[Photos by Nick Solares unless otherwise noted]
The hot dog is as ubiquitous to New York as pizza, the steakhouse and the Statue of Liberty. While the roots of the hot dog stretch back to central Europe, it was on the boardwalks and streets of New York City that the hot dog became assimilated into American life, shedding its immigrants status and donning a stars and stripes waist coat.
Here's a look back at the rich history of New York City hot dogs, with a complete style guide:
The History of the Hot Dog in a New York Minute
Sausages and bread are among the oldest forms of processed food. German immigrants to New York City served frankfurters and wieners with milk rolls and sauerkraut from pushcarts on the Bowery from at least the 1860s onwards. The recipes for these sausages dated back hundreds of years, with Frankfurt, Germany and Vienna, Austria vying for ownership of the "original" hot dog. But, just as with pizza, an old world food form was transformed and given greater significance in America. In 1871, German butcher Charles Feltman opened a hot dog stand in Coney Island, then an up-market destination for the affluent. It established Coney Island as ground zero for the hot dog.
While the wieners and franks sold in continental Europe tended to be a mixture of pork and beef, the hot dog in NYC became an all beef affair. The meat for these sausages is finely milled, stuffed into a natural intestinal casing (sheep works best), and then smoked. The hot dog then needs only be reheated at service, either boiled, griddled, or grilled.
Determining how exactly the term hot dog came about to be is, as with many such things, a murky proposition. The common claim that the term was coined by cartoonist Tad Dorgan in the New York Journal in 1901 does not reward scrutiny — for one thing, there is no record of the cartoon in question. More likely the term was adopted at Yale University in the mid-1890s to describe the sausages sold outside of the dormitories. Of course, Germans had referred to frankfurters as "little-dog" or "dachshund" sausages long before this — both as a reference to the shape — long and skinny — and derisively as to the possible origins of the meat.
Similarly, the hot dog bun has a disputed history. An oft-repeated claim is that it was invented in St. Louis at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. However, the chances that someone made a sausage shaped bread and split it lengthwise at some point prior to this are the same as the percentage of beef in a NY style hot dog — 100%. It is fairly certain that the bun also came from Europe, but again the new world changed old world forms. The white, enriched mass-produced squishy hot dog bun, which is identical in every way but shape to the hamburger bun, is an American creation, and has come to define the hot dog as much as the sausage used.
Comfort foods such as the hamburger and pizza become culturally significant once they enter the popular zeitgeist, even more so if they embody the spirit of an age. The hot dog did this by the 20th century.
The hot dog spread across the nation, especially in baseball parks, through the end of the century. Comfort foods such as the hamburger and pizza become culturally significant once they enter the popular zeitgeist, even more so if they embody the spirit of an age. The hot dog did this by the 20th century. While the recipe and the construction of the sandwich had antecedents, the means and scale of production did not. Nor did the immediacy of service or indeed the rather dubious locations where one found hot dogs — on street corners and at ballparks.
There is something rather naughty about a hot dog, after all. Even at the turn of the 20th century it was understood that it was hardly a healthful food. Upton Sinclair's exposé of the shocking condition inside meatpacking plants, and notably sausage production, in The Jungle (1906) did little to help the reputation of tube steak. Sinclair chronicled the use of spoiled meat and the nefarious chemistry used to mask it taking place behind closed doors. The ascension of the hamburger in the 1920s, which soon eclipsed the hot dog as America's national dish, was in part because it was marketed in relation to the hot dog: at White Castle everything was cooked in plain sight with the kitchen in full view, the opposite of the way sausages and hot dogs were made.
But the hot dog endured. Congress enacted the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 following Sinclair's exposé giving the USDA broad authority to regulate meatpacking. This went some way towards reassuring the public that the food supply was safe. At least enough that by 1916 Nathan Handwerker, a former employee of Feltman's, was able to successfully open a competing hot dog stand in Coney Island, selling hot dogs for half the price of his former employer at only a nickel a piece. Nathan's remains open to this day and is arguably the world's most famous hot dog stand.
As the hot dog spread across America, the fundamental architecture of bread and sausage provided a constant foundation. But each region applied its own interpretation to the form.
