Monster Dogs, Seattle
Cream cheese is perhaps most closely associated with bagels, cheesecake, and crab rangoon, but if you're eating a late-night hot dog in Seattle (and wiener culture in the Emerald City only seems to start up after sunset), you'll find the stuff slathered generously on soft, pillowy outsize rolls, along with a fistful of grilled onions. Monster Dogs, our favorite in Seattle, grills your choice of beef hotlink, beef Polish sausage, or veggie dog, offering an array of condiments for embellishment. Try the cream cheese dog plain first, but we think barbecue sauce and hot mustard make for a perfect sweet-and-hot combo.
Location: Multiple locations in Seattle; 206-769-5266; seattlemonsterdogs.com
Po Dogs, Seattle
Po Dog opened in November 2009 in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood and quickly expanded to a U-District location in early 2010. Owner Laura Olson wanted to serve hot dogs that people couldn't easily duplicate at home, and so the neat, modern restaurant serves things like a wonton-wrapped dog deep-fried with a side of wasabi aïoli. We especially liked the Texas Dog (bottom), with melted Tillamook cheddar and fried onion straws, all topped with barbecue sauce. (Though we did try a classic dog topped with only relish and mustard, top.)
El Guero Canelo, Tucson
The Sonoran hot dog phenomenon has slowly spread beyond its namesake desert home in southwestern Arizona — and for good reason. These dogs, wrapped in Mesquite-smoked bacon and griddle-cooked, are piled with pinto beans, chopped tomato, onion, cotijo cheese, salsa, mayo, and ketchup and mustard. Think of them as a hot dog–taco mashup. We found the style's influence as far north as San Francisco and as far east as Denver. In Tucson, where this style of dog reins supreme, El Guero Canelo grew from its origins as a humble cart to a full-blown permanent stand with dozens of tables.
Locations: 5201 South 12th Avenue, Tucson AZ 85706; 520-295-9005 and 2480 North Oracle Road, Tucson AZ 85705; 520-882-8977; elguerocanelo.com
Aqui con el Nene, Tucson
If you've already peeped the winners over on Every Day with Rachael Ray's website, you'll know that El Nene made it to the championship. This little trailer-and-tent stand on Tucson's north side gets the balance just right, with an insane amount of crisp and cool toppings contrasting perfectly with the meat, all nestled neatly (at least at first) in a soft split-top roll. Owner Salvador Gastelur spent time at Guero Canelo and BK's (Canelo's heated rival) before opening his operation in North Tucson. His dogs had a slight edge over Canelo's and BK's, we thought, with the bacon crisped just right and a nice balance of toppings.
Location: Corner of West Wetmore Road and Flowing Wells Road, Tucson AZ; 520-312-1666
Pink's Hot Dogs (Los Angeles)
The lines are long and slow-moving at Pink's but that just gives you time to read the menu, full of dog permutations named for various stars (Ozzy Osbourne and David Hasselhoff among them), who have visited this Hollywood institution, founded in 1939 by Paul and Betty Pink. The signature 10-inch stretch chili dog is a snappy natural-casing Hoffy brand dog steamed, then grilled, then topped with Betty Pink's meaty chili, mustard, and raw onions.
Pink's Hot Dogs: 709 N. La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, CA (map); 323-931-4223
Let's Be Frank, San Francisco & Los Angeles
"Onions are sliced, dogs are cut and bagged, buns are sliced, the truck is loaded and finally tows the cart down to the site. The griddle is fired up, the steam trays are set to 'steam,' and the beverages are chilled. There is a line by time we are ready to serve and on a sunny day, the line never stops. As the sun begins to set and the wind picks up, the cart is broken down, the truck is loaded up and back to the commissary we go to clean up and get organized for the next day." —Larry Bain, owner, Let's Be Frank
Locations: San Francisco: Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays at the Crissy Field Warming Hut (near the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge) from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Los Angeles: Wednesdays through Sundays at Helms in Culver City
Oki Dog, Los Angeles
Like vampires, gremlins, and goths, this stand's namesake Oki Dog is something that should not be exposed to the light of day, for it is a study in excess that seems best suited for consumption after a bender — and before passing out. The Oki Dog stand, which takes its name from owner Sakai "Jimmy" Sueyoshi's Okinawan heritage, became popular in its original location on Santa Monica Boulevard in the 1970s because it stayed open late. Folks leaving Hollywood's various nightclubs would stop in for one of its signature dogs before heading home. It's notable on this list for being the only hot dog that's not served in a bun. Instead, the Oki Dog comprises two franks wrapped in a tortilla, along with pastrami and chili cheese. At the right time and in the right condition, it is abundantly delicious — do feed on it after midnight.
Locations: 860 North Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90046; 323-655-4166 and 5056 West Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles CA 90019; 323-938-4369
San Francisco's bacon dog carts
The late-night bacon dog carts that cater to crowds of bar-hoppers of San Francisco's Mission District are legendary. And legendarily hard to find. Because they're not licensed as street vendors, they're constantly on the move to avoid police. But, as many have noted, "just follow the smell." A variation on the Sonoran dogs served in Tucson, these things are wrapped in bacon, topped with onions and jalapeños, and then squirted with ketchup, mustard, and mayonaise. The magnificent result is, well, something that is probably best eaten under the cover of darkness and drunkeness.
