They say that you become a real New Yorker after 10 years in the city. Or, at least, that's the lore among the aspiring. I have trouble envisioning Tony from Brooklyn or Julia from the Upper East Side granting hometown status to anyone who didn't have a subway stop before puberty. I've been here for 15 years, with 20 creeping fast. But I don't think I'll ever be a real New Yorker. If we must have labels, I'm perfectly fine being called a New Englander. But, more importantly, I think the hot dogs here suck.
When I first arrived in New York, at the tender age of 19, the internet had not yet begun to crater under the weight of best-of-everything lists, and Zagat was still a thing that people paid money for and kept on the shelf. I'm pretty sure that's where I first read about Gray's Papaya. Mario Batali said Gray's Papaya in the West Village had the best hot dogs in all of New York. And, since New York was a world-famous hot dog town, Gray's, I deduced, would be the best hot dog I'd ever had. But the first time I ate at the West Village Gray's, my heart sank.
One of the most lauded qualities of a good New York dog, the experts say, is its snap. But the cheap, dry, almost offensively flavorless buns that swaddle the dogs smother any chance of snappiness. For such a loud town, the hot dog is remarkably mute. I pinch off chunks of the bread to get a better dog-to-bun ratio, but less of a bad thing doesn't make it good, and the limp, gray kraut that real New Yorkers know to ask for, along with mustard, doesn't do it any favors, either. If you like eating insulation topped with old, wet cabbage, you'll love a New York hot dog.
No one likes to admit that an institution, especially one with an everyman reputation, isn't all that good. It's like saying your sweet grandparents bore you. New Yorkers mourned when the West 8th Street Gray's shut its doors two years ago, replaced, somewhat cruelly, by a juice bar selling $8 blended kale. You don't need to love the frank to understand the enduring appeal of Gray's Recession Special: two hot dogs and a drink, last priced at $2.75. In New York, where cocktails can be $18 and annual rental prices enough for a down payment on a suburban mansion, there is something sacred about the few things that are very, very cheap. But it's the "special" part of the Special that's the appeal, not the actual dog. Just like the draw of eating at Nathan's out on Coney Island is the iconic sign, the boardwalk, the Coney Island–ness of it all. The consumption itself never quite lives up to the romance. These are transactions of efficiency: one piece of sustenance for a couple of dollars. Off you go. But I find myself burying a secret feeling of disappointment every time; I was spoiled growing up in Massachusetts.
Massachusetts hot dogs aren't heralded for their greatness. There's no rivalry with another town, like the great New-York-versus-Chicago hot dog debate. That may be because we save all our competitive fury for sports. After the Patriots, the Red Sox, and the Celtics, there isn't a drop of energy left to go on defending anything else in the state. Or perhaps it's one of those New England things that we feel so confident we're so assured in, there's no reason to argue the point. The Yankees have an enviable record, but you'll never hear a New Englander go apoplectic over Manhattan clam chowder; it's just not in the same league.
"what truly separates the Massachusetts hot dog is not the dog but the bun"
If you've never heard of a "Massachusetts hot dog," rest assured that most residents haven't either. When I was growing up, I thought that hot dogs were hot dogs. But there is a distinctive style, and what truly separates the Massachusetts hot dog is not the dog but the bun.
"The bun is all-important," says Jasper White, New England food expert and chef-owner of Summer Shack. "It's half of the dish. The New England–style buns are smaller and cut on the side, so they're thinner. They don't overpower the hot dog."
New England–style buns are a name brand for a reason: Soft, flat-bottomed, and top-loading, they are perfectly engineered for their raison d'être, the Maseratis of the hot dog bun world. They were created in the 1940s, by the Maine bakery J. J. Nissen, to hold the signature clam strips at Massachusetts-based chain Howard Johnson's without falling over and spilling the contents. Now Pepperidge Farm is most synonymous with the style. The buns' flat, white-bread sides lend themselves to buttering and toasting, which should be done whenever possible. There are only two reasons not to use a New England–style bun: cost and ignorance. Neither makes for a better hot dog.
I grew up eating hot dogs at Friendly's, a chain out of Wilbraham, Massachusetts, that serves cheeseburgers, clam boats, and "Cone Head" sundaes—scoops of house-made ice cream that wear sugar cones as hats and aerosol whipped cream as hair. Friendly's never made a national "best hot dogs" list, but I believe their hot dogs are great. Their franks are bigger than most, salty and meaty. They're tucked into a New England–style bun that's been griddled with butter. Bite into it and the golden-browned bun compacts around the hot dog, lending the dog more richness and buttery sweetness. The top-sliced bun's charm is that it amplifies the hot dog and never obstructs it.
New Englanders seem to have a penchant for butter-griddling. For all our puritanical roots, we use butter in subtly obscene ways. When I was in middle school, the student center canteen butter-griddled bagels so that they were near-saturated and golden, which might be a more offensive insult to New Yorkers than saying that their hot dogs suck, but I can tell you this: Those things were delicious. Of course, the same butter-griddled buns also cradle more classical New England forms: clam strips and lobster, which, like their beefy counterparts, are exponentially improved by a proper bun. A lobster roll with a cold, puffy bun, parched of butter and life? A Trumpism is in order here—sad!
"I don't know where the buttered, grilled bun comes from," says Bruce Kraig, author of Hot Dog: A Global History. "But I suspect it originates with Friendly's in western Mass. Maybe someone made it before. If you have a flat griddle, then splitting the bun and heating it is a natural, and butter keeps it from burning. Think of grilled cheese."
White has a similar suspicion about the origins of the buttered, griddled bun. "My theory is, however you cook the dog is how you cook the bun," says White. "Steamed hot dog, steamed bun; griddled hot dog, griddled bun—there's a simplicity to it. You're not going to grill a hot dog and then go inside and toast the bun."
But White believes some methods are better than others. "The steamed hot dog is really good in the ballpark," he says. "But when you leave the ballpark, griddled or grilled is my favorite."
Now, with all this talk about buns, you might suspect that the hot dog itself is of no consequence. "Hot dogs range from garbage to excellent charcuterie," says White. "The Pearl Kountry Klub brand in Roxbury makes a great hot dog. Really good ones have a high percentage of beef, and the Pearl hot dogs are all beef and very juicy. I like to crisp up the natural casing." Pearl Kountry Klub, a quality meats purveyor since 1945, is beloved in the Boston area, but throughout most of Massachusetts and much of New England, hot dogs—including both Fenway Franks and Friendly's—are less than artisanal and most often skinless. The butter-griddled bun urges these cheaper hot dogs into junky, delicious territory.
That's the beauty of a Massachusetts hot dog. Born of local chain restaurants, it is made of humble ingredients tweaked to achieve greatness: a juicy hot dog, sized in the ideal proportion to a perfectly constructed bun, buttered and crisped. There is nothing more and nothing less to the equation. You don't need the makings of a salad, wacky bacon-wrapped gimmicks, a seaside stand, or a cut-rate price for them to be good. New York hot dogs have their own kind of beauty—they can be grabbed quickly, eaten while speed-walking to a meeting or barely standing after a long bout of bar-hopping, and they're priced so that you can't complain. But a Massachusetts dog is meant to be savored, preferably seated in a booth of a small-town restaurant with little busy-ness in sight.
Don't get me wrong. For all my blasphemy, I wouldn't say there aren't any delicious hot dogs in New York. The storied Old Town Bar has one. It costs a whopping $7.25. You must sit down and patiently wait for it as it's lowered down to the bar from the upstairs kitchen on a dumbwaiter. The bun is butter-griddled.