The first, possibly most important thing to note about Texas Weiners is that they have absolutely nothing to do with Texas. Originating in Paterson, New Jersey, at Greek-owned hot dog restaurants, a Texas Weiner is deep fried and served with Greek sauce--a smooth, slow cooked meat sauce spiced with cayenne, cinnamon, allspice, cloves and cumin. It's more of a Greek Bolognese or Saltsa Kima than anything resembling Texas Chili. Legend has it the recipe is a closely guarded secret to this day. A Texas Weiner "all the way" includes mustard and diced onions.
Texas Weiners also spread to Philadelphia and across Central and Northeastern Pennsylvania, where they are usually split and grilled rather than deep fried, but still normally Greek-owned, and with a similar secret sauce said to have been passed down from a mysterious Greek gentleman. Gravy fries are a popular side dish, or even pierogies at Yocco's in Allentown, which might be the only Italian-owned Texas Weiner stand in the world.
The Coney Connection
In 1916, Nathan's opened in Coney Island. Nathan's never served Greek sauce, but their "Coney Sauce," a similar spicy tomato and meat sauce that had not yet been altered by Greek cooks or named "chili". Nathan Handwerker, who was Polish, and his German mentor Charles Feltman are credited with popularizing the hot dog in America, and creating the business model for the hundreds or thousands of weiner stands that would open over the next two decades.
A few Pennsylvania hot dog stands actually challenge the claim that Jersey had the first. Texas Hot Dogs in Altoona, Pennsylvania, claims to have opened in 1918. Coney Island Lunch in Scranton also claims to serve the original Texas Weiner, opening in 1923, as did Texas Weiners in Philadelphia. New Jersey didn't have a Texas Weiner until 1924. So for a minute, I thought the Jersey claim was incorrect. But recently, hot dog historians have uncovered information about a hot dog stand in Paterson before 1920, and if you look at the geographical evolution of the Texas Weiner phenomenon, it's pretty clear that New Jersey is the epicenter.
In western Pennsylvania we find a lot of Texas Lunch stands, and then Dallas Hot Weiners in New York State. Even further north there's Texas Hots in Rochester and Buffalo; served with a chunkier sauce that contains bread crumbs, they also claim early 1900's authenticity. Then in Ohio it's Skyline Chili, also founded by Greek immigrants, and Michigan's many Coney Island stands--which, you may not be surprised to hear, also go back to a single Greek entrepreneur in 1917 with a secret family recipe. I would guess Rhode Island's New York System Hot Weiners are also part of the Texas Weiner family tree. Even the northernmost tips of West Virginia and Maryland have a few Coney Island Weiner stands. (South of that, it's all slaw country.)
Check out this handy Google map I created to chart the evolution of the Texan Weiner phenomenon. It's actually pretty incredible that so many of these places are still open. Texas Weiner road trip, anybody?
View Texas Weiner Map in a larger map
Regardless of who made the first, the real discovery here is that Greek immigrants and Greek cooking had more to do with the popularization of hot dogs and what we call chili in America than anyone else.
The story of the hot dog may be more all-American than we think. Brought over from Germany, popularized in Coney Island by Polish Jews, then spread across the country by Greeks--it eventually filtered through every regional and ethnic variation imaginable.
Hungry for More?
Check out this fantastic article about Texas Weiners on the Library of Congress Website. And don't miss this amazing commercial from Clifton, New Jersey's own Hot Grill, that pretty much sums up the "Texas" marketing theme.
Hawk Krall is a Philadelphia-based illustrator who has a serious thing for hot dogs. Dig his dog drawings? Many of the illustrations he has created for Hot Dog of the Week are available for sale: hawkkrall.net/prints/.