Roadfood Roundup: Hot Dogs
We asked our friends Jane and Michael Stern over at Roadfood.com to give us their top five hot dog picks. Here are their choices, with tasting notes.
SUPER DUPER WEENIE | 306 Black Rock Turnpike,
Fairfield CT 06430 [map]. 203-334-DOGS. superduperweenie.com
Formerly a mobile truck selling hot dogs by the side of the road, Super Duper Weenie is now a stationary restaurant with indoor seating. As you might suspect from its name, the house specialty is a hot dog. It is a firm-fleshed, locally-made weenie that is split and cooked on the grill until its outside gets a little crusty but the inside stays succulent. It is sandwiched in a lovely fresh-baked roll and adorned with utterly amazing condiments -- homemade condiments, including relish made from pickles that Chef Gary Zemora has himself made from cucumbers! The sauerkraut, the hot relish, the meat chili, the onion sauce are ALL made from scratch. (Gary used to be chef at the esteemed South Norwalk Italian restaurant Pasta Nostra. When his passion for hot dogs brought him to Super Duper Weenie about eight years ago, he lost none of that restaurant’s perfectionism.)
Non-dog lovers who find themselves at this jolly joint can get good hamburgers, a sausage and pepper sandwich on a Portuguese roll, a cheese steak, or a grilled chicken sandwich. Amazingly, S-D-W even accommodates vegetarians with a tuna salad sandwich or a veggie burger.
Whatever else you get, you must get French fries. These are beautiful, fresh cut twigs of potato that are utterly fresh from the fry-basket and made extra-delicious by a perfect sprinkle of salt AND pepper. Dine indoors at the always-crowded counter, where you cannot help but feel part of the counter-culture kibitzing that never ends; or choose a picnic table by the side of the eatery, which is also always crowded! Originally reviewed by Michael Stern on Roadfood.com
POOCHIE'S | 3832 Dempster Street, Skokie IL 60076 [map]. 847-673-0100
Poochie's has only two tables in the front room, plus three two-tops in a dark corridor in the back. Service at the order counter, while always fun and sassy, seems chaotic (but somehow always works), and is light-years away from the gracious rituals of fine dining. When the man behind the counter tells you your food is ready, you carry it yourself to the chest-high eating shelf at the perimeter of the room, unwrap it, and consume it sitting on a stool or standing. When done, toss your refuse in a can and be on your way. It is a ten-minute meal, if that.
Informal though it may be, the food Poochie’s serves is exquisite. To us, a meal at Poochie’s is more delicious and more deeply satisfying than the finest, fanciest $100 dinner. Star of the menu is the humble all-beef hot dog nestled in a steamed-soft Rosen’s bun and available with the full array of Chicagoland frankfurter condiments: mustard, ketchup, piccalilli, raw onions, sliced tomato, pickle spears, ground pepper, and celery salt, plus deliriously tasty sweet grilled onions. You can also get your dog topped with barely-melted cheddar cheese – a fabulous addition not only to hot dogs, but to Poochie’s hamburgers and its hand-cut, fresh-from-the-fry-basket French fries.
Beyond taut, plump red hots that are steamed, Poochie’s offers crunchy-surfaced char dogs, cooked over coals until their skin is chewy-dark and flavored by the fire. Polish sausages are plumper, porkier sausages that are slit in a spiral pattern to attain maximum crunchy surface area as they cook. And if one in a bun of any of these tube steaks is insufficient for your appetite, you can get either a jumbo dog or a double. Our personal favorite meal is a jumbo char dog with cheddar fries (superb fries!) on the side.
Poochie’s is proud of its char-cooked hamburgers, and we like them very much, especially piled high with those sweet grilled onions. But if you are passing through Chicago and stop at Poochie’s with time for only one street-food indulgence, make it a red hot with the works and a side of fries. This meal is why you cannot argue with a Chicagoan who boasts that Windy City hot dogs reign supreme. Originally reviewed by Michael Stern on Roadfood.com
BEN'S CHILI BOWL | 1213 U Street NW Washington DC 20009 [map]. 202-667-0909. benschilibowl.com
"First it was taxation without representation. Now, it's taxation without Roadfood representation." So wrote Rod Hendrix when he sent us a long list of places to help alleviate the dearth of Roadfood listings in the nation’s capital. None of his suggestions was more glowing with praise than that of Ben’s Chili Bowl, which Rod referred to as "Legendary … true D.C. history!"
Melissa Jordan, another tipster also highly recommended this landmark diner as a "tiny, family-run place with a wonderful story behind it."
With a busy day of meetings and media events to spend in D.C., we prioritized our hit list and put Ben’s at the top, managing to stroll in early in the afternoon. There on the right was the griddle, lined up with ravishing hot dogs and half-smoke sausages, sizzling hot and ready to be bunned, dressed, and topped with chili. We ordered a chili dog and a chili smoke, as well as pieces of just-made sweet potato cake and chocolate cake. The man who took our order told us to find a seat, then shortly brought the food, the dogs each presented in a red plastic basket along with a pile of potato chips, the cake served in a see-through take-out box.
