Hot dogs — sausages in general, really — have grown on me. I especially like the fact that a good one is flavorful enough in its own right; a swipe of mustard is probably enough to make it taste spectacular, whereas burgers (which I also love) could often use some more help.
The Weiner Wagon, which usually sets up shop in the parking lot of Prospect Meat Market in Champaign, advertises 100% beef sausages, so right off the bat I expected them to taste pretty good. I found, however, that the folks at the Weiner Wagon are also well versed in quality toppings.
My son, husband, and I tried their chili-cheese and Chicago-style dogs ($3.50 each), as well as their Maxwell Street Polish ($4.50). Wanting to know a little bit about their way of handling Philly cheesesteak, I also order a side of Philly fries (and a side of regular fries for good measure; $6.50 and $2, respectively).
To begin with, I have to say that their cheese sauce is pretty great. Most likely it doesn’t fall into the category of “homemade,” but it’s exactly what you want out of golden, gooey concession-stand cheese sauce with its somewhat-thick texture and mild, slightly salty flavor. Applied liberally, it made both the chili cheese dog and the Philly fries something I couldn’t wait to dig into.
I only tried a little of the chili-cheese, and found nothing to complain about. The chili and cheese seemed to balance each other in a gloriously sloppy way. My son gave the dog an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
I focused on the Chicago-style dog and Maxwell Street Polish. Of the two, I would order the Polish next time, although both were good and I loved the authenticity of the Chicago dog. It’s just that, on approaching the wagon, the smell of sausages and grilled onions was downright enchanting. It reminded me of that moment before a Cubs game when you know you’ve arrived in Wrigleyville. The Maxwell Street Polish tasted more or less exactly like I expected. The crisp casing on the salty Polish and the sweet, tender grilled veggies contrasted perfectly. That swipe of yellow mustard brought it all together.
As I said, the Chicago dog was dressed to textbook perfection, right down to the neon green relish and sprinkle of celery salt. We grow sport peppers and I’m well aware of how hot they can get; theirs had a pleasant heat without blasting the palate (be cautious, however, about going with my judgment about what is spicy). The only thing I was left wanting was a little more meat. I think a jumbo dog is a good pick for dressing Chicago style, since the toppings are all veggies. Still, it was delicious; maybe next time I’ll just buy two.
As for the Philly fries, I think the fact that they use crinkle-cut fries made the dish even more enjoyable because the grooves gave all of the cheese sauce nice places to hide. The meat had a good caramelization and some bite to it without being tough. As was the case for the Polish, the veggies were well grilled.
On their own, the fries are nothing to go out of your way for. I would maybe prefer if they started carrying Vitner’s chips as a side option. Although they’re not my favorite, they would definitely complete the up-north vibe.
For a total of $23 I felt like we got a lot of really good food, served quickly, by some very friendly folks. I tried to order some of their chicken items but they weren’t serving them that day, so be aware that that might be the case if you visit. If you’re in the mood for a fine dog, however, at much better than ballpark prices, they can probably set you right.
The Weiner Wagon
Usually in the parking lot of Prospect Meat Market, at Prospect and W Beardsley, Champaign
Check Facebook for additional locations
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Photos by Rachael McMillan