More so than hamburgers and pizzas, both of which have enjoyed at least two decades of non-stop glamorization, the hot dog remains a poor person’s culinary mainstay, a protein-packed repast to be eaten at minimal expense, a meal beloved of children, and a foodstuff whose history is intimately intertwined with New York’s. After all, it was in Coney Island that the immigrant German sausage was transformed into America’s most popular beach snack in 1867, and from there infiltrated state fairs, baseball stadiums, public parks, and other popular gathering places all over the country, eventually becoming a staple of nearly every home kitchen in the land.Despite periods of unfashionability — such as the low fat ‘80s and the low salt ‘90s — the frankfurter has hung on, a budget dining necessity, but also a passion for those who could probably afford a more expensive meal. But in our own era, franks are being transformed in the same way that burgers and pizzas have, so that now you can spend almost any amount of money on a hot dog, reformulated by name chefs, fabricated by celebrity butchers, and dressed with any number of pricey toppings.
During yesterday’s Hot Dog Super Tuesday extreme run, during which we sampled 16 hot dogs at 14 establishments in a half-dozen Manhattan neighborhoods in 7 ½ hours, traveling 22 miles, 6 of them on foot, the price for a single hot dog ran from $1.69 all the way up to $14, a vast economic gulf for what amounts to a similar amount of actual meat. Here is our democratic ranking, giving equal weight to the votes of participants Nick Solares, Patty Diez, and myself. Note that not all participants voted for each hot dog, and that the weight indicated is for bun, frank, and all.
1. Katz’s Deli — (39 pts, 6", 5.4 oz, $3.95) If you look on the side of Katz’s, housed in a building dating to 1888, you’ll see a sign that says Wurst Fabric, which means "sausage maker" in Yiddish. Suggesting not only that the wiener here is of ancient vintage, but that it’s also of towering significance. It’s everything you want a hot dog to be, and more, with no frou-frou flourishes. Patty Diez called it "perfectly simple."
2. Papaya King — (33 pts, 6.25", 3.8 oz, $2.25) This hot dog triumphed over rival Gray’s by being saltier, deeper red, more expertly cooked, and having a pop when you bit into it like a shotgun blast. Nick Solares enthused, "Such a classic. It's going to be hard to top this one frankly (pun intended), especially for the price."
3. Schaller’s Stube Wiener — (32 pts, 7", 4.3 oz, $5) This offshoot of a Yorkville butcher of historic lineage brings the hot dog back to its Teutonic origins, via a softer attack, smoother texture, and subtler taste, and the warmed and waffled Balthazar bun is another plus.
4. Salvation Burger Dog House — (31 pts, 8.5", 7 oz, $14) April Bloomfield’s new pup was supremely porky and delectable, though the sauerkraut on top was more like cole slaw. And the fresh dill? That’s just plain crazy!
5. [tie] Crif Dogs Spicy Redneck — (29 pts, 6", 7.6 oz, $5.95) The deep frying that the hot dog and its encircling piece of bacon underwent was so extensive that the skin on the frank was rendered a bit too crisp for some, and the bacon too crumbly, but most found this sloppy mess still lovable.
5. [tie] Shake Shack Shack-Cago Dog (29 pts, 5.75", 3.2 oz, $4.25) — Opinions vary as to the authenticity of this recreation of the classic Chicago Red Hot with its arcane toppings, but most agree it’s a formidable addition to the city’s frankfurter landscape. Patty noted: "Hot dogs [and burgers] should always be served on potato buns."
7. Mile End Hoyt Dog — (26 pts, 6.5", 7.2 oz, $8) A novel sour-pickle relish enlivened this solid frank, named after the street upon which the original Mile End is situated in Brooklyn. The potato roll, which fell apart quickly, was deemed its only defect.
8. Gray’s Papaya — (21 pts, 6.5", 4.2 ozs, $2.25) The onion relish was better here than at Papaya King, but the hot dog was more anemic and not as well cooked, even though Nick Solares thought it "a little more garlicky." The "dining room" at Gray’s is noticeably roomier, though.
9. Bruno Pizza — (20 pts, 8", 6.8 oz, $9) This dog was a little tough and unyielding for its own good, but the toppings, bun, and potato salad served alongside made it a mighty satisfying meal. Lunch only. Patty Diez: "Great flavor and smokiness, but the bun to meat ratio is off."
10. Met Cart #1 — (18 pts, 6", 3.4 oz, $3) Parked right at the foot of the Metropolitan Museum steps, this cart is licensed to a disabled vet, though not operated by one. The hot dog was griddle-cooked instead of boiled, and the price was deemed reasonable for the product and location. Hey, they’re only fleecing tourists.
11. Met Cart #2 — (12 pts, 7", 3.9 oz, $4) This cart not directly in front of the steps boils its dogs in the conventional cart fashion (though the attendant will offer to briefly sear it on the griddle). The hot dog is longer and heavier, but then again, it costs a dollar more. The price made us gasp.
12. Epicerie Boulud — (12 pts, 8", 6.2 oz, $8) Here was a sausage that had seen better days, and it tasted of the refrigerator. Maybe during the summer there’s a lot more turnover, but even the pink dressing it was squiggled with seemed uninspired. Nick Solares observed: "I have had better versions of this dog down at DBGB."
13. 7-Eleven Libra Big Bite — (5 pts, 6", 3.9 oz, $1.69) This frank wasn’t as bad as you might imagine, though slender and skinless, a tube steak reduced to its nutritional essentials. Nick Solares memorably groused, "a hot dog that is offensive in its inoffensiveness."
14. Burger King Classic — (2 pts, 5.5", 3.9 oz, $2.49) Overcooked, oddly textured, lavished with a seemingly irrational mixture of condiments, and smelling like liquid smoke, what else could possibly go wrong?
One More Stray Observation – Maybe we were going crazy from ingesting too many weenies, but it struck us that the music in many of the hot doggeries was exceptional, and set the tone in a way for the frankfurters served. Thus, punk rock played at near-earsplitting volume in the staid Schaller’s Stube, a combination of Clash and Iggy Pop, plus a head banging song we didn’t recognize. Bruno Pizza rocked Pavement (memorable lines from "Gold Soundz": "…you're the kind of girl I like/Because you're empty and I'm empty," perfect hot-dog-eating lyrics!), while Crif Dogs played Afrobeat that set us dancing while we waited for our Spicy Redneck. Finally, Salvation Burger went for Blur, Pixies, and, more obscurely, the Only Ones, which kept our toes tapping as our pockets were enjoyably picked.