Before this summer season there was really no question: Of course you would go to Nathan’s — Coney Island’s towering behemoth, founded over 100 years ago across the street from the subway. The hot dogs are so much more scrumptious than at any of their sad franchises. Is it the smell of the sea in your nostrils and the sun beating down that makes them so delicious, heaped with kraut and thick grainy mustard?
But now we have Feltman’s. With much fanfare, a branch opened on St. Marks Place last year and more recently on Surf Avenue, a few blocks east of Nathan’s. Nathan Handwerker, the “Nathan” of Nathan’s, was a boardwalk vendor for Charles Feltman, who opened his stand in 1870, 46 years before Handwerker opened his. Feltman is sometimes credited with inventing the hot dog as we know it, even though the name suggests an antecedent in Frankfurt, Germany.
What gives Michael Quinn, a Coney Island tour guide and owner of the trademark, the right to revive the name? And how can his hot dog’s resemblance to the original Feltman’s be vouched for? Quinn claims to have found the original recipe, which Gothamist says contains, “sea salt, a garlicky seasoning blend, and a marvelously snappy skin,” but remains “uncured, nitrate-free, with no artificial ingredients.” The uncured and sea-salt parts sound a little modern-virtuous, but who cares what’s in it if it tastes better?
I’d tasted the new Feltman’s frank on St. Marks, and wasn’t impressed, partly because it was delivered still cold in the middle. But the only fair comparison to be made between Nathan’s and Feltman’s is on Coney Island terroir. Thus I visited over the Memorial Day weekend, as the boardwalk swelled with visitors — though few were putting their toes in the water.
Nathan’s has recently undergone a renovation that has opened up the front of the building, so now there are 20 or so fidgety lines for hot dogs. I had to wait 15 minutes for my two, which came on a colorful branded plate. One hot dog was naked, and the other dressed with mustard and kraut. The franks were 6.5 inches in length and cost $4.35 each. They’d been griddle-cooked so they were char-dappled, but still glowed deep red, and sported a pinkish interior with a semi-coarse texture that popped when you bit into it, and oozed afterwards. The taste was notably salty, but not smoky. The mustard was thick and grainy.
FELTMAN’S OF CONEY ISLAND
Man, does that Feltman’s frank explode when you chomp into it! Yes, the natural lamb casing is superior to Nathan’s. The filling is more fine-grained and less salty and greasy. At 7 inches, Feltman’s dogs are a bit longer, too, and the bun — a bit too short for the frank — has been toasted around the edges. The flavor of Feltman’s is subtler and not so forceful, like a wiener you might buy at some grass-fed boutique butcher. At $4.25 with no tax charged, it’s less pricey than Nathan’s (which charges tax in addition to the listed price), though not enough for the savings to sway your choice. Said to be made with apple cider vinegar, the mustard is too runny and smooth, though the chopped onions that come along with the kraut are a boon.
Overall, Nathan’s beats Feltman’s, gainsaying all the critics and commentators (Steve Cuozzo among them) who have come down on the side of Feltman’s. Do you want a suave gourmet dog when you go to the beach? Not really: Nathan’s is desirably more trashy and assertive.
OTHER CONEY ISLAND HOT DOGS
There are plenty of unsung places, principally snack counters and the older clam bars, that will sell you a hot dog, often at a slight discount from Nathan’s and Feltman’s. The hot dog at the very picturesque Pete’s Clam — just west of Nathan’s on Surf Avenue — is 6 inches in length and costs $4, with no tax charged. The skin is decent, but the forcemeat tasted a little off to me when I tried one this last weekend.
Much better is the hot dog at Paul’s Daughter, an iconic snack counter that’s been on the boardwalk over 50 years, with signage that consists of a little bald guy holding a burger aloft on the roof. The $4 hot dog there is superb, snappy and deep pink, arcing a little in the bun. The mustard is especially good, and the sauerkraut applied in dryish form so it doesn’t flood your frank. Give this baby a try. As a bonus, the raw clams served on the half shell are commendably fresh and briny.