By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2006 Gourmet Magazine
Chili dog taxonomy is bewildering. Consider the Michigan: a small, porky frank bedded in a cream-soft bun and topped with mustard, onions, and a sauce made from a little tomato, a lot of spice, and finely ground beef. Where do you find a Michigan? In New York: in the North Country between the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain, primarily in Plattsburgh. A Michigan in New York is very much like the New York System wiener, which is found only in Rhode Island. It also resembles the Coney Island hot dog typical of Detroit, as well as the Texas wiener of Paterson, New Jersey (although in New Jersey, it is deep-fried rather than steamed). Nowhere in Michigan will you find a Michigan; Coney Islands are nonexistent in Coney Island; and New York System wienies are absolutely unheard of anywhere in New York. The only thing in Texas similar to the Texas red hot of the Northeast is known to Texans as a Coney Island.
There is a whiff of logic to this bizarre nomenclature. Coney Island shops, which are found singly and in clusters from Massachusetts all the way to Nick’s Famous Coney Island in Portland, Oregon, were named for the Brooklyn beach resort where the hot dog was invented, in 1867, when butcher Charles Feltman first put a sausage in a bun. However, chili was never part of the boardwalk formula. The Coney Island’s formidable beef topping with a sweet-hot twang has a clear Greek accent—virtually all Coney restaurants were started by Greek immigrants, many of whom passed through New York on their way west—but historians of the hot dog get tied up in knots trying to explain exactly how a Macedonian gloss on the Tex-Mex dish became an emblem of hot dogs named for New York.
No clue!” says the waitress at Gus’s Red Hots, our first stop on a Michigan-eating tour of Plattsburgh, when we ask why chili-topped red hots hereabouts have a midwestern name. Gus’s started as a dog stand in 1951, but it has grown to a three-meal-a-day place. The menu boasts: “The restaurant features just about everything, including the famous ‘Michigan red hot,’ which we invite you to try while dining.” A Michigan costs $1.95 and is presented in a cardboard boat. It is a piggy-pink wiener in a split-top 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 wide streak of yellow mustard and a scattering of crisp, chopped raw onions.
A writer in the Plattsburgh Press-Republican once claimed that the Michigan owed its name to a cook in Jackson, Michigan, who created the hot dog’s signature sauce. At Clare & Carl’s, the oldest remaining red-hot stand in Plattsburgh (since 1942), there’s a story posted from the now defunct Plattsburgh Daily Pressthat credits the term to a Michigander named Eula Otis, a friend of Clare Warn’s, who went around to area restaurants saying, “I’m from Michigan. Would you like to try one of our chili dogs?” The state’s name clung to the hot dog topped with Warn’s version of the sauce, which Warn had introduced because New York style hot dogs with mustard and sauerkraut weren’t selling well at her stand. The Michigan became a local passion—served at summertime stands, in grocery stores, and even in the cafeteria at the Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital Medical Center.
Clare & Carl’s presents its Michigans in an ineffably tender bun that is similar to the traditional Northeast split-top but thicker at the bottom and closed at both ends, forming a trough to contain the sloppy topping. The chili is thick with minced meat, kaleidoscopically spiced, not at all sweet, and just barely hot. It is intriguing and addictive, but there are Michigan connoisseurs who contend that the greatest of all sauces was the one made at Nitzi’s, a now vanished eatery on the other side of Lake Shore Road that used to compete with Clare & Carl’s.
The original Clare & Carl’s is a lakeside drive-in with character to spare, its clapboard walls so old that they appear to have settled deep into the earth. Carhops attend customers in a broad parking lot, and there is a U-shaped counter with padded stools inside. A menu posted above the open kitchen lists Michigan first, but signs outside advertise the house specialty as Texas red hots.
McSweeney’s Red Hots is a relative newcomer, opened in 1991 and still spanking-clean and tidy. Carhop service is available, but there is an inside counter and comfortable tables too; Michigans cost $1.90, a quarter more than a regular dog. The menu calls them red hots, but our waitress assures us they are indeed Michigans. She also explains 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 wienie,” she says. “That makes the wienie stick up above the bun, and the sauce will fall off.”
It is an excellent sauce: luxuriously beefy and flecked with pepper that kindles a nice glow on the tongue. The package is substantial enough that these Michigans come with a fork. Looking around the dining room and at people eating off trays hung on car windows, we notice that most customers are happy to forgo the utensil. A few people we observe have perfected a technique of hoisting the entire cardboard boat to chin level with one hand, then using the other hand to ease the Michigan, bite by bite, from boat to mouth.
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. If you are a stranger in town and unfamiliar with Michigan culture, you likely won’t learn of this dish simply by looking at the menu, and when you read the menu you will almost surely assume it is something other than what it is. Only in the crazy world of chili dogs would a Michigan bun filled with Texas chili be listed as a sauce burger.
GUS’S RED HOTS