The All Beef Frank
[A neon sign in Katz's]
The 100% all beef, natural casing frankfurter is the dominant form of hot dog found in NYC. Often referred to as "kosher style" because it uses only beef, these dogs are seasoned with salt, garlic, and paprika. It is what you find in the good hot dog carts, restaurants, ballparks, and delicatessens. The reason all beef hot dogs are so popular is in part because of the sizable Jewish population in New York City. Pork is actually featured more prominently than beef in German sausage making traditions. But the lowly beef frankfurter proved the most popular form of sausage in the new world. We see the same phenomena in Chicago, which also has a large Jewish population, and where all beef franks are also prevalent. Other parts of the country most often use a pork and beef blend.
These days, most of all the beef franks sold in the NYC are produced by a single company — Sabrett of East Rutherford, NJ. The company makes the vast majority of the hot dogs sold from carts, and it produces custom versions for such notable clients as Katz's Delicatessen, Gray's Papaya, and Papaya King. At one time, Sabrett also made Nathan's hot dogs.
[Nathan's, Coney Island]
[Nathan's griddle, Coney Island]
America's longest continuously operating hot dog stand is Nathan's in Coney Island. Nathan's serves griddle cooked all beef franks with sauerkraut and mustard or stewed red onions as the most popular toppings, although you can now find chili and melted cheese on the menu there. All things considered, it is the hot dog in its most elemental form. Nathan's is a chain with over 300 locations in all 50 states. But if you haven't gone, the original is well worth the trip. Note that the Nathan's hot dogs sold in supermarkets are not the same as those sold in the restaurants as they are skinless, lacking the snap of the original.
The Delicatessen/Kosher Style Hot Dog
[The counter at Katz's]
Closely related to Nathan's are the similarly proportioned hot dogs found in the once prolific delicatessens of NYC. Katz's is the most famous, and it's widely considered the best hot dog of the type, but you can find all beef franks at most delis. Sauerkraut, mustard, and red onions are the standard toppings. These hot dogs are most often griddle cooked, giving the exterior a nice burnishing and the skin plenty of snap and bite.
The Kosher Hot Dog
Despite being all beef, not all hot dogs are kosher, as they must be produced in accordance with rabbinical law to be so. Most natural casing is forbidden under kosher guidelines and it's prohibitively expensive to mass-produce. Most kosher hot dogs use a collagen casing instead. These dogs tend to lack the same snap as natural casing dogs, but otherwise they share a similar flavor profile. Hebrew National and Empire National are the most popular producers. You can find true kosher hot dogs at Ben's Best in Queens and the Second Avenue Deli in Manhattan.
[Ben's Best griddle by Steve Poss]
[The Gray's Papaya on West Eighth Street that sadly shuttered in 2014]
Papaya King was founded in 1932 by Gus Poulos as a juice bar. Hot dogs were added to the menu seven years later, and an NYC classic was born. The Papaya King hot dog is an all beef affair in a natural casing, which is griddled and served on a toasted white bun. The dog is made by Sabrett but the recipe is unique and proprietary to Papaya King. The restaurant created the stewed red onion sauce — a tangy tomato based concoction laced with vinegar — that's now ubiquitous on hot dogs in the city. Papaya King still serves papaya and other "tropical" drinks alongside the franks. The restaurant spawned a legion of imitators, the closest rival being Gray's Papaya, which was founded in 1973 by Paul Gray, a former employee. We also find Chelsea Papaya, Mike's Papaya, and Papaya Dog serving lower rent versions in the city these days. They may not be quite as illustrious as Papaya King and Gray's but they do at least offer real casing all beef franks.
The "Dirty Water Dog"
["Dirty Water Dogs" ]
[A halal cart in Union Square]
The dedicated hot dog cart that was at one time ubiquitous in NYC, and whose roots reach back to the very origins of the hot dog, are in fairly drastic decline, although they are still prolific in tourist heavy areas. More often than not these days hot dogs share cart space with shish kebabs, pretzels, and increasingly, halal meat over rice platters. The shift reflects both a change in demographics but also of the current economic climate.
