By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Screw madeleines! My own Proustian summer memories are inextricably bound up with hot dogsbloated pink franks downed at ballparks with a thick stripe of yellow mustard, krauted weenies gobbled at the beach with the salt air in my nostrils, and greasy corn dogs chomped at state fairs. When fun was to be had, hot dogs were there.
These sausages originated in Frankfurt, Germany ("frankfurter"), or Vienna, Austria ("wiener"), depending on who you talk to. In 1880 Antonoine Feuchtwanger sold them in the streets of St. Louis, passing out white gloves so consumers wouldn't soil their hands. Thereafter some genius replaced the gloves with a bun. Dispensed by strolling sidewalk vendors, frankfurters were the hit of Chicago's 1893 Columbia Exposition, and by 1900 they'd became a fixture at Coney Island, the nation's preeminent beach resort. At about the same time, Tad Dorgan heard the vendors hawking "dachshund sausages" during a Giants game at the Polo Grounds in Harlem. Not knowing how to spell dachshund, he wrote "hot dog" in the balloon over his cartoon of a canine cradled in a bun, coining a new term. Later, someone else would notice how much dachshunds resemble frankfurters, and begin calling them wiener dogs.
More surely than the Dow Jones, hot dogs mirror the ups and downs of the economy. During flush times, we're too good for tube steaks. When times are hard, we're prone to consider them an entire meal. And these are hard times. Hipster hot dog hangs like Crif Dogs and Sparky's are proliferating, making the enjoyment of these treats a tribe-defining communal event. Meanwhile, such bastions as Nathan's, Coney Island Joe's, and Papaya King persist and flourish, not to mention the army of Sabrett's and Hebrew National vendors. How many zillions of franks are sold in New York each summer? Don't ask me.
1. Katz's frank with mustard
2. Crif Dogs bacon-wrapped New York dog
3. Rutt's Hut "ripper" with mustard relish
4. F & B great dane
5. Crif Dogs vegetarian corn dog
While hot dogs were anathema to the health-conscious '90s, veggie dogs make franks seem salutary again, though God knows what they put into the pink links to make them taste like meat. New York has become a haven for wild frankfurter experimentation, too, as styles from the past have been revived, topping schemes borrowed from remote places, and entrepreneurial innovation undertaken. At F & B you can scarf an apple-and-chicken frank topped with German potato salad, while Crif Dogs offers a breakfast number accessorized with bacon, cheese, and a fried eggnow that's innovation! Here, then, is an opinionated rundown of the city's top kennels.
Foremost among old-timers is Nathan's Famousthe Coney Island branch, of course. Though the natural-skinned all-beef frank is pricey, the thunderous pop when you bite into it and the saline tang of the pink flesh provide partial justification. And don't ignore the crinkle-cut fries, whose aerodynamic design multiplies the caramelized brown surface area. From the outside, at least, Nathan's remains largely the same as when it was founded in 1916. The 100 millionth frank was dispensed on July 6, 1955.
Wishing it were at the beach, Coney Island Joe's sports garish red and yellow stripes on its cinderblock facade. The peculiar innovation of this evolved Greek diner is the double doga pair of crisp-skinned franks lolling on a length of French baguette. The doubling up is pure inspiration, making the sandwich a formidable meal for passing motorists and subway mechanics from the adjacent Linden Shop. The extensive condiment bar permits you to concoct your own fantasy frank.
Senior citizen Gray's Papaya began as a renegade Papaya King. The Gray's at 8th Street and Sixth Avenue offers, in deference to the economy, a Recession Special that includes a pair of excellent franks washed down with a choice of jumbo fruit drinks, most of which suffer from dilution and grittiness. Comically, the papaya allegedly possesses medicinal properties"A definite aid to digestion and normal regularity," boasts one sign. The persistence of natural-skinned franks like those at Gray'susually deploying a 13-foot lamb intestineis something of a culinary miracle, since the rest of the nation long ago switched to the larger-circumference artificial-skinned ballpark franks.
Baseball-themed Nedick's was a New York institution for 80 years, proffering a puffy frank on a bun that looked like a deformed slice of white bread. The last one disappeared in the late '80s. Now the chain is being reinvented, though the original frankfurter is only a fraction of a menu highlighting regional hot dog styles. Best is the Chicago frank, though the anemic sausage is not a real Vienna Red Hot, the brand preferred in the Windy City. The firm poppy-seed bun is right on the money, though, and so are the toppings: grainy mustard, chopped tomato, slivers of sour pickle, tiny green chiles, fluorescent sweet relish, and skanky raw onions.