Ever since I sampled hot dogs at the Pennsylvania Farm Show earlier this year, I've been itching to take a long overdue trip to visit the many legendary (and not so legendary) old-school hot dog joints scattered across central Pennsylvania. Hamilton Restaurant, recommended by wildflowerchild, was my first stop and ended up being one of my favorites of the trip.
Hamilton Restaurant is a cozy lunch-counter at the center of the small town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania (just west of Harrisburg) that's been run by the same family since the 1930s. The sort of place where the waitress asks, "do you need a menu?" because most customers are regulars who have it memorized. Their signature Hot-Chee dog (short for either "hot chili dog" or "hot cheese dog," or both) isn't even listed on the menu. At first I thought I was in the wrong place.
The Hot-Chee dog starts out with a frank from nearby Kessler's, likely their eight-to-a-pound skinless grid iron franks—mild but pleasant and without the off taste of the uber-cheap dogs some of these small town joints serve. The dogs are grilled and dressed up behind the register rather than in the kitchen due to the custom of patrons ordering a few Hot-Chee dogs to go after paying for their breakfast or lunch.
The well grilled dogs are delicately wrapped in American cheese that just barely melts on its way to the table, dressed with mustard, a good amount of terrific homemade chili—a family recipe going back to the 1930s—and superfine chopped onions that sort of look like shaved ice.
If this sounds like a lot of dogs, I have to stress that the Hot-Chee dog stood out from the rest. The quality of the ingredients (especially that awesome chili—I'd happily eat that by the bowlful) and just the level of care and attention to detail put into each dog.
We were also encouraged to try the "Hot Chee burger": a standard, sort of bland pre-formed burger patty buried under the same delicious sauce, melted cheese and diced onions. Apparently I missed out by not trying the homemade onion rings and black and white milkshake.
The "lounge" section of Hamilton Restaurant and Lounge (its official name) was empty when I was there at 10 a.m., but I would bet it's a terrific place to drink an ice cold Yuengling and shoot the breeze over a few Hot-Chee dogs with some Carlisle locals.
Of the many Pennsylvania old-school Greek hot dog places that I've been to, this is one I'd go out of my way to visit again.
55 West High Street, Carlisle, PA (map); 717-249-4410
Hamilton Restaurant on facebook
Hawk Krall is a Philadelphia-based illustrator and food writer 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/.
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