These carts sell the infamous "dirty water dogs" so called because the sausages are stored in a warm water bath. The best will sell a natural casing Sabrett, although these days skinless varieties are also prolific. If you are visiting New York for the first time it really is a cultural right of passage to sample a dirty water dog. Price is hugely amorphous — ranging from $1 to as much as $6 or more. Always ask the cost before you order! Mustard, sauerkraut, and red onion sauce are the most common toppings. Chili, which at one time meant a soupy meat sauce sans beans that sat in a tub next to the sauerkraut and onions, seems to have fallen out of favor. These days the chili is likely to be served from a can. Another recent and unwelcome topping option is onion or pickle crunch — a prefabricated topping that is actually a product of Holland.
Hot dog carts also carry "hot sausage," which is really just a larger hot dog laced with hot pepper flakes. If you order onions or sauerkraut on it the vendor will traditionally slice the sausage open and lay the onions inside.
The Ball Park
Before football and basketball, before hamburgers and pizza, there were baseball and hot dogs. America's national pastime and tube steak are synonymous. Not surprisingly, hot dogs are well represented in the area ballparks. Nathan's natural casing all beef franks are both widely available at CitiField and Yankee Stadium. Additionally you can find the kosher variety at The Kosher Grill in CitiField as well as the Hebrew National concessions at Yankee stadium.
The Chili Dog
[Chili dog from Gray's Papaya]
[Chili from a can at a street cart]
Chili is one of the most prolific toppings for hot dogs throughout the nation and is an important feature of the hot dog styles Northern NJ, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Michigan. Hot dog chili is also called Greek sauce or, somewhat ironically, Coney sauce. But NYC does not have a significant chili culture. You can certainly find chili on hot dogs all over town but it is usually from a can, not a closely guarded secret recipe. Mustard, sauerkraut, and red onions dominate the topping choices on NY style hot dogs.
[Brooklyn Diner ]
[A foot-long frank from Papaya King ]
In addition to the standard six-and-eight-to-a-pound hot dogs sold around town we find some bigger forms. The foot-long hot dog is not totally uncommon — most Papaya-style stands sell them. But if size matters to you, Brooklyn Diner sells a massive one pound hot dog that reportedly takes 15 bites to finish. (The average hot dog takes around six bites to finish.) It is an all beef, natural casing affair that is specially made by Sabrett and grilled.
[Photo by Robert Sietsema]
At the other end of the size scale, Regal Cinemas (of all places) in Union Square sells mini-dogs, a style that originated in the Albany, NY area.
The Hot Dog Truck
[Papaya King hot dog truck]
The hot dog truck is a natural progression of the cart for the mobile society, and the practice of slinging tube steak from them is common throughout the nation. Dominick's in Queens is one of the city's most famous hot dog trucks and has been rolling for over 50 years. Manhattan, with its strong culture of hot dog carts and hellish traffic, has traditionally not needed them, but both Crif Dogs and Papaya King recently launched trucks.
[Dominick's hot dog truck. Photo by Steve Poss]
The Restaurant Hot Dog
[Big Daddy's Diner]
You will find hot dogs on the menus of restaurants ranging from diners to fast casual places to burger chains. Most often they are quarter pound all beef dogs, often sold in pairs to force a larger check average. Usually costing over $10, these hot dogs are not necessarily objectionable — and they may indeed be quite delicious — but contextually they rob the hot dog of much of its charm. The hot dog nostalgist and lover of Americana will want to eat from the dedicated hot dog stand, whether bellied up to a counter or strolling the boardwalk, not sitting in a plush booth. Burger stands on the other hand do have some hot dogs worth recommending. Shake Shack offers Chicago style dogs (see below) and butcher Pat LaFrieda, famed for his custom hamburger blends, also sells a custom all beef natural casing frank to many of his burger customers such as Schnipper's Quality Kitchen.
Bar Hot Dogs
It is hard to conceive of two items pairing better than hot dogs and beer. The combination of suds and sausage of course dates back to Germany and the beer hall. It is actually somewhat surprising that there is not a more significant culture of hot dogs sold in bars, with the hamburger being the far more popular sandwich choice. That said, you can find some very good tube steaks, such as the all beef frank at Old Town Bar and the red and white hots at Daddy-O (see below).
