It was only recently that we learned about Michigans, thanks to Roadfooders David Scheinberg, who used to spend summers in the Adirondacks, as well as to Adam Graham and to Cynthia Potts, all of whom alerted us to a style of chili dog unique to New York State's Northland. Michigans go back to the early 1940s and have remained very popular in and around Plattsburgh, but virtually are unknown elsewhere. Each place that makes Michigans has its own formula, but the basic idea is a piggy pink wiener in a hollowed-out bun, topped with dark-orange chili sauce in which the meat is sandy smithereens. The heft of the sauce contrasts with the fluffy bun and fatty frank, and while each separate ingredient is inarguably ignominious, the combo has charisma – especially when topped with a streak of yellow mustard and a scattering of crisp, chopped raw onions.
McSweeney's is a relative newcomer to the area, opened in 1991, still spanking-clean and tidy. It features old-time car-hop service and an inside counter as well as comfortable sit-down tables indoors. Michigans are listed on the menu as chili dogs, but our waitress assured us they are indeed Michigans. She also explained the bun crisis of 2002, when long buns became unavailable, thus wreaking havoc on the eating habits of those who order their Michigans with buried onions. "Buried means underneath the weenie," she said. "That makes the weenie stick up above the bun and the sauce will fall off."
McSweeney's makes excellent sauce: luxuriously beefy, flecked with pepper that kindles a nice glow on the tongue. The package is substantial enough that Michigans come with a fork. Looking around the dining room and at people eating off trays hung on car windows, it appeared to us that most customers forgo the utensil. A few people we observed had perfected a technique of hoisting the entire cardboard boat to chin level with one hand, then using the other hand to ease the Michigan from boat to mouth, bite by bite.
Michigan sauce is so precious that McSweeney's sells it by the pint ($11.50) and even offers a Michigan without the hot dog: mustard, onions and plenty of sauce in the unique, hollowed-out bun. This configuration is known, strangely enough, as a sauceburger, and as much as we like the sauce, we much prefer it in concert with a weenie.
"In the foreground is a wienerless sauceburger, signified by the toothpick -- nothing but chili sauce. In the background is a standard Michigan, including the red hot. Note the buns, which are unique to the region. At first glance they look like standard Northeast split tops, but they are closed at each end, forming a trough -- all the better to hold dog, sauce, mustard, and onions."
"McSweeney's menu offers both French fries and homemade French fries for four bits extra. Of course, either is available smothered with chili sauce. This picture is the homemade fries, which are quite good."
"There's comfortable seating indoors, but car hop service is the traditional way to enjoy a Michigan. And there are picnic tables for fair-weather dining."