Despite having history in Germany, the hot dog really seems, now, to be a quintessential American food — available everywhere from the food carts of New York City to the corner markets of America’s heartland.
How do you like yours? With mustard? Plain? Chili? Onions? A lot of your preference has to do with where you come from. Throughout the United States, the hot dog has turned into a blank culinary canvas on which you can add amazing regional flair to suit your preferences and tastes. So we asked Uproxx writers from all over the country to try a regional hot dog and report on why their dog is so unique.
Tennessee Slaw Dog
Jennifer C. Martin: Being from southeastern Tennessee (and now living in Richmond, Virginia), I volunteered to represent the southern region of hot dogs, which really only means one thing: the slaw dog. Coleslaw is a quintessential southern food lurking at every southern barbecue. It’s not an official cookout without someone bringing a big bowl of the cabbage-y stuff to a summer party. Coleslaw can be either vinegar-based or mayonnaise-based: it’s entirely up to preference. My Appalachian grandmother preferred oodles of mayonnaise in her coleslaw, along with the flavors of horseradish and mustard, so that’s what I’m more accustomed to.
Even though I’ve never lived outside the south, I’d never put coleslaw on a hot dog before. For me it seemed… weird. I preferred hot dogs with mustard only, or just chili and cheese — which motivated me to discover what I was missing out on.
I headed to a local Richmond restaurant called City Dogs and picked up the “Tennessee Slaw Dog” piled high with mustard, onions, beanless chili, and coleslaw.
It was a regular ol’ beef hot dog in a plain white bun. And while the bread felt heavy and soft, and even a little soggy, from the weight of both the chili and the coleslaw, I was surprised how good it was. The raw crunch of the coleslaw was an incredible textural shift in comparison to the meaty hot dog and the chili. The onions and mustard added a bit more flavor to make the taste a little zingier without overpowering the taste of the slaw and the chili. It was good — really good.
I had to wonder, why had I denied myself this southern-style hot dog for so long? In some aspects, the simplicity of the southern foods you grow up with become a part of the background at parties and get-togethers, and they just seem bland and boring in comparison to newer, big-city flavors. But if there’s anything that the south is good at, it’s at having surprisingly tasty food in a way that is both old-fashioned and modern at once. Sort of like the region itself.
Rhode Island Hot Wiener
Dan Seitz: Unlike Chicago or the south, New Englanders don’t generally have a particularly strong attachment to the hot dog. In these parts, we’re more likely to pull something out of the sea and fry it or cover it in mayo than boil or grill a few hot dogs.
That said, New Englanders did perfect the hot dog roll. New England rolls are split across the top, not the side, so you can stuff in your wiener, your condiments, and your toppings in while your bun rests on a table. It’s a wonderful feat of food engineering, because you’re not stuck juggling wieners and containers of condiments. Just lay it flat on your plate, and ladle on what you want.
It is a vastly superior roll. Seriously, buy some “New England” style rolls and you’ll never return to the crappy side-loaders at the market again. And that roll is the base for the only hot dog New England can claim as its own: the Rhode Island hot wiener.
Standing by long-time Rhode Island tradition, these are made on what’s called “The New York System,” but are unique to this weird little state. In fact, the inventors of the New York System were just trading off of Coney Island’s reputation — they may have never even eaten a Nathan’s. The hot dog isn’t the usual beef, but a veal and pork mix. It’s topped with celery salt, chopped onions, yellow mustard, and a delicious thin chili made with paprika, cumin, chili powder and allspice, although the exact spices and their levels will vary from vendor to vendor.
They go pretty well with a Moxie, a licorice-flavored soda beloved and mostly consumed in Maine, but to make it a true Rhode Island experience, have it with a “coffee milk,” which is like a chocolate milk but made with coffee syrup. Yes, that’s a thing. At least in Rhode Island.
Seattle-Style Hot Dog
Zach Johnston: Eating a hot dog in Seattle requires the right combination of several factors. First, you need the pitter-patter of raindrops falling. Not a full-on downpour, just enough rain to make you damp if you stand out in it too long. That’s the sort of rain that out-of-towners will open an umbrella for, allowing Pacific Northwesterners to scoff at their softness. Second, you need to be stumbling out of a dive bar — a real dive bar. I’m talking a place that has a morning and evening happy hour. The sort of joint that reeks of cleaning disinfectant, stale beer, and, somehow still, faintly of cigarette smoke. Their jukebox has to include Verdi, Johnny Cash, Pantera, Frankie Valli, and every grunge band except Candlebox. Lastly, you need a portable hot dog stand (not truck) on the street. And this is where it gets interesting.
The stand should be one person manning a gas grill. The buns are those glutinous sandwich rolls they use for their own hot dogs at every Costco. You need the little bit of white cornmeal baked into the super soft “bread.” These have to be toasted on the grill. The meat is from Costco as well. Preferably they’ll use a standard beef hot dog. It doesn’t need to be fancier than that. The fire from the grill cracks the skins and adds a perfect amount of char. There’s no dirty water here to bathe your wiener in — just fire. Often you’ll see the hot dog cut in half down the length of the sausage and then quickly fired again to give it an extra bit of char on the inside and allow the fats in the dog to liquefy a bit. After your bun is toasted on the grill, a massive schmear of cream cheese is applied to the bun. The hot dog is dropped in. Next, the grilled onions and green peppers are piled high in one steaming heap. Lastly, a little mustard, ketchup, and/or jalapeños to finish off the bomb that is about to drop in your stomach. If you’re lucky, they’ll have some sauerkraut waiting for you to add a much needed fermented edge.
