In an age of calorie-counting, carb-reducing, fat-free, sugar-free, taste-free everything, one culinary beacon isn’t afraid to let the grease fly. At tiny shack Susie’s Drive Thru (4126 W Montrose Ave, 773-283-6544), healthy is out and guilty pleasure is in. That delicious disregard for the arteries keeps customers queued up ’round the clock.
“Welcome to cholesterol heaven,” chirps night manager Laura Migon, dishing up an order of Susie’s signature cheese fries, a honey-almond milk shake and a fully loaded hot dog complete with raw onions, cucumber, relish, pickles and fresh tomatoes. “I’ve been working here for 34 years and still love the food,” she says.
Hot-dog devotees love it, too. Established in 1973, Susie’s is the last surviving member of a trio of Chicago-based hot-dog havens once owned by the Ninos family. Named after daughter Susan Kandra—one of four current owners of Susie’s Drive-In along with semiretired father-mother duo Gus and Kathy Ninos and sister Anastasia Romero—the former Western Burger building did so well as a hot-dog stand, it eventually drew all four Ninos there full time, as well as Migon, Kandra’s future mother-in-law.
Susie’s has evolved into a 16-person, 24-hour operation that looks almost exactly the way it did in the ’70s. It still has bare-bones decor, provides indoor seating for a whopping three patrons, and dishes up the majority of its 22,000 dogs per year through two all-night walk-up windows and two all-night drive-through windows.
Dog devourers don’t come here for a swanky setting. Susie’s clientele, a mishmash of families, college students, neighborhood locals and hot-dog connoisseurs, keep coming back because nothing goes with a neatly loaded dog quite like a housemade taco shell stuffed to the brim with french fries topped with cheese, bacon and grilled chicken (one of several topping combos available on the build-your-own-fries menu), and washed down with a milk shake in flavors ranging from butterscotch to “baboon” (chocolate and banana). Susie’s also offers several dishes of its own creation, such as the gyro burger (a concoction of hamburger, gyro meat, housemade sauce and onion served on a bun) and the corn pole (a cheese-stuffed Polish sausage battered and fried like a corn dog).
“A lot of the recipes are Gus’s and a lot of them are secret,” explains Migon. “He invents things and then passes them down to the girls. We’re always trying to come up with something new and better.”
Migon also admits patrons who hit up Susie’s late on a weekend night might get a glimpse of a less-appetizing kind of wiener. “Sometimes when it’s late and the drunks come out, things get a little funny, sometimes a little risqué,” Migon explains. “We’ve had customers try to place drive-through orders into a tree in the back of our lot [instead of ordering at the window]. We’ve had guys jump over the counter, dance on the tables, get mad and strip down in the lot, give you a bit of a show. We have girls that try to get free food by flashing our guys that work here, couples that steam up car windows in our parking lot. After a while I go up and say, ‘Could you please get a hotel [room]?’ It’s actually pretty funny.”
While limited seating, a deliciously grease-soaked-yet-trans-fat-free menu and the occasional drunken episode would detract from a more pretentious establishment, these quirks only add to Susie’s divey charm. “I’ve watched this place grow from ten customers a shift to hundreds on a shift,” Migon says. “It’s amazing, and I’m really proud of the fact that I’ve been part of it.”