It's All in How the Dog Is Served
By ED LEVINE
YOU know those hot dogs that you know and love, and can't wait to eat this time of year? The ones served at Katz's Delicatessen, Gray's Papaya, Papaya King, the legendary Dominick's truck in Queens and the best "dirty water dog" carts?
They're all the same dog, manufactured by Marathon Enterprises, of East Rutherford, N.J., the parent company of Sabrett. They may vary in size, preparation and condiment selection (and Papaya King has Marathon add a secret spice to its mixture), but they're the same ol' dog. In fact, until a few years ago, Marathon made Nathan's hot dogs.
So, you may think you would have to work to find a truly special hot dog, one that stands out because of the frank itself, its trimmings, the bun or the surroundings. But New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are full of standouts, as I discovered in a nitrite-filled hot dog blitz.
Let's define our terms. A kosher hot dog is all beef and made under rabbinical supervision. It is skinless or stuffed into collagen casings, because natural casings are not permitted. Hebrew National and Empire National are the kosher hot dogs most often found in delis and supermarkets. Hebrew National is better known, but Empire National is the best kosher hot dog I've found. It is meaty, garlicky and just salty enough. You can find it in New York at the Second Avenue Deli and at Ben's Best in Rego Park, Queens.
What I call kosher-style franks are also all beef with a lot of the same spices, but they have a natural casing, these days made from sheep's intestines. It is the natural casing that gives the best hot dogs their wondrous snap and bite.
Many hot dog lovers around the country love franks made with beef and pork, either stuffed into natural casings or skinless. I think they are mushy, soft and underseasoned, but Walter's, a beloved pagoda-shaped hot dog emporium in Mamaroneck in Westchester County, splits and grills a hot dog made from beef, pork and veal.
So what constitutes a great hot dog? To me, it's a grilled, kosher-style frank served on a lightly toasted bun with slightly spicy mustard and a homemade onion or pickle relish that is neither too sweet nor too hot. The Old Town Bar on East 18th Street not only toasts the bun that encases its grilled natural-casing all-beef Sabrett dog, it butters it as well. Sublime! Sauerkraut is also fine atop my dogs, though every once in a while I crave one prepared Southern style, with cole slaw. My ideal dog should fit neatly into its bun, sticking out by at most an inch on each end.
The New York-style hot dog I love has been around for well over a hundred years. According to Arthur Schwartz, author of "New York City Food" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2004), in the 1870's a German immigrant named Charles Feltman opened his octagonal Ocean Pavilion beer garden on West 10th Street and Surf Avenue in Coney Island and sold frankfurters on buns by the thousands. Feltman had an employee, Nathan Handwerker, who, egged on by his famous friends Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor, opened a cheaper hot dog stand in 1916 that catered to the many poor and working-class people frequenting Coney Island.
Nathan's Famous hot dogs are still in Coney Island, but also in fast-food kiosks all over the country. The Nathan's in Coney Island still serves an excellent natural-casing all-beef hot dog. But it also makes a skinless all-beef dog that is a pale imitation of the real thing. These not-so-hot dogs are available in supermarkets, at many ballparks in the region and - gasp! - at some Nathan's franchises in the tristate area.
Papaya King has been serving its inexpensive yet exemplary natural-casing hot dogs since 1939, seven years after Gus Poulos, a Greek immigrant, opened Hawaiian Tropical Drinks at 86th Street and Third Avenue. The Gray's Papaya minichain was started by a former Papaya King partner in 1973. They each serve the Sabrett dog grilled, on a bun that isn't quite as toasted as I would like. I can't taste the extra spice in the Papaya King hot dog, but its mustard is spicier. Many other hot dog emporiums have opened with papaya in their name, and many of them, including Papaya Dog, serve the ubiquitous natural-casing Sabrett.
On the other end of the price scale, New York has hot dogs that approach the $20 barrier. The Old Homestead serves an 11-ounce footlong made from American-raised kobe beef for $19. I found it mushy and bland, and not redeemed by the white truffle mustard, the kobe beef chili, the Vidalia onions, the Dutch bell peppers and the Cheshire Cheddar sauce that accompanied it. For the same price you can have a Gray's Papaya special of two stupendous hot dogs and a papaya drink ($2.45) for a week and still have change in your pocket. If you insist on a haute dog, share the 15-bite hot dog ($13.50) at the Brooklyn Diner USA. It is an excellent, snappy all-beef hot dog from a secret source (not Marathon, I'm told), weighs almost a pound, and comes with excellent onion rings and sauerkraut studded with juniper berries.
Upscale grocery stores sell Fearless Franks by Niman Ranch, the purveyor known for its "humanely" raised cattle, but the all-beef and the beef-and-pork versions are skinless and therefore not as flavorful. On the other hand, Sparky's, a hipster eatery in a former trucking garage in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, serves Niman's Old Fashioned Franks with a natural casing.
