The hot dog is one of the few foods that’s nearly impossible to screw up. You heat it through, tuck it into a bun, squirt on some mustard, and call it lunch. But there’s a big difference between not screwing something up and turning it into a paradigm-shifting, transcendental dining experience. And there are lots of hot dog stands, restaurants, and drive-ins out there that have the power to change your life.
The perennial grill mate to hamburgers, the hot dog sometimes gets the short end of the stick, charring at the back of the grill while juicy burgers are snatched up as soon as they hit the right temperature. But there’s a science, if not an art form, behind constructing the perfect hot-dog-eating experience.
That experience was introduced more than 100 years ago, when German immigrants first brought over their frankfurters and started selling them on the cheap at amusement centers like Coney Island, arguably ground zero for American hot dog consumption. Charles Feltman is widely considered to be the first person to have applied hot dog to bun, in order to avoid needing to supply plates and silverware to customers at his sprawling Coney Island restaurant. Employee Nathan Handwerker opened his own hot dog stand a few blocks away in 1916 and sold them for less than Feltman, and became wildly popular (and remains so to this day).
The hot dog diaspora then began to take on a life of its own, as people began developing their own spice mixes and making their own hot dogs, and every region and group of people soon put its unique stamp on the snack. Greek immigrants in Michigan concocted a cinnamon-rich beef chili that came to be known as Coney sauce, but it has nothing to do with Coney Island, while ‘michigans’ are big in Upstate New York but have nothing to do with the state. In Chicago they top all-beef dogs with mustard, fresh tomatoes, onions, sport peppers, bright green relish, dill pickles, and celery salt. Spicy Texas Red Hots are popular in New Jersey, but not in Texas, and the uncured, unsmoked White Hot is popular in upstate New York. And the regional variations go on and on.
According to a recent study by GrubHub, the country’s most popular hot dog topping is cheese, followed by chili, mustard, onion, and Chicago-style. Ketchup is further down on the list, and, surprisingly, sauerkraut is down towards the bottom.
On our quest to find America’s best hot dogs, we kept an eye out for drive-ins, restaurants, and roadside stands with a definitive style of hot dog and topping, one which embodies not only the region’s quirks but the particular tastes and culinary traditions of its people. We judged these hot dogs based on several criteria: the quality of the ingredients (sourcing the franks from well-known regional producers and using fresh-chopped onions, for example), the entire hot dog-eating experience, from driving up to placing your order to taking that first bite, as well as reputation among professional critics and online reviewers.
In order to be included in our list, the vendor needed to have a trademark dog, with toppings that are unique and renowned. For example, Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C. doesn’t just have a trademark frank (the half-smoke), it has a trademark topping (chili), is well-regarded by locals and professional eaters alike, and eating there is a memorable experience unto itself. For those reasons, it’s high on our list.
Sadly, there were some popular favorites that didn’t make the cut. While Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit ranks high, its modernized neighbor, American Coney Island, didn’t, because it lost much of its charm in the renovation. And while the pretzel dog at chain Auntie Anne’s has its loyal devotees, the experience isn’t exactly sublime.
Our list runs the gamut from ancient stands that have been serving the same exact product day in and day out for decades to gastropubs putting their unique stamp on the hot dog to a place where people wait in line for more than an hour for one topped with foie gras. There’s one constant thread between them, though: they’re the country’s best.
1. Good Dog, Houston: Ol’ Zapata Dog
The Good Dog truck rolls through Houston every day except for Monday, and the emphasis here is on quality, quality, quality. The natural-casing hot dogs are made locally using a proprietary recipe, and all the toppings are made in-truck. The Slow Dough Bread Co. makes the lightly buttered buns, and there are a slew of super-creative topping options, including the Guac-A-Dog (avocado, fresh jalapeño, tomatoes, diced onion, roasted garlic aioli, cilantro, cumin, and lime) or the Sunshine Dog (pickled red onions, fresh dill relish, cream cheese, and mayonnaise). The pièce de résistance, however, is the Ol’ Zapata Dog, a wonderfully satisfying mess of bacon, Muenster cheese, caramelized onions, tomatoes, jalapeño relish, house-made ketchup, and mayonnaise. It’s cheesy, bacon-y, sweet, spicy, and perfectly composed.
2. Memphis Taproom Beer Garden, Philadelphia: The Polser
The beer garden at Phillys Memphis Taproom is one of the most inviting spots in the city for outdoor drinking, but its also a world-class destination for serious hot dog lovers. The dogs here are made in an on-site truck, and start with long, skinny links from New Jersey cult favorite Best Provisions. The topping options here are mind-blowingly creative. Theres the Mackinac, which tops a chili cheese dog with macaroni salad; the Blue Hawaii, a bacon-wrapped dog with deep-fried banana, Dijon, and peanut butter powder; and the Popper, topped with jalapeo Cheddar spread, fried jalapeos, and jalapeo mustard. There are also brunch dogs, like the one thats wrapped in bacon and topped with American cheese and scrambled eggs. But if you have to choose just one, go with the Polser. Its their take on a Denmark-style hot dog, and its bacon-wrapped and topped with remoulade, Dijon, pickles, and crispy fried shallots. The toppings dont overpower, the pickles and shallots add texture and crunch, and simply put, its a brilliant dog.
3. Coney Island Lunch, Scranton, Pa.: Texas Wiener
Calling itself "downtown's oldest restaurant," Coney Island Lunch was founded (at another location) in 1923. The name of the place might suggest a Coney Island-style dog, but the specialty here is the Texas wiener. That's a variety of dog supposedly invented by a Greek diner owner in Altoona, Pa., in 1918, and considered an authentic regional hot dog style in the Altoona–Scranton–Philadelphia triangle today. What makes it "Texas?" A slathering of chili. At Coney Island Lunch, the meat is a half-sliced Berks all-beef wiener from Reading, south of Scranton, grilled and served on a steamed bun made by Scranton's own National Bakery. Düsseldorf mustard and onions diced on a 1928 Hobart chopper complete the package.
4. Boston Super Dog, Roxbury, Mass.: Loaded
Boston Super Dog, also known as Boston Speed Dog, is a little truck that camps out in Boston’s off-the-beaten-path Newmarket Square for four days a week as well as at a couple of other locations throughout town. The 8-inch, half-pound kosher links are supplied by Grote & Weigel, and they get a marinade in apple cider and brown sugar before being grilled over charcoal and nestled into a toasted bun. Ask for it "loaded" and you’ll get to sample all of the toppings: onions, mustard, chili sauce, barbecue sauce, and relish, all homemade. Thankfully it looks like soon there’ll be more opportunities to get your fix: a second truck will be rolling into the city within a month.
5. Blue Ash Chili, Cincinnati: Cheese Coney
There are a couple of things you’re going to need to know if you’re planning on visiting one of Cincinnati’s ubiquitous "chili parlors." One, the chili is of the Greek style, rich with cumin, cinnamon, and chocolate, but unique from the other regional variations. Two, it goes really well on hot dogs (and spaghetti), with chopped onions and a heap of shredded cheese. Three, there’s a method of ordering: "Three ways" comes with chili and cheese, "four ways" adds beans or onions, "five ways" adds both beans and onions, and at a few places "six ways" adds garlic or jalapeños. Skyline Chili’s Coney dogs are a great introduction to the style, but the locals swear by Blue Ash, an institution since 1969. Go for the Cheese Coney: a medium-sized frank topped with chili, mustard, onions, and a giant mound of shredded Cheddar cheese.
6. Shake Shack, Multiple Locations: Shack-cago Dog
New York may be the home of Nathan’s and Gray’s Papaya, but anyone who has sought out the nation’s best hot dogs knows the unfortunate truth: New York City, for all its sidewalk hot dog carts, is not a hot dog town. They’re just not all that good. So it is that one of Gotham’s best hot dogs is Shake Shack’s Chicago-style Shack-cago dog. "A hot dog from a burger joint?!" Actually, as Shake Shack’s own site notes, the burgeoning burger empire "began as a humble hot dog cart." This dog is "split and dragged through the garden with Rick’s Picks Shack relish, onion, cucumber, pickle, tomato, sport peppers, celery salt, and mustard." The bun is even soft, just like in Chicago. Take that New York.
7. El Guero Canelo, Tucson, Ariz.: Sonoran Dog
Next on our list is a hot dog that is completely unlike any other in the country: the Sonoran Dog, a shining example of international cooperation. John T. Edge first brought this hot dog into the spotlight in 2009, and even though it’s been around for more than 40 years, the Sonoran is having quite a moment in the sun. Here’s how it works: a hot dog is wrapped in bacon (good place to start), griddled until crispy, stuffed into a split-top bun that’s different from any other in the country, and topped with any of a slew of condiments that usually involve beans, diced tomatoes, mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise. There are stands all over Tucson selling Sonorans, but the most shining example is sold in the humble, ragtag El Guero Canelo, which got its start as a tiny cart run by Daniel and Blanca Contreras in 1993 and now has a semi-outdoor seating area, a massive array of toppings, and an ever-present jovial vibe.
8. Bark Hot Dogs, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Bacon Cheddar Dog
Whereas some hot dog sellers are secretive about the origins of their product, the folks behind Bark, located in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, are more than happy to let you know where they source their hot dogs (and all the rest of their ingredients, right down to the cabbage used in the sauerkraut), because the ingredients are of such a high quality and they put so much work into crafting everything. Upstate New York’s Hartmann’s Old World Sausage worked with them to create a stellar hot dog, which gets a basting of lard butter as it’s browning on the flat top before being placed into a grilled, buttered split-top bun from Pepperidge Farms. Toppings stay fairly traditional, but one of our favorite guilty pleasures is their bacon Cheddar dog, which tops the dog with a sprinkling of diced Nueske’s bacon, a house-made Cheddar sauce, and diced pickled onions. All condiments are made in-house, except for the ketchup, mustard, and mayo. "Some things are just American classics," they explain on their menu.
9. Pink’s, Los Angeles: Three Dog Night
Is there anything about Pink’s that hasn’t been said? Hard to imagine. Even detractors define themselves by it. But you won’t find many of those — just check out the line at this family-owned hot dog stand that has been around since 1939. At our last count, owner Richard Pink said he sold 35 varieties of hot dogs and toppings and sells on average about 2,000 hot dogs a day. Credit much of Pink’s success to its chili — it once led then New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl to go dumpster-diving to figure out the recipe (true story). And while he wouldn’t divulge its ingredients, in an interview with The Daily Meal Pink did note "that it needs to be relatively smooth, but still have enough texture to make it stand up to hot dogs and hamburgers." For all the bacon, sour cream, guacamole, pastrami, and nacho cheese topped hot dogs, The Three Dog Night is the move. This "dog" (shouldn’t it really be called a meal?) features three hot dogs wrapped in a giant tortilla with three slices of cheese, three slices of bacon, chili, and onions. It’s a top-seller that was born the Laker Three-Peat Dog, was then renamed after Matrix Reloaded, and after the movie had its run, finally settled into a permanent homage to the '70s rock band.
10. Walter's, Mamaroneck, N.Y.: With Homemade Mustard
On the side of an unassuming road in the unassuming little New York town of Mamaroneck, sits an odd, pagoda-shaped hot dog stand. This is Walter’s, and the hot dogs here haven’t changed since Walter Warrington opened his first stand nearby in 1919. The copper-roofed pagoda was built in 1928, is currently on the county's inventory of historic places, and in 2010 was named a National Historic Landmark. But it’s the hot dogs that have really made Walter’s so legendary. Warrington devised the recipe for these dogs himself, and to this day they’re still split down the middle, basted in a secret sauce as they grill, placed into a fluffy toasted bun, and topped with homemade mustard. There’s nothing else quite like Walter’s.
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