The half-smoke is sensational! A taut-skinned smoky link unique to the D.C. area, it is bigger than most hot dogs, well-browned on the griddle. It is firm-fleshed with an unbelievably luscious character. Frankly, next time we visit we are going to order one plain, just to focus on its smoky essence; but the fact is that the chili with which Ben’s customarily blankets it is sensational stuff: thick, peppery, full-flavored and positively addictive. The whole package – sausage, mustard and onions, and a heap of chili all piled into a tender bun – is extremely unwieldy, impossible to eat without lots of spillage; but that’s ok. Dripping and licking is part of the dining experience.
The big hot dog has plenty of character too. No bland tube steak here; it is hot and spicy and a fine balance for the chili. As for the sweet cakes, they are real home-style dessert: thick layered slices with plenty of frosting. We especially liked the sweet potato cake, which was moist and spicy.
As for Ben’s history, there’s a whole fact sheet on the counter to take and read (or the historical information is available at Ben’s web site). The basic story is that U Street was once known as Black Broadway for all the musical talent that used to perform in clubs along the way. Since its founding in 1958, Ben’s has survived the neighborhood’s ups and downs, and in 2001, its founders, Ben and Virginia Ali, were inducted into the Washington, D.C., Hall of Fame. In the mid-1980s, actor Bill Cosby made Ben’s a cause célèbre when he held a national press conference on premises to celebrate his #1 rated television show. According to Ben’s literature, Mr. Cosby never stops in without eating three half-smokes. Originally reviewed by Michael Stern on Roadfood.com
DEW DROP INN | 1808 Old Shell Road, Mobile AL 36607 [map].
The Dew Drop Inn is not by any standards deluxe, but it is culinary royalty. This is the restaurant that introduced hot dogs to southern Alabama! The date was 1924, and proprietor George Widney soon became known as The Hot Dog King.
Hot dogs are still the prime attraction, especially for natives who move away then pine for a taste of home. Waitresses tell tales of families from Memphis, Louisville, and even farther North who return like expatriates to a beloved homeland so they can weep for joy over plates of Dew Drop dogs. The hot dogs themselves are merely bright red steamed franks of medium size, but the presentation is awesome – in toasted buns, topped with cool sauerkraut, a moist layer of sweet beefy chili, mustard, ketchup, and a pickle slice. Some aesthetes order them upside down (the dog sits atop the condiments) and others like them "shaved" (without kraut). The same unusual chili is used as a topping for Dew Drop cheeseburgers, which singer Jimmy Buffett (a Mobile native) credits with generating his burger lust when he was a boy.
Hot dogs and hamburgers are the star attractions, but there is a whole large menu of po boys, gumbo, Gulf shrimp and hot dinners accompanied by such good vegetables as turnip greens and rice and gravy. Coca-Cola is served the true-South way, in its shapely classic bottle alongside a glass full of ice. Banana pudding is the choice dessert.
The setting is cool and comfy, a wood-paneled roadhouse of laminate tables with little flower arrangements in Coke bottles on partitions between booths. Service is speedy; checks are delivered with meals. Originally reviewed by Michael Stern on Roadfood.com
PINK'S | 709 North La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90038 [map]. 323-931-4223. pinkshollywood.com
The must-eat item at Pink’s is a chili dog – a beautiful, all-beef tube steak in a taut natural casing that is nabbed in spongy bun and is then topped with mustard, raw onions, and a spill of dark, meaty chili. This configuration was originally created by founders Paul and Betty Pink back in 1939, when it cost a dime. Since they opened their hot dog stand in what was then the Hollywood countryside, an entire city has grown up around them; and Pink’s has become L.A.'s favorite dive.
It is so popular that the wait in line to place your order can seem interminable on a pleasant evening, but once you get to the head of the line, service is lightning fast – about a minute until you receive your tray of food. There are a few indoor seats around back as well as an outdoor patio, but favored dining spots also include the adjoining sidewalk, your car parked in the red zone on La Brea, or strolling along Melrose Avenue.
Beyond chili-topped hot dogs, Pink’s menu lists lesser-known breeds of pup worth eating, too: the Guadalajara dog, topped with sour cream; cheese dogs; dogs wrapped in tortillas; pastrami Reuben dogs, foot-long jalapeno dogs, extra-large Polish dogs, even a Martha Stewart dog, which is a 10-incher topped with mustard, relish, onions, bacon, chopped tomatoes, sauerkraut and sour cream. (Why that combination adds up to Martha Stewart, we cannot say.) There are even hamburgers; Roadfood tipster Larry said that he actually prefers the hamburgers to the hot dogs, and “the onion rings are to die for." Originally reviewed by Michael Stern on Roadfood.com
And of course, no roundup of hot dogsespecially one that includes Pink'scould go without mentioning the wonderful all-hot-dog-all-the-time blog Hot Dog Spot, maintained by Stephen Worth, who uses it to document his quest for L.A.'s greatest dog.