Sorry, New York, Your Hot Dogs Have Nothing on Chicago
Our columnist argues that the Windy City is the real frankfurter king of America.
If you know me, then you know that I’m a proud New Yorker and it really pains me to admit this but Chicago’s hot dogs are better than ours.
In fact, New York’s hot dogs bite.
Before dirty water defenders unleash a Sabrett-infused tsunami, let me qualify my statement. It’s not that the Big Apple doesn’t have decent dogs, or that the simple joy of occasionally indulging in a mediocre New York food tradition is lost on me, but if you pit these hot dog icons against each other, it’s no contest: Chicago is the obvious winner.
I can hear the knee-jerk howls. “What about Katz’s? Crif Dogs? Dickson’s?” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Please, show me a New York best-of list with a hot dog place I haven’t hit and I’ll hotwire the Wienermobile faster than you can say, “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener.”
Let me break down my argument for you and compare these heavyweight hot dog cities in a few essential categories: the bun, the link, and the toppings. You just might change your mind.
In New York, the bun is an afterthought, a disrespected conveyance vehicle. It’s typically stale, eats like a cat’s tongue, and you’ll sit pretty if halfway through it doesn’t disintegrate. It’s toasted on a grill or a griddle, adding modest warmth (if you’re lucky) and rigidity but little more in the way of structural integrity or flexibility. At best, you feel like you’re eating old, lukewarm toast.
Meanwhile, in Chicago you almost always get a steamed poppy seed bun. No, the seeds don’t add flavor or texture, and they can get stuck in your teeth, which can be a pain. But they look nice on the bun. And given that the seeds will be spotted while you’re smiling because of how good your Chicago hot dog tastes, you’ll likely be forgiven. The bun is pillowy but pliable, carries the weight of the link (and the plentiful toppings), and has been rejuvenated so as to recapture a hint of that universe-affirming breath of life you experience with freshly baked bread. If the merit of that is lost on you, nothing will save you.
In New York, a sausage typically means Sabrett courtesy of Marathon Enterprises (which, when I last checked, supplies Papaya King and Gray’s Papaya), Nathan’s, and Hebrew National. No matter who makes them they’re usually all-beef dogs in sheepskin casings. And that’s not to mention 100-year-old seasoning recipes from the likes of Nathan Handwerker’s wife Ida.
Whatever romantic notions you may have about these dogs, once prepared, the best-case scenario is that they’re slightly griddled. What’s more likely is that they’ve been sitting in hot (lukewarm, let’s be honest) water, and are as a result, almost without exception, floppy and snapless.
In Chicago, the default dog is made by Vienna Beef. They’re 75-percent ground domestic bull, 25-percent brisket and belly trimmings flavored with garlic juice and paprika, and sheathed in natural sheep casing. These Midwestern dogs are wide, beefy, and juicy. And whether they’re steamed, split, griddled, or grilled, which they’re thankfully done well at icons and average spots, they snap. Need I say more? No, I didn’t think so.
On hot dogs in New York you usually go simple; mustard or (if you’re a monster) ketchup—as Dirty Harry says, “Nobody puts ketchup on a hot dog.” And there is also a long history of New Yorkers topping their franks with some combination of relish: kraut; the vinegary, tomato-paste based onion sauce (whose history is more interesting than its flavor); or, bewilderingly, Loeb’s Onion Crunch. There’s nothing wrong with a kraut-and-mustard dog. Sour, tangy, sweet, and spicy—it’s a classic, tasty flavor profile. If you’re a kraut fan that pile is usually big, and it’s incredibly one-note flavor all but drowns out the dog. With mustard, you’re barely left with much hot dog flavor other than salt. I can only shrug at onion water and onion crunch.
In Chicago, your Vienna Beef link is “dragged through the garden” and topped with the “Magnificent (or Chicago) Seven”: yellow mustard, chopped white onions, bright green sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices (or wedges), pickled sport peppers, and a dash of celery. It’s sweet, tangy, zesty, juicy, salty, and spicy. Is this pile overcompensation for some kind of deficiency? I don’t think so.
And don’t try to cite national recognition or historificate at me. I don’t care if Nathan’s is America’s most famous, or who invented the hot dog. Argue away about whether sausages were first paired with milk bread by Charles Feltman in Coney Island in 1867 or Anton Feuchtwanger in his white gloves at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.
I can happily play the game, too, and note that some claim the combination was first served at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the exact year that Vienna Beef was founded by Austrian-Hungarian immigrants Emil Reichel and Sam Ladany. I’m not even going to mention Abe Drexler’s contributions to hot dog eating or speculate on the early 20th century origins of Chicago’s iconic toppings combination.
Contrary to what we may like to think, history does happen outside New York, and frankly, that’s a red (hot) herring in a conversation about flavor and quality. “Coney Island!” you shout. Yes, the July Fourth hot-dog eating contest is a thing of beauty and wonder. Preach. That doesn’t make a New York hot dog better.
Do you disagree? Have you actually eaten any New York hot dogs, lately? To put my hot dog, er… money where my mouth is, I recently revisited the classic New York joints so as not to speak from memory, including the Papaya King at the edge of the East Village and Gray’s Papaya uptown. I even willingly suffered eating at a Times Square cart and made the two-hour round-trip on the N train to Surf Avenue to revisit Nathan’s flagship. (Previously, I checked out four dozen Chicago spots while compiling a list of the city’s best hot dogs for The Daily Meal.)
Guys, I’m glad these Big Apple places are still alive and well—they make up the fabric of the city that I love. And I certainly appreciate their appeal. But we need to admit that they’re certainly not better than any of the famous Chicago stands.
I rest my case.
Still unconvinced? At least, we can agree that New York makes superior pizza.