ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED DECEMBER 2010
While street foods of other countries seem to be treated with an outsized reverence these days, it struck me recently that the rather strong regional traditions of street food in the US seem to get mostly a sort of semi-sarcastic kitsch appreciation.
I’m not about to get on a bandwagon about it, but a recent trip across the country gave me the chance to compare three cities’ hot dogs.
No city is more closely identified with the frankfurter than New York. Probably not even Frankfurt, or Wien for that matter. Just note that other cities such as Detroit name their dogs “Coneys” (for Coney Island, where Nathan’s originated) , even though they bear little resemblance to New York dogs. Nathan’s Coneys are fairly plain, actually, but the Sabrett’s-driven street cart dog is something different. Invariably simmered, it’s over-long and under-thick, with a reasonable snap and plenty of salt. You can get it with canned saurkraut, but the genuinely NooYawk thing is the tomato-stewed onions. This in itself expresses the Manhattan ethos of “I don’t have time for you to properly dress my meat with tomato and onion separately. Can’t you stew the two together and save me a precious 10 seconds?” A side note: when I last got one, the vendor spent a half a minute picking through the dogs looking for just the right one. I was ready to strangle him. Also, go mustard (it’s deli style, natch) or go home. You’ll eat it in 30 seconds and remember it for 3 hours It comes on a sheet of foil. Always.
Chicago Style...there's a Vienna under there somewhere!
On my way back West I had a layover at O’Hare Airport. Now although I have had reasonably good barbecue at the Memphis airport, I didn’t rightly expect to get a legit Chicago dog, and sure enough, the first place I tried proved me right. Sliced tomato and pickles with a plain bun do not a ChiDog make. One must understand that, however the Chicago-style dog was created, it is a recipe not to be fooled with. The Vienna frank is a given (not sure you’re even allowed to sell any other brand in the Windy City), but here’s what else is essential:a steamed poppy seed bun into which is stuffed a pickle spear, sliced tomato, chopped onion, nuclear green relish, deli mustard, sliced fresh cucumber, hot peppers and celery salt.
Just when I was about to give up on my quest, I found the Chicago Style Hot Dog stand in terminal 3. For an incredibly reasonable (by airport standards) 4 dollars, they hand-built me the pictured monstrosity, which is impossible to fit in your mouth. But, if you get as much in as possible at once, you realize this Franken-furter hits all five tastes—Umami definitely included—at once. It also burns going down, and gives instant heartburn. Unforgettably so.
I’m sure Chicagoans will tell me that it doesn’t compare to the best, but at least I can say it’s all there, and I Get It. Nom/Ugh!
Now, I live in Los Angeles, where several frankfurter traditions collide. Pink’s, the Hollywood grill stand seems to somehow created a legend around itself that gets people waiting on line day and nite (which is a fairly recent thing—not so crazy ten years ago) for what are good, but certainly not great frankfurters. Lots of celebrity named combos, and yes, a decent chili dog, but little thinking outside the box. The Chicago dog here is certainly not a proper Chicago dog.
This is also the home of the corn dog—Hot Dog On A Stick, to be exact, by the Santa Monica Pier—which is a concept I don’t think has been explored nearly as far as it could be (cheese on a stick isn’t doing it for me). Then there’s Hollywood’s infamously funky Oki-dog, to which I confess I’ve never submitted. Their claim to fame is a double dog with pastrami and chili wrapped in a burrito. And they’ve been in business a lot longer than many other places.
More interesting is Pasadena’s new-ish Slaw Dogs, with a menu of ethnic twists like a Oaxacan dog with mole and tortilla crumbles, or a Thai slaw dog with cilantro and peanut. There’s also been a dorky campaign lately by Farmer John’s to make the bacon wrapped dog (popularly sold on suspicious street carts) the “official” hot dog of LA. Which is just irksome because of all the ethnic debates it’s raised. Folks, the bacon wrapped dog wasn’t created by Mexicans. It was created by Oscar Meyer. See: