Screw madeleines! My own Proustian summer memories are inextricably bound up with hot dogs—bloated 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.
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 egg—now that’s innovation! Here, then, is an opinionated rundown of the city’s top kennels.
Foremost among old-timers is Nathan’s Famous—the 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 dog—a 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’s—usually deploying a 13-foot lamb intestine—is 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.
1310 Surf Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-946-2202
Coney Island Joe’s,
1572 Linden Boulevard, Brooklyn, 718-342-5959
402 Sixth Avenue, 212-260-3532 and 2090 Broadway, 212-799-0243
121 West 125th Street, 212-665-5732
Penn Station, LIRR level, 212-630-0314
205 East Houston Street, 212-254-2246
417 River Road, Clifton, New Jersey, 973-779-8615
135a North 5th Street, Brooklyn, 718-302-5151
113 St. Marks Place, 212-614-2728
Dawgs on Park,
178 East 7th Street; 212-598-0667
F & B,
269 West 23rd Street, 646-486-4441
It doesn’t say “Fabrikwurst”—Yiddish for “sausage maker”—on the side of Katz’s for nothing. They’ve been making hot dogs on the premises since before they were called hot dogs. Founded in 1888 by the Eisland brothers, the store was taken over by partner Willy Katz in 1903. The thick-skinned dogs are slender, sultry, and unexpectedly subtle in flavor and texture. When I’m in a kinky mood, I grab two and a plate of cole slaw and smother the dogs in slaw. Katz’s frankfurters (and the hot dog on steroids called knoblewurst) became the post-gig salvation of many rock bands in the CBGB era.
The mother of all antique doggeries is Rutt’s Hut. It’s included here, not only because of its proximity to the Lincoln Tunnel, but because of its unique cooking method: The franks are immersed in bubbling fat till they rip up the side, hence the nickname “ripper.” A specimen fried even further is called a “cremator,” but don’t you try to use this nomenclature, or the attendant will look at you like you’ve got two heads. Let the Cliftonites keep their secret language. The mustard-pickle relish is homemade, the perfect accompaniment to these deliciously mutilated franks.
Though no one has yet invented the foie gras frank, some places have come pretty damn close. Sparky’s is a former garage in Williamsburg that prides itself on looking like a garage, but it trumps other establishments by offering effete Niman Ranch franks. That’s the outfit that provides beef and lamb to luxury restaurants, and its frank has boarded the Concorde and gone back to Germany. The result is a natural-skinned frank whose meaty and bland colorlessness suggests that fat has been kept to a minimum and no artificial flavors or colors were used, which might be a big mistake where hot dogs are concerned. Still, after a couple of bites, you’ll be hooked, especially if you omit the homemade ketchup, which is way too sweet and annoyingly laced with cumin. Skip the smoked tofu pup, too, which has a strange, slippery interior texture.
If you can’t make it to Clifton, consider dropping by Crif Dogs, the establishment that takes hot dog envy to its limit. Outside hangs an obscenely naked weenie emblazoned “Eat Me.” Central to a menu that swings wildly from one crazy idea to another is the Crif dog, a beef-pork ballparker fried in emulation of Rutt’s Hut, but for such a brief time that it might be called a “creaser.” There’s also a natural-skin New York dog, a soy frank so good it could be mistaken for meat, and a corn dog made from fresh batter rather than pulled out of the freezer case. Crif’s greatest invention, though, is the bacon wrap, a rasher carefully coiled around a New York dog and deep fried to crispness. Nearby Dawgs on Park also offers a good deep-fried hot dog, and a corn dog, too. Plastered with dog photos, the decor makes you wonder what the franks are made of.
Competing with Crif for creative supremacy is F & B (“frites and beignets”), which affects a European air and mounts a menu so strange it may confound you. At last count there were nine kinds of franks, including salmon, chicken, and tofu. Theme dogs are the order of the day, with names like hot diggity dog, bare bones, and prairie dog, the latter topped with guacamole, tomato salsa, and cheddar cheese. My favorite is the great dane, a Milwaukee-style pure pork affair topped with Danish mustard, French remoulade, Middle Eastern frizzled onions, apple ketchup, and sweet cucumber pickles—a bewildering assortment. Just close your eyes and bite.