the original dog, rolled in sugar. All hot dogs come with a choice of filling: pork or beef sausage, mozzarella, or a combination.
Each dog is battered, fried, and garnished to order, which can lead to long wait times. When Kong Dog first opened in Little Italy, customers complained that it would take 45 minutes or more before they got their food. Now, Jin says, the cafe has streamlined the process so it takes 10 or 15 minutes, 30 if it’s really crowded. While there is seating, customers are discouraged from dining in because of social distancing. Jin recommends they eat their dogs on the plaza outside or in their cars because they taste better fresh; they also get a better cheese pull.
Jin previously ran a cafe in the Taylor Street location and decided to keep serving boba tea after the switch over to Kong Dog because it was so popular. “Boba tea plus corn dogs, double the happiness,” she says. Kong Dog also serves dalgona coffee, another popular pandemic-era Korean import.
In the coming months, Jin and her partners plan to open more Kong Dog locations in the city and suburbs, though they haven’t decided exactly where yet. But she does know that this winter, she will add mandu, Korean dumplings, to the menu in Little Italy. The dumplings are delicious and can come in a variety of flavors. But the addition also satisfies her competitive instincts: “When I went to LA, they didn’t have mandu yet,” she says. “Mandu’s first stop is Chicago.”
Kong Dog, 1424 W. Taylor Street, Open 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday through Tuesday.