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Before a recent vacation to Maine, I received a slew of tips on favorite lobster shacks and where to get the best steamers and clam rolls. But to my surprise, the advice most passionately and repeatedly pressed upon me was not to miss a shack called Flo's, which specializes in hot dogs.
When a shellfish timeout was imperative, I remembered the urgent looks in the eyes of people who had been there and their desperate imploring: "You must get the special!" We ignored the suggestion of our lovely innkeeper, also a cop, for the fancy places in town. This was instinctiveif I wanted wasabi foam, I'd have eaten it in New York, most likely years ago. On the coast of Maine, I was eager for regional fare. I always want whatever is inside a roadside shack.
Flo's has been in place since 1959, and is only open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. A line stretched out the door when I arrived. Everyone seemed giddy, hopped up on hot dog anticipation. Their eyes were wide and some seemed to be practicing their orderstheir lips moved as they crept forward. Eventually, Gail Stacy (who one thinks of as "Flo," though in fact the real Flo was her mother-in-law), called out from behind the counter, "Can I have two more come inside?"
I stepped in, and closed the screen door behind me, in the face of a burly guy who had brought his son. The line was an orderly, squished "U," and the men stooped so as not to bump their heads on the ceiling. "Flo" immediately asked how many dogs we wanted, and later, how we wanted them. Dutifully, we requested the special, which is slathered in her legendary relish, a thin squirt of mayonnaise, and a sprinkle of celery salt.
Like everyone else, we wound up purchasing a few jars of the relish, which, at $7.95, proves Flo is no fool. When one woman ordered just a hot dog, the proprietress launched into a friendly but persuasive sales pitch about the relish. "Some people call it Flo's sauce, some call it Flo's relish, and some people just call it sauce," she said. Meanwhile, the sign above her head advertised Flo's famous "hot sauce." She asked the customer whether she was aware that you could use the sauce on hamburgers as well as hot dogs, and that it made a great marinade? "You could even put it on fish!" The woman added one jar to her order, and Flo went back to her steamed buns and scrawled list of orders. She was the only employee there.
We took our dogs outside and experienced the cult of Flo's. The relish is dark, sweet and sour, and reminiscent of French onion soup or English-style relish, but with salty anchovies and tamarind in the background. The hot dog itself was superior, and the steamed bun loyally stuck to its sides like a slice of wonder bread sticks to the roof of a kid's mouth. The mayonnaise goo-ed it all together and made it just sick enough to inspire fanaticism. Flo's motto is: "Secrets locked inside."
New Yorkers can buy the relish online, but the experience wouldn't be the same at home. But of course, we have our own style, and it's nothing to scoff at. Our standbys are: Gray's Papaya, Katz's Deli, Nathan's, street vendors (a/k/a "dirty water dog"), and retro inspired spots like Schnack. The experience is perhaps most perfectthough maybe not most deliciousat Yankee stadium. We all have our favorite toppings. You know what they are.
But out-of-town specialties of all kinds tend to find their way to the city, just like old college buddies:
Danny Meyer's Shake Shack, which is now beloved for its "Shack Burgers," began as a cart specializing in Chicago-style hot dogs, which are Vienna-beef franks heaped with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, pickles, onions, florescent green relish, cucumber, mustard, and celery salt.
The New Jersey tradition of deep-fried dogs came to the East Village a couple of years ago, and the thrill hasn't worn off yet. Crif Dogs takes its inspiration from Clifton, where "rippers" (because the skin splits when they're fried) were born at the Rutt's Hut. You might not expect them to make a mean veggie dog, but they have developed an obsessive fan-base among animal lovers, too.
The origin of the Chili dog is hotly contested, probably because they're popular everywhere. In Detroit, they're called "Coney Islands," but after a local restaurant, not for the Brooklyn neighborhood. Elsewhere, they're called "Michigans," but they're also attributed to West Virginia, and Los Angeles may have the best. Wherever they're from, we love them at F&B, where they automatically get shredded cheese on top, though a simple garnish of chopped onions is classic.
Dawgs on Park makes a mean corn dog, when you're feeling nostalgic, but they're quite up-to-date with diet trends, too. Whole-wheat buns are available for an extra 50 cents, and customers choose from traditional beef, turkey, or tofu.
Thankfully, a hot dog made with even the classiest ingredients is still a hot dog. At Westville and Sparky's, swanky Niman Ranch franks are used, but you're still eating with your hands, so the childhood memories stay intact.