For wurst purists, Rolf Babiel serves a German-style beef-and-pork wiener made by Karl Ehmer on a crusty oblong roll with very fine German mustard at his Hallo Berlin cart at 54th Street and Fifth Avenue as well as at his Hell's Kitchen storefront on 10th Avenue. And The Patio, in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, near the United Nations, serves a fine natural-casing all-beef footlong in an excellent toasted bun. It makes for a classy alfresco eating experience. Skip the canned chili offered as a topping.
Classic New York delis have a long and proud hot-dog-serving tradition. Sure, Katz's, on East Houston Street, serves that same old dog, but its 100-year-old trick is to leave the franks on the grill long enough so that the exterior is nice and crisp and the interior stays juicy. Artie's, on the Upper West Side, has been around for only six years, but savvy eaters know its dogs, made by Golden D, are slightly spicier than the competition's, and just chewy enough.
New Jersey has no one style of hot dog: the best establishments serve skinless pork-and-beef franks as well as kosher-style natural-casing beef ones. But many stands in the state deep-fry their dogs, with Rutt's Hut in Clifton varying its frying time depending on customer preference. New Jersey hot dog mavens speak of Rutt's dogs in hushed, reverent tones. I find them mushy and bland, though I do like the zesty relish. New Jerseyans looking for a snappy, garlicky all-beef hot dog should head to Syd's in Union.
Perhaps the most idiosyncratic version is the Italian hot dog served in and around Newark. At three places I visited, a quarter of a round, slightly crusty Italian bread was filled with Best brand skinless beef hot dogs and grilled or sautéed peppers and onions, then improbably topped by rounds of fried potatoes. When they are made right, as they are at Tommy's Italian Sausage and Hot Dogs in Elizabeth, they are an irresistible version of meat and potatoes.
My favorite Connecticut places are Top Dog in Cos Cob, which makes a fine grilled natural-casing Sabrett dog with a lovely, surprisingly complex chili topping, and Chez Lenard, a cart that sits in front of a dress shop on Main Street in Ridgefield. There, Chad Cohen uses Hebrew National hot dogs and serves them with unusual toppings. For example, one Mr. Cohen calls Le Hot Dog Épicié et Garniture Suisse is made with cheese fondue, horseradish sauce and chopped onions.
For those homesick for deep-fried beef-and-pork hot dogs, Crif Dogs sells them on St. Marks Place in the East Village.
Though the kosher-style all-beef hot dog is ubiquitous in Gotham, many other styles have been imported. Colombian immigrants eat lucky dogs topped with cheese, pineapple, mustard, crumbled potato chips and Thousand Island dressing at Los Chuzos y Algo Mas on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens. Enthusiasts for Chicago-style hot dogs can now sate their hunger at Shake Shack in Madison Square Park in Manhattan. It serves a classic Windy City dog, a steamed Vienna all-beef dog topped with diced tomatoes, mustard, onions, lettuce, green peppers, neon relish, cucumber, pickles, sport peppers and celery salt.
Context means a lot when it comes to hot dog eating in New York. A Nathan's hot dog does taste better in the salt air at Coney Island or the location in Oceanside on Long Island. The silly signs about all the tropical drinks and about the health benefits of drinking papaya contribute mightily to the hot dog eating experience at Papaya King. So do the conversations with the cops and the local businesspeople across from St. John's Cemetery in Rego Park, Queens, waiting in line at Dominick's hot dog truck, where Angelina D'Angelo serves a terrific steamed natural-casing Sabrett with sautéed onions. (Her husband, Gary, makes an estimable grilled skinless Sabrett dog with great grilled onions and peppers at another truck, D'Angelo's, about 100 yards south on Woodhaven Boulevard.)
But for hot dogs, there's no place like home plate.
The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council says baseball fans will eat 27.5 million hot dogs at major-league parks this year. Yankees fans have a choice of Hebrew National or Nathan's skinless all-beef franks. The same is offered at Shea Stadium, with the addition of glatt kosher Abeles & Heymann hot dogs, sold only in the food court down the right-field line.
The sauerkraut situation at both stadiums is dire. At Yankee Stadium there is nary a pickled cabbage shard to be found. At Shea I found sauerkraut available in one concession stand, the Nathan's booth halfway down the first-base line on the field box level. Shockingly, the sauerkraut is a dollar extra.
But when you are surrounded by screaming Mets fans at Shea or Cyclones fans at KeySpan Park in Coney Island, and the score is tied, and you bite into one of those less than exemplary franks slathered with mustard, you just might be having the peak hot dog experience of all.