Bacon dog carts: Various locations throughout the Mission District
Beez Neez Gourmet Sausages, Portland, Oregon
Location: SW 3rd and Washington, Portland OR 97204 (map)
Otto's Sausage Kitchen, Portland, Oregon
In our quest, we hit upon a number of old-school hot dog purveyors but none that made and then cooked their own dogs. Except at Otto's Sausage Kitchen. The family-owned meat market has been cranking out the sausages for more than 80 years.
Location: 4138 SE Woodstock Boulevard, Portland OR 97202; 503-771-6714; ottossausage.com
Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs, Denver
Truth be told, Biker Jim Pettinger's creations probably fall more into the sausage category than the hot dog one, but, like the half-smokes at Ben's Chili Bowl, we're willing to overlook such a distinction thanks to the sheer deliciousness of these things. Biker Jim, a former repo man, excels in the field of wild game sausage, with choices like the Alaskan reindeer sausage, buffalo, rattlesnake, elk jalapeño cheddar, and "whatever else I feel like." He serves them from carts in downtown Denver, where they're split, cooked flame-grilled, and served up to long lines of regular customers. Be sure to ask about any off-menu specials.
Locations: Be sure to check their Twitter and/or Facebook page before visiting, as locations and hours may change, but generally find them at 16th & Arapahoe; Auraria Campus, Lorimer & 10th streets; Saturdays at 770 East Colfax in the Argonaut Liquors parking lot
Stan's Char-Broiled Hot Dogs, Boise, Idaho
Stan Linkowski, a native of Buffalo, New York, has an interesting story. After leaving Buffalo, where he became obsessed with the "Texas red hot sauce" the hot dog joints there slathered on their franks (he tried to buy the recipe from his favorite place for $750 in 1959 and was rebuffed), he joined the Air Force and then kicked around the west for several decades. Finally, in 2006, the owner of that recipe sold it to him for $50,000 and Linkowski opened his stand in 2007. It was a worthwhile investment. The condiment, which he renamed "Bronco Sauce," is addictive and instantly makes the dogs he adds it to. We suggest pairing your dog with the onion rings there; they can't be missed.
Location: 818 South Vista Avenue, Boise ID 83705; 208-342-1199; stanshotdogs.com
Hank's Haute Dogs, Honolulu
Who knew that Hawaii was a gold mine of obscure hot dog variations? Portuguese immigrants first came to Hawaii in the 19th century, bringing sausages and sweet bread buns. American-style hot dogs were introduced to Hawaii (along with spam) by the United States military during World War II. Throw in Chinese and Japanese influence, plus local ingredients, and you get one of the wildest hot dog regions in the world.
We like Hank's for its inventive variations and its take on the classic dogs available on the mainland. Folks familiar with Hot Doug's might be excused for thinking of Hank's as a Polynesian homage to the Windy City favorite, but with renditions like the NoDog and the Hawaiian, it's set itself apart.
Locations: Kaka'ako, 324 Coral Street, Honolulu HI 96813; 808-532-4265 and Waikiki, 2330 Kalakaua Avenue, Honolulu, HI 96815; 808-532-4265; hankshautedogs.com
Top Dog, Berkeley & Oakland, California
Whatever your taste in tubesteak, Top Dog has you covered. Louisiana-style hotlinks, bratwurst, knockwurst, Polish sausage, linguiça, veggie (this is Berkeley, after all) and more. We tried much of the menu but felt we should rank Top Dog based on its all-beef kosher-style frankfurter, a special blend created for the small family-owned chain by Chicago's Vienna Beef company. Griddle-cooked to perfection, it has the requisite snap, thanks to its natural lamb casing. The bun, skillfully toasted, at first appears too large for the wiener. Don't worry: It squishes down nicely for a perfect wienie-to-wheat ratio, but not before giving you ample room to add as many toppings as you'd like from the generous condiment bar.
Multiple locations in Berkeley and Oakland, topdoghotdogs.com
Casper's Famous Hot Dogs, Albany, California
As quirky and old-school as it is, it's hard to believe that Casper's is a chain, much less one with eight locations. The branch we visited, in this East Bay city looked like something out of a 1970s after-school special shot in California. A chalet-style, shingled shack outfitted with orange, red, and yellow stools, and two spry, older ladies making perfectly appointed classic hot dogs. The moment you order, they start slicing your condiments from whole produce and then nestle them into a steamed bun alongside a lengthy dog. One's not enough here. Get two, of any variety.
Multiple locations, mostly in the East Bay; caspershotdogs.com
OB Hot Dog Cart
San Diego's beautiful Ocean Beach there rages a hot dog cart war between OB Kanobe's and OB Hot Dog Cart. When we visited last summer OB Kanobe was still going, and we loved the Chicago dog and the fact that you could get your choice of Sabrett, Hebrew National, and Vienna Beef dogs. But since publication, OB Kanobe's has been shuttered, leaving an equally good choice standing (in fact, it was very difficult take a side in this rivalry): the OB Hot Dog Cart, run by a couple San Diego natives and their canine mascot, Thumper. We liked the Nacho Cheese Dog and the Red Rocket with cream cheese (guess the Seattle influence has made its way down the coast).