Our Favorite: Caspers
I may no longer be a New Yorker, but I am a diehard fan of the New York hot dog. Aside from a good slice of pizza, it's the thing I'll undoubtedly miss the most at my new home on the West Coast. The classic New York dog from Sabrett will always be my first true hot dog love, but as a recent (and permanent) Bay Area resident, I know that unless I'm making them myself (or better yet, getting Ryan Farr of San Francisco's 4505 Meats to make 'em for me), I'd better start scouring those supermarket shelves for a worthy hot dog to become my new go-to.
So who makes the best natural casing hot dogs in the Bay Area? I conducted two taste tests—one in San Francisco and a second in New York (yes, I flew on a redeye from SFO to Newark with a bag full of hot dogs) to find out.
First things first: every hot dog worth a damn comes in a natural sheepskin casing. Skinless franks? Get them out of my face. For this taste test, I limited my selection to natural casing hot dogs made exclusively and widely available in the Bay Area. I chose only dogs that can be found in grocery stores and supermarkets—independent butchers or charcuterie-makers were excluded from the taste test.
This narrowed it down to just three selections (unlike the New York-Michigan corridor, California is not the nation's most prolific hot-dog production region).
Hot dog styles can vary by region—in New York City, a Jewish-influenced smoked all-beef frank seasoned aggressively with garlic and paprika is the frank of choice. In Chicago, you're more likely to find Polish or German-influenced Franks made with beef (or a mixture of pork and beef), along with a sweeter, warm spice-heavy seasoning mixture.
Bay Area brands seem to fall into that same latter category. All of the dogs we tasted were of the snappy, mildly seasoned, sweet-and-warm variety.
The taste test was blind and the hot dogs were all warmed in the oven and cut into pieces. Tasters were asked to taste them plain, and with a little bit of spicy brown mustard. We were looking for evaluations of the hot dogs' internal texture (does it taste firm and meaty? Is it nicely springy? Does it taste overly fatty or greasy, or perhaps too dry and grainy?), the quality of their skins (a good hot dog should have a decisive snap to the casing), their flavor profile (is there a good balance of salty and sweet? Is the spicing pleasant?), and overall impression.
Tasters were also given three votes that could be distributed between the three brands however they saw fit. If one brand was head and shoulders above the other, they could give it all three votes. If they liked them each for their own merits, the vote could be split three ways.
Snappiness and meaty, firm texture seemed to be the qualities that tasters valued the most in their assessment, though some commenters also remarked on the flavor of the dogs as having an impact in their judgment. As soon as I started tallying the votes, one thing was clear: Caspers and Evergood were performed way better than Miller's.
Miller's was described as being too sweet (it was the only hot dog to list dextrose, a type of sugar, above salt on its ingredients list), too much like a standard industrial frank (it was also the only brand to list the generic term "natural flavors" in its ingredients, as opposed to spices, garlic, onions, and paprika), and having a mushy texture too much like pre-sliced bologna.
Of the other two brands, it came down to the wire. The votes were nearly split between Caspers and Evergood, but Caspers edged out a win.
That said, we'd recommend both dogs, depending on exactly what you're looking for in a Frank.
Our Favorite: Caspers
Caspers, a hot dog company founded by a Chicago-based couple, has been making their franks in the Bay Area since 1934. They use thinner sheepskin casings for the pork and beef hot mix, which makes for longer, more slender dogs. I like this: it means more snappy end bits to hang out over the edge of the bun. This is a good thing for the hot dog that was deemed the snappiest.
It was also the lowest-fat hot dog (though we wouldn't call it "low fat"), which translated to a firmer, springier bite. Flavor-wise, some folks found it a little too salty, but the seasoning mix was right on, with a mild flavor reminiscent of Vienna Beef, the classic Chicago dog. This is a long, slender, snappy frank we'd happily slip into our warm bun.
Honorable Mention: Evergood
These thicker, stouter all-beef frankfurters were the fattiest of the bunch. This was a turn off for some folks (it translated into a slightly greasier mouthfeel), but praised by others. It's wider shape and thicker casing meant that Evergood's dogs didn't have quite the decisive snap of the Caspers.
Mostly, it was the flavor that won over tasters: lightly smoky (though smokier than either the Caserps or the Miller's), not as salty as the competition, very little sweetness, and a good amount of balanced warm spices.
Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.
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