The Haute Hot Dog
[The Nomad Bar]
NYC's fine dining culture has inevitably sought to elevate the hot dog. Chef Daniel Boulud debuted his house-made DBGB dog five years ago. It is a natural casing 100% beef sausage festooned with frisee, sautéed onion, radish, relish, and mustard. It sells for $12. More recently, The Nomad Bar launched with a bacon-wrapped all beef hot dog with celery and black truffle for the princely sum of $14. But the hot dog has not enjoyed quite the adulation among chefs as the hamburger, leading Robert Sietsema to wonder if the trend is around the corner.
Foreign and Domestic Variations
While NYC has its own distinct styles of hot dog one can find various regional and international forms in the city as well.
Chicago is a major hot dog epicenter. A typical Chicago all beef hot dog is said to have been "dragged through the garden," as it comes festooned with yellow mustard, green relish, sport peppers, chopped onion, pickle spears, tomato, and celery salt, served on a poppy seed bun. Shake Shack, whose hamburgers are patterned on Midwestern style smash burgers, serves a faithful interpretation of the style right down to the Vienna Beef hot dog from Chicago.
Red and white hots are specialties of the Rochester, NY area. A red hot is a pork and beef sausage in a natural casing. Nitrites are added, as with almost all hot dogs, which causes the sausage to turn red when cooked. A white hot is made with veal as well as pork and beef, and no nitrates are added to the mix, leaving a white sausage similar to Bockwurst. This style is hard to come by in NYC but Daddy-O in the West Village serves admirable versions of both using sausages from Zweigle's of Rochester, the premier producer.
[Los Perros Locos]
Just as America took the frankfurter and put its own stamp on the dish, Columbia has taken the essential architecture of an American hot dog and put a local twist on it. You can now find them in NYC at Los Perros Locos. Topped with a dizzying and often perplexing list of ingredients, Columbian style hot dogs come topped with everything from bacon to potato chips, mozzarella to quail eggs, and all manner of sauces.
[Asia Dog ]
Hot dogs topped with Asian inspired ingredients have started appearing in NYC. Japadog, a Canadian chain, opened up shop on St. Marks Place in 2012, but it recently closed, perhaps because of the nearby opening of Papaya King. AsiaDog opened the same year and is still in business.
[Crif Dogs snouts and asses membership card circa 2001]
[The Crif Dogs chihuahua]
Worthy of special mention when it comes to regional variations is Crif Dogs, which opened on St. Marks Place in 2000. While the style of hot dog it serves is ostensibly based on the deep fried pork and beef hot dogs sold at Rutt's Hut in Clifton, NJ, the shop has become a significant factor in bringing other forms to the city. The tsunami dog topped with teriyaki sauce, pineapple, and green onions anticipated the Asian style dogs to come when it debuted, rather tastelessly, during an actual tsunami. The bacon wrapped, sour cream and avocado topped chihuahua is a close approximation of the Sonaran style hot dog that is popular in Arizona, and the spicy redneck with coleslaw and chili is an homage to the South.
The Commodity Hot Dog
[A Dairy Queen chili dog by Robert Sietsema]
Last and least we find the lowest common denominator hot dog. This mass produced product is found in the national fast food and convenience chains that have begun to proliferate in NYC. These hot dogs are always skinless — in the New York market they tend to be all beef — and uniformly they are an affront to the local form, whatever it be.
Other Shapes and Forms
[Ribalta's Americana pizza]
[A corn dog from Mike's Papaya]
[Kurabuta Dogs at Ichibantei]
The venerable frankfurter finds itself used in all manner of dishes beyond the bun in NYC. The corn dog is probably the hot dog's closest cousin, available at Papaya style stands and Crif Dogs, to names a few. Similar starch wrapped mutations can also be found in the city, whether as pigs in a blanket at Brooklyn Piggies or at the numerous Asian bakeries that Robert Sietsema has extensively documented. It is telling that Ribalta Pizzeria owner Rosario Procino chose to top his Americana pizza with Hebrew Nationals and French fries, the hot dog remains a symbol of America.
The hot dog styles of NYC mapped out: