Editor's note: We are sad to learn that Russell Yann died in January 2021. His daughter, Catherine Galambus, now owns Yann's and is continuing Russell's legacy of serving great hot dogs. We've left this article as it was originally written in tribute to Russell.
I took a hot dog tour of West Virginia (the northern part of the state at least) and one of my main goals was finally trying the infamous Yann's. Russell Yann serves up hot dogs from a tiny eight-seat shack with no hours and no sign, and a barebones menu of hot dogs, pepperoni rolls and "white" or "brown" bottles of milk.
Unlike the rest of the state, the focus is on the spicy "sauce." Don't even think about calling it "chili" or asking for slaw, or god forbid, ketchup. I'm pretty sure the slaw purists over at the West Virginia Hot Dog Blog consider Yann's to be part of Pennsylvania or Maryland (although they did enjoy the chili), but locals who grew up with the stuff swear by it like nothing I've ever seen.
Unfortunately when I got there the place was closed - apparently a pretty common problem, but West Virginia culinary ambassador and Yann's devotee Joel H Brown was kind enough to send me a big box of Yann's dogs, fully dressed and frozen, along with very specific re-heating instructions (and a few pepperoni rolls).
It's definitely a bummer to not experience Yann's in person, but I also looked at it as a good experiment to see if this sort of thing still stood out as exceptional without the eccentric atmosphere and in person service.
Yann's are small dogs, two or three bites at the most, with just a smear of sauce and a minimal bit of yellow mustard and onion almost underneath the dog. Something like 90 cents a piece, these are the types of dogs you eat by the dozen. To-go orders are wrapped in pairs with wax paper, allowing the flavors to meld, which is how mine arrived in the mail. I ate the first two in about 30 seconds. These things are for real.
The dogs are steamed Sugardale brand (nothing to write home about) in a cheap white bun. But the sauce is where it's at - really really hot, just at the perfect threshold before "too much" - at least for me. Finely ground, smooth and thick, more of a condiment than a chili and really different than anything else I've had in West Virginia.
There's even a slight Greek flavor, either cinnamon and allspice, so it's not just all heat. Other rumored secret ingredients include lard and cracker meal. Some of the really out-there regional hot dog sauces (see some here) are more fascinating than delicious, but Yann's is one of the best I've ever had. It's blazingly hot, but you keep going back the way you might with great Sichuan food or Nashville hot chicken.
I also dropped a couple off at Hot Diggity, and you can watch their review of Yann's dogs in the video below. (They also have other videos on serious hot dog cooking techniques and not-so-serious reviews of things like Walmart brand hot dog flavored potato chips.)
Even without being there at the formica counter, being yelled at for ordering wrong, I get it. There's no logical reason why this smashed-up cheap dog with meat sauce is any better than a zillion others like it across the country, but there's something magical going on here that you just can't put your finger on. If I ever get back to that part of the country, you can bet Yann's will be my first stop.
Yann's Hot Dog Stand
300 Washington Street, Fairmont, WV; (map) (304) 366-8660