Top Dogs


By Jane and Michael Stern

Originally Published 2001 Gourmet Magazine

No introduction is necessary. These are America’s ten best hot dog joints By JANE and MICHAEL STERN 

1 Walter’s is a pagoda-shaped roadside stand that has been serving incomparable hot dogs since 1919. A frank of beef, pork, and veal (made exclusively for Walter’s) is split lengthwise, coated with secret sauce, and cooked on a grill. The buttery liquid insinuates flavor into the cut surface of the wienie and gives it a tantalizing faint crunch. There are french fries, straight and curly, but potatoes seem irrelevant here. Some customers ask for their hot dog well-done and therefore crisper than usual (not a bad idea), and others get a double dog (in our opinion, an imbalance of dog and bun). But however you like it, please have it with mustard. It is Walter’s own, grainy and dotted with pickle bits. On a pleasant day, you can dine in a grove of picnic tables suited to the devouring of multiple hot dogs and the drinking of excellent malts (or egg creams). In inclement weather, you are on your own; Walter’s has no inside seats. At lunchtime, both sides of Palmer Avenue are occupied by cars full of people eating hot dogs. 937 Palmer Avenue, Mamaroneck, New York

2 Chicagoland is Hot Dog Central, where dozens of joints sell outstanding all-beef franks in soft poppy seed buns. In the elite echelon of déclassé dog houses is a square little strip-mall storefront named Poochie’s, where the consummate red hot is served with the full panoply of local condiments, which can include yellow mustard, spruce-green piccalilli, raw or grilled onions, sliced tomato, pickle spears, and celery salt. Even better than a standard boiled hot dog is Poochie’s Char Dog, which develops a magnificently crunchy exterior as it cooks on the grate. Also quite spectacular is their Polish sausage—a plumper, porkier variant that is slit in a spiral pattern to attain maximum crunchy surface area. 3832 Dempster Street, Skokie, Illinois

3 Swanky Franks is a decades-old roadside shanty where truckers, blue-collar lunch mates, and junk-food connoisseurs sit at wobbly tables or at the counter calling out orders for two at a time. These hot dogs are wicked critters—logs of dense, spicy meat deep-fried until they develop a crackly skin. Hot mustard, onions, even Canadian bacon (!)—pile ’em on. A Swanky Frank is strong stuff; no topping or condiment can disguise its authoritative character. 182 Connecticut Avenue, Norwalk, Connecticut (permanently closed)

4 On the Original Hot Dog Shop grill, row upon row of beautiful wieners are marshaled according to their degree of doneness, from pale pink ones barely warm to darker ones cooked through and ready to be bunned. These are taut dogs that burst with flavor when bitten into, available gooped with cheese or in a Super configuration with cheese and bacon. On the side, you must get french fries. Big O fries are legendary—crisp and dark gold, with a clean flavor and a savage crunch. Even a small order, for about two and a half bucks, is a substantial dish, but you can get them in sizes all the way up to extra-large (currently $7.24) for a group potato orgy. 3901 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh

5 A shoebox-shaped restaurant with instantaneous service and addictive hot dogs, the original Nu-Way of Macon was established in 1916 by James Mallis and is now run by his descendants. Vivid red links are grilled and bedded in soft buns and are best topped with mustard, onions, and a fine-grained chili with a barbecue-sauce zing. To go whole hog, creamy-sweet coleslaw can be ladled on to complete the package. Or you can order a Scrambled Dog, which is a splayed-open bun crowned with a hot dog and smothered with chili and beans. Also notable: extra-chocolaty chocolate milk and soft drinks served over “flaky ice.” 428 Cotton Avenue, Macon, Georgia. (permanently closed)

6 Rutt’s hot dogs are known as rippers because their skin tears and crinkles when they are deep-fried. The oil bath turns the pork and beef links rugged, dark, and chewy on the outside, while the interior remains soft and juicy. (Wienie wimps can order an In and Outer, which spends less time in the fat and stays thoroughly pink and plump.) Most people get their rippers with Rutt’s spicy relish, made from onions and finely chopped carrots and cabbage. Dine in a wide-open mess hall with high counters at the windows that provide a view of the parking lot. Stand and eat, and for entertainment, enjoy the calls of the countermen as they sing out, “Twins, all the way,” meaning a pair of rippers with mustard and relish. 417 River Road, Clifton, New Jersey

7 “THE LANGUAGE YOU USE IN CHURCH IS GOOD ENOUGH FOR IN HERE” says a sign on the wall of Skin Thrasher’s, where the entrée menu consists of one item—hot dogs—and side dishes are limited to a bag of chips. The dogs are small and beautiful, made especially for the 1946-vintage luncheonette (a former pool hall), and they are served on steaming buns with an option of chili on top. You will eat them perched on a stool at the Formica counter or on a rickety folding chair at one of a few random tables, which you’ll share with strangers at lunchtime. Coke is the preferred beverage, but beer is also available—no more than two per customer. The restaurant’s name, by the way, comes from founder Lloyd T. Thrasher, who once got a haircut so short he acquired the nickname Skin. 203 Hudgens Street, Anderson, South Carolina

8 The excellence of Ted’s is in the cooking method: Sahlen’s brand frankfurters are sizzled to crispness on a grate over a charcoal fire. As they cook, the chef pokes them with a fork, slaps them, squishes them, and otherwise abuses them. This allows them to suck in maximum smoke flavor. Consult with countermen, known as dressers, to select garnishes and condiments. The hot sauce, a peppery concoction laced with bits of relish, is not to be missed. To accompany a foot-long and a basket of onion rings, the beverage of choice in western New York is loganberry juice, which is like a glamorous version of Kool-Aid. 2312 Sheridan Drive, Tonawanda, New York  

9 Not to slight its hot dog, which is a firm-fleshed beef and pork sausage, or the bun, which is bakery-fresh, but Super Duper Weenie‘s condiments are stupendous. The sauerkraut, chili, and onion sauce are all made from scratch, and the relish is made from cucumbers that chef Gary Zemola pickles himself. Super Duper Weenie, which started as a mobile truck but is now a minuscule diner, makes ordering easy by offering basic configurations. These include the New Englander—with kraut, bacon, mustard, relish, and onion—which Gary devised based on fond memories of the franks served at Savin Rock, in West Haven, Connecticut, and the kraut-topped New Yorker, inspired by Manhattan’s street-corner carts. We say the latter is 500 percent better than any actual. New York City street wiener. 306 Black Rock Turnpike, Fairfield, Connecticut  

10 A Pink’s counterman snags an all-beef dog like a shortstop snaring a line drive (though with a bun for a glove); then come streaks of mustard, raw onion, and a spill of Day-Glo–orange no-bean chili. Although prep time is under a minute, expect to wait in line to place an order, and expect dining facilities that consist of the sidewalk. The chili is made from Paul Pink’s original formula, and chili dogs have made Pink’s an honored dive since 1939. Other breeds of pups are worth eating, too: the Polish pastrami and Swiss cheese dog; the Guadalajara Dog, piled with taco toppings; a Burrito Dog (that’s two, wrapped in a tortilla); and the foot-long Jalapa° Dog. 709 North LaBrea Boulevard, Los Angeles

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