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Hot Dog Road Trip

Take a tour of the U.S. to find fabulous regional variations on an American standard
By David Bowers
Published: June 1, 2012
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My father-in-law always called hot dogs “tube steak” with little irony. He wasn’t mocking them; he loved them, and it’s no surprise. According to the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, America buys about 9 billion hot dogs a year at grocery stores and retail outlets, but if you add up all the hot dogs we eat at ballparks and off street carts, the number is something more like 20 billion a year.

They’re a symbol of American food and life – they’re everywhere, available to all cultures, and yet highly distinctive from region to region, from New Jersey’s Italian dog in pizza bread to Chicago’s heavily laden dog “dragged through the garden” to Seattle’s quirky cream cheese dog.

While some areas of the country swear by boiling or steaming (such as New York City’s classic “dirty-water” dog), most of us backyard cooks go for grilling, which brings out the caramelized sweetness on dogs both skinless and cased.

In salute to this great American food, here’s a quick rundown (by no means exhaustive!) of some regional classics, along with what you need to know to take a hot dog road trip around your own backyard.

Hot dog grilling 101
  • Don’t overheat the grill. Heat should be medium or medium-low; a fire that’s too hot will blacken a hot dog’s exterior without heating it through.
  • Grilling hot dogs is not the time to walk away. Remember that hot dogs are already cooked through. You just want to heat them up and get the grill marks on them. Most need to be grilled for 4 to 5 minutes only. Use tongs to turn them frequently.
  • Natural casing provides that fun snap when you bite through a hot dog. Be careful not to grill the hot dog until you break or burn through the natural casing. 
  • When a hot dog has a golden-brown sheen on all sides, remove it from the grill and put it in a bun right away.
  • For a more flavorful experience, grill the bun. You can lay it open-faced directly on the grill for a few moments just to toast it, or, better yet, brush the surface lightly with melted butter or oil before grilling, for a crisp, browned finish that won’t get soggy under all of those toppings.
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What type of meat?
The type of hot dog you grill has a lot to do with where you live, and there are endless regional variations and favorite manufacturers that can beat a supermarket brand all hollow.

These days, it’s much easier to find a nitrate-free hot dog with all-real meat and natural casings. If you want to avoid the random ground meats that sometimes appear in hot dogs, read the label and avoid anything marked “variety meats.” Or buy the local style:

  • Chicago generally likes an all-beef dog with natural casing, but you might also find grilled Polish sausages on your bun.
  • In Maine, the classic pork dog has a shockingly red-dyed natural casing; they’re called, appropriately enough, “red hot dogs.”
  • Michigan favors a beef and pork dog in natural casing.
  • New York’s kosher hot dogs don’t have natural casing, so they lack the snap you get from biting into the casing, but any dog not marked kosher likely has natural casing. In upstate areas, you can find “white hots” made with uncured and unsmoked meats, and sometimes with dairy products, resulting in an all-white dog.
  • Rhode Island likes a pork and veal version for their New York System dogs, except that they don’t call them “hot dogs” – they’re “wieners.”
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A run around the dog park

Some classic American hot dogs:

  • Carolina Dog: Yellow mustard, no-bean chili, coleslaw, chopped onion
  • Chicago Dog: Yellow mustard, chopped onion, deep green sweet-pickle relish, tomato wedges, pickled peppers (“sport peppers”), dill pickle spear, celery salt
  • Detroit Dog (the “Coney”): Meat chili, chopped white onion, yellow mustard, shredded cheddar
  • New Jersey Italian Dog: Deep-fried hot dog on chewy “pizza bread” topped with fried peppers and onions and deep-fried potato slices
  • New York Street-Cart “Dirty-Water” Dog: Brown mustard, stewed relish of onion and tomato
  • Phoenix/Tucson’s Sonoran: Grilled bacon-wrapped dog with pintos, diced tomatoes, chopped onion, mustard, mayo, jalapeños and/or guacamole
  • Rhode Island “New York System” Weiner: Cumin/allspice-flavored meat sauce, finely chopped onion, yellow mustard, celery salt
  • Seattle Cream Cheese Dog: Grilled and split dog on a toasted bun topped with warm cream cheese, fried onions, and sauerkraut

David Bowers agrees with most of the Midwest that ketchup doesn’t belong on a hot dog, and he finds it interesting that Sweden’s favorite hot dog topping is shrimp salad.

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