When I first heard that Sonic was offering four "regional" style hot dogs (only $1.99 each!) my initial reaction was a rant about the corporate fast-food machine destroying a classic American food that, for the most part, has remained fiercely individualistic and tied to regional tastes rather than watered-down for mass consumption.
But looking at the history of Sonic, they've actually had Coneys on their menu since they opened as the Top Hat Drive-In in Oklahoma in the 1950s. Oklahoma has a curious Cincinnati-esque culture of Coneys and Greek chili served on spaghetti that goes back to the 1920s at places like Coney Island Hot Wieners in Oklahoma City and the Tulsa mini-chain Coney I-lander.
Hot dog credentials out of the way, the next step was to try these things out at my local Sonic.
Sonic's dogs come in cardboard boats tucked into foil sleeves with a convenient "pure beef preview" window that promises "objects in window may be more delicious than they appear." The website says the dogs are grilled but I found little evidence to support that they had come into contact with a grill, or any type of grilling surface.
First up is the All American Dog dressed with relish, yellow mustard, ketchup and onions, on a standard white hot dog bun. A decent basic dog, though I could have done without the ketchup (especially sweet with the relish) and the onions were cut a little large for my taste. But they've got a decent dog in there, an all-beef frank, smokey and mildly spiced. Think Hebrew National dialed back a bit.
Next up is the messy Chili Cheese Coney, covered in chili and melted cheddar cheese. More of that boardwalk/7-Eleven "chili dog" flavor than anything resembling Greek "Coney" sauce, but good nonetheless.
The New York Dog looked like hell but worked well with the all-beef frank, topped with spicy brown mustard, sauerkraut, and "fried" onions. It almost took me to dirty water dog territory, except the kraut was strangely dry and there's no red onion sauce, and the cooked (freeze-dried?) onions were sort of weird.
Last but not least, the Chicago Dog, definitely the best looking of the four and on an actual (but oddly large) poppy seed bun. Another plus—real sport peppers! The relish wasn't neon green, but hey that's just food coloring anyway. Nice pickle spears; the tomato slices were a bit skimpy, but topped with actual celery salt. Overall pretty damn close to a Chicago Dog, especially for a fast-food chain.
They also have a new, Mexican-style "Baja Dog" but my local Sonic didn't have it on the menu.
The chili-cheese tots were covered in the same stuff as the Coney dog. A little soggy but delicious, especially washed down with Sonic's limeade. They have a whole Southern-ish array of awesome drinks including sweet tea and various flavored limeades. I really like the idea of hot dog places having a signature drink—it brings the whole experience together and definitely works here.
While I could never bring myself to suggest Sonic over the local 100-year-old neighborhood hot dog stand, Sonic's dogs were much better than I expected, and if you're in a part of the country lacking decent hot dogs, or just looking for a quick bite, these things are genuinely satisfying.
Multiple locations across the country; sonicdrivein.com