It’s big. It’s full of fire, cheese, and beef. It is a culinary masterpiece of the tubular arts. It is not uncommon to stumble back into the bar after devouring a beef hot dog on the streets of Seattle or Tacoma. You’ll have a sense of invincibility that only bourbon can sate.
San Francisco Mission Dog
David Pemberton: My girlfriend, Sara, and I had just watched a touring production of “The Book of Mormon” at the Orpheum theater on Market Street. It was a warm summer day and the sidewalks were filled with colorful outfits, feather boas, skin-tight, brightly colored spanxs, banana hammocks, and pasties.
“Are you seriously going to eat that?” Sara asked.
“Yeff!” I emphatically mumbled through the first bite of a delicious, bacon-y, San Francisco street-style hot dog.
It was Pride Weekend and — as I inhaled one of the most succulent street meals that I’ve ever eaten — I savored the most “San Franciscan” moment of my life.
San Francisco’s bacon-wrapped hot dog is served with fried peppers and onions and, if you’re doing it right, a little bit of mayonnaise. They’re sold by ubiquitous street vendors, often grilling their mystery meats on a makeshift metal push-cart that looks like something straight out of Mad Max. The hot dogs are often referred to as “danger dogs” or “heart attack dogs,” but none of that really matters because, in the end, they are one of the most satisfying, most underloved meals available in the Bay Area. They are greasy, fatty, and savory, the holy trinity of hangover cures, and at just $5 a dog, they are — by a generous margin — one of the best deals in the city.
Yes, I came to San Francisco for the burritos, but I stayed for the street-style hot dogs.
Texas Chili Dog
Christian Long: It turns out, Texas’ claim to the beloved Texas Chili Dog is pretty non-existent. The chili dog that bears the name of the Lone Star State was actually created in Paterson, New Jersey sometime around 1920. The ‘Texas Hot’ (or ‘Texas Wiener’ as it’s called by people who can say the word ‘titmouse’ without giggling uncontrollably) was a deep-fried hot dog served with a Greek-style slow-cooked meat sauce spiced with cayenne and cinnamon. As its popularity spread, the hot dog was sliced open and grilled, rather than being deep-fried, but with the same Greek-style sauce. Going “all the way” adds mustard and chopped onions as well.
Regardless of its origins, or how Texas got naming rights, there’s a reason that chili (or Greek-style sauce, if you’re a purist) is one of the go-to toppings for a hot dog… because it’s delicious.
Seriously, there’s no more perfect topping to a warm tube of meat on a bun than a rich, savory sauce made up of *more* meat. Add a flavorful dash of mustard and some diced onions for texture and you absolutely cannot go wrong. Even Texas got hip to the trend, adding their own uniquely Texas chili recipes to perfectly compliment hot dogs across the state.
Washington, D.C. Half-Smoke
C.A. Pinkham: Half-smokes are basically just larger (usually) half-beef, half-pork (again, usually), smoked hot dogs topped with (once more: USUALLY) herbs, onions, and chili. They were invented in the early 20th century by a man named Raymond Briggs. They’re D.C.’s local signature delicacy, mainly because they still won’t let us cook and eat politicians who refuse to legislate.
As far as what they taste like… well, like a hot dog. That’s basically it.
See, the issue is, when you don’t have a single standard for a food (and a half-smoke can basically be anything, hence all the “usuallys”), you’re not going to get a distinctive flavor. Besides, we’re now so used to hot dogs being 40% raccoon esophagus that “a hot dog, but with mildly different ingredients” doesn’t really grab you. Everyone I talked to, and myself, has had half-smokes from various places, but almost none of us could remember what they actually taste like. There may be some actual memorable half-smokes somewhere in D.C., but no one I know has ever eaten one.
New York City Crif Dog
Michael Depland: When you think of a hot dog in New York, you think of a warm, suspect meat being heated up in a metal cart, slapped onto a stale bun and then being charged your next of kin for the privilege of eating it. But fear not: this does not represent all that the Big Apple has to offer.
Crif Dog is as uniquely New York as any other Gotham institution. Kids are piling into a crowded East Village basement restaurant to get these juicy smoked pork or beef delights — and with good reason: the taste just can’t be beat. When people want to slip into the speakeasy “Please Don’t Tell,” they first have to pass through that infectious and unmistakable scent of hot dogs, fresh off the grill, customized any way you want them. It’s the ultimate high-low combo.
Keith Reid-Cleveland: I used to be the pickiest eater in my friend group. And when I did try something new, my foodstuffs couldn’t touch each other. I’d even eat the various parts of my sandwiches individually. When it came to hot dogs, I was your standard ketchup-only kinda kid. So you can only imagine the look on my face when my grandfather took me to Vienna Beef Factory for lunch and came back with something I’d never seen before – a Chicago-style hot dog.
Before me was a beef hot dog on a sesame seed bun covered in everything from ketchup and mustard to relish and a long slice of a pickle. I’d never even tasted more than half of those things in my life up to that point, and I surely wasn’t looking to do it all at once. So I got a large pop to wash down anything I didn’t like and braced myself.
Life has never been the same since.
To be fair, I still won’t eat half of those ingredients on anything else, but put together on a hot dog? It just works.