The hot dog is one of those foods that’s nearly impossible to mess up. You heat it through, plop it on a bun, squirt on some mustard, and call it lunch. But there’s a big difference between not screwing something up and turning it into a paradigm-shifting, transcendental dining experience. And there are lots of hot dog stands and restaurants out there that are turning the humble hot dog into a work of art.
The perennial grill mate to hamburgers, the hot dog sometimes gets the short end of the stick, charring at the back of the grill while juicy burgers are snatched up as soon as they hit the right temperature. But there’s a science, if not an art form, behind constructing the perfect hot-dog-eating experience.
That experience was introduced more than 100 years ago, when German immigrants first brought over their frankfurters and started selling them on the cheap at places like Nathan's on Coney Island, arguably ground zero for American hot dog consumption. But then something interesting happened: People began developing their own spice mixes and making their own hot dogs, and every region and group of people put its unique stamp on the snack. In Chicago, they top all-beef dogs with mustard, fresh tomatoes, onions, sport peppers, bright green relish, dill pickles, and celery salt. Spicy Texas Red Hots are popular in New Jersey, but not in Texas, while Greek immigrants in Michigan concocted a cinnamon-rich beef chili that came to be known as coney sauce — which has nothing to do with Coney Island. The uncured, unsmoked White Hot is popular in upstate New York. Confused yet? The regional variations go on and on.
On our quest to find America’s best hot dogs, we started by putting a list together of hot dog places with a definitive style of hot dog, one which embodies not only the region’s quirks but also the particular tastes and culinary traditions of its people. We made sure to take into account online reviews from locals as well as the dog's overall reputation among those in the know, and the quality of the ingredients — namely, sourcing the franks from well-known local producers — was also important. These hot dogs aren’t being eaten in a void, either, so we took into account the entire experience, from driving up to the restaurant or stand to placing your order to taking that first bite.
Once we had our list of more than 200 hot dog places from across the country finalized (building on surveys from previous years’ rankings), we built them into a survey divided by region. We called on chefs, food writers, bloggers, and journalists from around the country to take the survey, and we also asked our social media followers to take the survey as well, and more than 150 respondents weighed in.
The final tally includes hot dog stands as far north as Seattle and as far south as New Orleans. You never know where a great hot dog stand will pop up; we’ve included ones as far afield as Keyser, West Virginia; Le Mars, Iowa; and Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio. While Chicago (arguably the best hot dog down in the country) is well-represented with 10 entrants, the sheer geographic diversity here makes it clear that there are few American foods more universally beloved than the hot dog.
Our list runs the gamut from ancient stands that have been serving the same exact product for decades to gastropubs dedicated to putting their unique stamp on the hot dog. There’s one constant thread between them, though: they’re the country’s best.
Additional reporting by Arthur Bovino.