This isn’t about finding America’s best hot dog. There isn’t one. Any more than we have a best artist or athlete. But like art, hot dog houses can be guideposts to our culture. Our national identity has a lot of parts – from literature and architecture to personalities and politicians. But to know us, you also need to know our wieneries.
The fixins may vary from region to region. You may eat your franks as street food in New York, at a counter in Georgia or sitting at a sun-soaked table behind Pinks in L.A. But if you’re dining at an old time dog joint, there is commonality – meals made with pride for generations, served by folks who enjoy their jobs and their customers and who appreciate the tradition they represent.
Here are some of the places I’ve visited around the country – some of the independent, one-of-a-kind stands that say a lot about us all.
CHICAGO – 175 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville studied our culture and our pursuit of equality. Had he eaten at Superdawgs in Chicago, he might have truly understood social leveling.
Rich, poor, young and old have dined at Maurie and Flaurie Berman’s drive-in since 1948. The roof has two 12-foot tall wiener statues. The counter and carhops deliver “secret recipe” pure beef Chicago dogs with neon green relish and sport peppers. It’s a satisfying, steamed, sweet-tasting dog served in a box with a big handful of fries.
PITTSBURGH – Two states east, near the University of Pittsburgh, is the Original Hot Dog Shop, known locally as the Dirty O. No Chicago dogs here. This is hardcore urban Pittsburgh. Grilled dogs that snap when you bite into them. Mounds of famous fries. (Get the small size unless you’re feeding the Steelers.) Gourmet Magazine rated the O the fourth best hot dog in America in 2001.
CLIFTON – Next stop, New Jersey. Rutt’s Hut. America’s premier fried frank experience. Most folks get rippers, a dog fried long enough to crack the skin open. The well-done dogs are called cremators, the carbon version. Try the yellow, spicy-sweet relish of onion, carrot and cabbage. Not exactly the slaw dog you will find down south, but a very tasty take on it.
MACON – Speaking of slaw dogs, welcome to Nu-Way Weiners in Macon, Georgia. Talk about tradition. Nu-Way started at its Cotton Avenue address in 1916. A comfortable little retro shop on a pleasant street. You can get their yummy, red-colored dogs with slaw or chili. The servers are a delight. Nu-Way made Oprah’s 2007 list of favorite things.
LOS ANGELES – A California-based blog needs at least one homegrown classic, so our last stop on today’s culture tour is Pink’s, a Hollywood landmark since 1939. Hot dog purveyor to the stars. Totally California, man. Where else will you find a pastrami burrito dog – a big flour tortilla wrapped around two dogs and grilled pastrami, with cheese, chili and onions. Their menu covers almost every possible hot dog option.
THE REST – We’ve tried plenty of other stands around the country as well – like Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington DC, the Lafayette in Detroit, the Varsity in Atlanta, Papaya King in New York City, Tommy’s in LA, Super Duper Wienie just off the turnpike in Fairfield, Connecticut, and Cozy Dog in Springfield, Illinois (home of the original corn dog). They all feed their local frequent-dog-eaters as well as cultural curiosity-seekers, like I am, who just want to join in the fun.
No doubt every part of America has places like these. Affordable comfort food with no class boundaries. A Fourth of July feeling year round. Both a fun meal and an accurate comment on who we are and what we enjoy.
Steamed, grilled or fried, our relationship to hot dogs has been a part of our lives for generations. I think even de Tocqueville would have understood why.