America's Best Hot Dogs
The Zilla Dog is a far cry from the traditional franks that competitive eaters choke down each year at Coney Island’s famous July 4th contest. Indeed, this quintessentially American snack is having a renaissance, swept up in the nouveau gourmet enterprises of today’s innovative culinary talent. But just because chefs are teaching old dogs new tricks doesn’t mean the traditional tube steak has disappeared. In our quest for America’s top dogs, we found reasons to love both old-style and newfangled.
The basic concept hasn’t changed much since 1874. That’s when Charles Feltman, a German immigrant who had moved to Brooklyn, started serving beef sausages—what he called frankfurters—in a revolutionary way: sandwich style. While Feltman has been relegated to trivia fodder, one of his employees became legendary for his own hot-dog stand: Nathan Handwerker, founder of Nathan’s Famous (though this Coney Island landmark is now more of a curiosity for tourists than a magnet for gourmands).
What lives on, however, is Feltman’s style: a grilled, all-beef specimen in natural casing that became synonymous with New York. Today, you’ll find the best-tasting examples at Gray’s Papaya, which since the 1970s has been serving a taut, almost rippling link in a just-warmed, fluffy bun. You’ll barely notice the no-frills, counter-service operation.
Meanwhile, Chicago developed its own style (and an inevitable hot-dog rivalry with the Big Apple). Also a cow-only affair, its dog is steamed, as opposed to grilled, and given hits of yellow mustard; chopped, raw, white onion; neon green relish; tomato wedges; kosher dill pickle; whole (medium-hot) sport peppers; and celery salt. Hot Doug’s still serves this classic (just ask for The Dog) while also evolving people’s tastes with new flavors like spicy Thai chicken or curry lamb sausage.
Celebrity chefs are pushing the envelope as well—and taking the humble hot dog to new levels. Chris Cosentino, of San Francisco’s Incanto restaurant and Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, was a cofounder of Boccalone, which serves what it proudly calls “Tasty Salted Pig Parts.” But this is no traditional dog; it’s made of mortadella.
So next time you find yourself in a hot-dog hotbed, don’t settle for the nearest street cart; seek out one of these puppies instead. Unadorned or heavily garnished, they’re worth a detour. —Charlotte Druckman
Belly Shack, Chicago
At Bill Kim’s industrial Logan Square joint, the “belly dog” comes fully loaded with egg noodles, pickled green papaya, and spicy togarashi fries. Don’t forget the curry mayo. —Shane Mitchell
Garden District, Washington, D.C.
The “dachshund in the grass” slaw dog gets our vote at this casual beer garden—best with a side of hush puppies. —Shane Mitchell
Bronwyn, Somerville, MA
Tim Wiechmann recently introduced the smoky “Brondog,” covered with melted Emmentaler cheese and vinegary sauerbraten on a poppy-seed potato bun. —Shane Mitchell
Beer Bar, Salt Lake City
Viet Pham’s “brat Reuben” is a hungry-man mash-up of beer-braised bratwurst, pastrami, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing on a basic white bun. 161 E. 200 S. —Shane Mitchell
Hog & Hominy, Memphis, TN
Bocce meets boiled peanuts here in East Memphis, where a pretzel bun is stuffed with a beef-and-cheddar dog. —Shane Mitchell
Hot Doug’s, Chicago
“The Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium” is how Doug’s describes itself, so you know it takes the item between the bun most seriously. The dogs’ names, however, are more playful, like The Elvis (smoked Polish sausage), The Paul Kelly (beer-soaked bratwurst), and The Bo Derek (the “Mighty, mighty, mighty hot!” andouille). Every day—closing time is at 4 p.m.—brings a special or two, like a spicy Thai chicken or curry lamb sausage. Despite the wide range of links, The Dog—a Chicago-style sample with the quintessential trimmings—is de rigueur. On Fridays and Saturdays, insiders know to stop by for the deliciously decadent Duck Fat Fries. —Charlotte Druckman
Original New York System, Providence
A landmark, this humble shop has been standing since 1927 and continues to serve its trademark grilled tube steaks (also known as gaggers) to an adoring public. The dogs, distinguished by their squared-off edges, are doused with meat sauce; chopped, raw onions; mustard; and celery salt. For celebrity chef Chris Cosentino, who grew up in Rhode Island, the Original New York System dogs are the ones against which all others (excluding, of course, his own) are measured. —Charlotte Druckman
Pink’s, Los Angeles
It stands to reason that the same town that gave us In-N-Out Burger would deliver a wiener equivalent. Enter Pink’s, whose franks are as worthy of a pre- or post-Oscar detour as that burger joint’s. In this case, the frank preceded the patty (Pink’s began as a pushcart in 1939, while In-N-Out opened in 1948). Seventy-five years in, the rosy stalwart has an extensive roster of wieners that covers the waterfront of toppers—guacamole, nacho cheese, onion rings, Polish pastrami, or Brooklyn pastrami. Don’t be distracted by the Martha Stewart or Rosie O’Donnell Long Island numbers. The Chili Dog—with mustard, chili, and onions—is all you need. —Charlotte Druckman
Shake Shack, New York
Sure, Danny Meyer has his multi-award-winning fine-dining establishments, but his fans’ most unabashed adoration has been reserved for his contemporary, urban rendition of the roadside pit stop. Shake Shack is an ode to two of his most beloved St. Louis locales—Ted Drewes, of frozen custard fame, and Steak ’n Shake, a burger and shake stand with curbside service. The Hot Dog and Shack-cago Dog offerings—each featuring Vienna all-beef links—are best, but if you have to choose one, order the Shack-cago, which comes with relish, onion, cucumber, pickle, tomato, sport pepper, celery salt, and mustard. —Charlotte Druckman
Flo’s, Cape Neddick, ME
For 55 years, the Stacy family has been serving up some of America’s best dogs from this ramshackle, cabin-like red shed in Maine. The franks come steamed and are served with some very special relish—in fact, it’s this now-famous condiment that keeps customers coming back. Ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard are said to enhance the effect. Like many a dog stand, the original Flo’s is open only for lunch (from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) every day except Wednesday. —Charlotte Druckman
The Red Hot, Tacoma, WA
At this Tacoma tavern, the experience is as much about the beefy bundles of joy as it is about the cold brews. It’s like Cheers, only better—a watering hole with some of the most delicious and inventive red hots (another name for your regulation wiener). Try The Tacoma (an all-beef dog with the usual garnishes) or The Coney (an all-beef dog with mustard, chopped onions, and chili), and ask the staff to recommend a pairing from among the 14 beers on tap. —Charlotte Druckman
Hot Dog Heaven, Orlando, FL
When charismatic Chicagoan Mike Feld moved to Florida more than 20 years ago, he found one thing sorely lacking—a legit hot-dog depot. So he opened his own at a gas station on Highway 50. His links are Vienna beef and can be gussied up with everything from onions and baked beans to the Reuben triumvirate: Thousand Island dressing, Swiss cheese, and kraut. Try the Authentic Chicago Hot Dog; every morsel, down to the wax paper on which the authentic savory is served, comes from the city for which it’s named. —Charlotte Druckman
Ben’s Chili Bowl, Washington, D.C.
Up until very recently, the only VIP deemed worthy of a free meal at the Ali family chili shrine was longtime devotee Bill Cosby, who made the venue a national destination when he held a press conference there in the 1980s. The latest inductee into the eat-for-free club is Barack Obama, who stopped by to inhale the must-order Chili Half-Smoke a few days before his inauguration (he paid—and added a generous tip). Invented in 1958, this signature snack comprises a smoked pork-and-beef sausage tucked into a toasty steamed bun and comes topped with mustard, onions, and (of course) spicy chili sauce. —Charlotte Druckman
4505 Meats, San Francisco
Ryan Farr has become the latest “it” chef (and artisan butcher) to San Francisco’s starstruck gourmands. And while his crunchy, porcine chicharrones are dangerously addictive, it’s the wieners he peddles at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market (Thursdays and Saturdays) that are truly special. What’s in them? Except for the bacon, Farr won’t say—it’s a secret blend. Just get to the Farmers Market before it closes (8 a.m.–2 p.m.) and try the Zilla Dog, smothered in kimchi, “$$$ sauce,” scallions, and those chicharrones. —Charlotte Druckman
Gray’s Papaya, New York
Some New Yorkers cite Papaya King as the ultimate hot dog, but for many natives, there’s no substitute for Gray’s Papaya. Gray’s may have been a latecomer—it was established in 1973, more than 40 years after the original Papaya King—but it serves an even tastier product than its competitor. The exterior of Gray’s grilled beef link is taut, almost rippling, and comes in a just-warmed, fluffy bun; a papaya drink rounds out the winning combination. As regulars know, toppings are unnecessary; a simple swipe of mustard is all you need. —Charlotte Druckman
Boccalone, San Francisco
Offal-worshipping celebrity chef Chris Cosentino is the cofounder of Boccalone, a salumeria that proudly celebrates its slogan, “Tasty Salted Pig Parts.” It’s not surprising that the enterprise offers up a pig-based wiener; however, the fact that it’s a mortadella dog makes this snappy sucker decidedly unexpected. You’ll find the Hot Panini (as it’s categorized on the menu) accented by house-made pickles and mustard. —Charlotte Druckman
Crif Dogs, New York
Open since 2001, this East Village restaurant is the brainchild of Brian Shebairo and Chris Antista (whose first name sounds like “Crif” when pronounced with a smoked, deep-fried, beef-and-pork wiener in one’s mouth—which is how the true Crif dog comes). Crif is known for its ultracreative combinations, like the Morning Jersey—a ham-wrapped link separated from its bun by melted cheese and a fried egg—or the Jon-Jon Dragon, which has a generous slathering of cream cheese, some scallions, and a sprinkling of the seeds found on an everything bagel. And be sure to check out the phone booth, behind which lies the speakeasy PDT. —Charlotte Druckman
Superdawg Drive-In, Chicago
Chicago hot-dog lovers tend to lie in one of two camps—the newfangled spot Hot Doug’s or this Windy City classic. Superdawg is an old-school, 1950s-style diner that was ahead of the curve when it opened in 1948. You can still order up your dog via outside speakers (real Order-Matics), and a waitress will come attach a tray to the side of your car. There’s nothing fancy here: the Superdawg is a juicy, pure-beef dog with the city’s signature battery of garnishes on a standard poppy-seed bun. —Charlotte Druckman
Rawley’s, Fairfield, CT
Connecticut—yes, Connecticut—has a shockingly large number of wiener huts, many of which specialize in deep-fried dogs. Our fave? Rawley’s, which is also the preferred local hot-dog palace of perennial road-trippers Michael and Jane Stern, who write the blog Roadfood. Rawley’s “plucks plumped-up rippers from the boiling oil, then rolls them around on the griddle until their skins turn crusty,” says Michael. Then the hot dogs are encased in toasted buns and dolled up with mustard, relish, sauerkraut, and crunchy bacon curls. —Charlotte Druckman
The Wieners Circle, Chicago
Don’t be fooled by its shabby appearance. When Danny Meyer was developing the Shake Shack menu, he turned to this 1980s strip-mall relic for frankfurter inspiration. And these char-grilled jobs remain Meyer’s favorite bun-pocketed specimens outside New York. The Wieners Circle stays open ’til 4 a.m. weeknights and 5 a.m. Friday and Saturday, making it a hub for late-night revelers. —Charlotte Druckman
Fab Hot Dogs, Reseda, CA
While the rest of Los Angeles is lining up at Pink’s, some serious foodies (like James Beard Award–winning food writer Jonathan Gold) head to Reseda and Fab Hot Dogs. You decide how your link is cooked—charred and fried, grilled, or steamed—and what you’d like on it: BBQ baked beans, red cabbage, jalapeño salsa, and Chicago neon relish are all fair game. —Charlotte Druckman
Walter’s, Mamaroneck, NY
This Westchester institution has, since it opened in 1919, done things differently. The main (and only) attraction is the dogs—a hybrid of beef, pork, and veal, they’re split down the center, grilled with a “secret sauce,” then served with homemade mustard. All that, plus the stand’s quirky pagodaesque structure, make Walter’s a true original. —Charlotte Druckman