The hot dog was introduced to the United States more than 100 years ago, when German immigrants first brought over their frankfurters and started selling them on the cheap, at places like Coney Island’s Nathan's Famous, arguably ground zero for American hot dog consumption. But then, 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, but it has nothing to do with Coney Island. The uncured, unsmoked White Hot is popular in upstate New York; the regional variations go on and on.
On our quest to find America’s best hot dogs, we kept an eye out for places with a definitive style of hot dog, one which embodies the region’s particular tastes and the culinary traditions of its people. We also 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. Sadly, there were some renowned institutions that didn’t make the cut. While the original Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island very well might be the most well-known hot dog stand in America, it didn’t make our cut because the buns have been stale every time we’ve eaten there and it’s sadly resting on its laurels at this point (even though the fries are admittedly delicious). And while the pretzel dog at chain Auntie Anne’s has its loyal devotees, the experience isn’t exactly sublime.
Our list runs the gamut from ancient stands that have been serving the same exact product day in and day out for decades to gastropubs putting their unique stamp on the hot dog to a place where people wait in line for more than an hour for one topped with foie gras. There’s one constant thread between them, though: they’re our country’s best – and, as it turns out, one resides in Washington, D.C.
It might tweak some Washingtonians to hear, but along with the Jumbo Slice, as bagels and pizza are to New York, so the Half Smoke is one of the Capitol’s most iconic foods. The celebrity (and presidential) photos on the wall are clear indications of Ben's Chili Bowl's city landmark status, but the continuous lines out the door are evidence that the restaurant's chili cheese dogs are some of the best in the country. But those in the know don’t just order "dogs," they get the Half Smoke: a half-pork, half-beef smoked sausage which is a native D.C. specialty supposedly invented by Ben Ali, the original proprietor, whose sons took over the restaurant after his death. As the U Street Corridor/Shaw neighborhood around it has gentrified and become trendy, it's a more than 50-year-old bastion of down-home D.C. where college kids, old-timers, and celebrities are all welcome as long as they're willing to stand in line like everybody else, though the President eats for free. The Half Smoke is so good, it snagged the #16 spot on our list, and since it’s the only hot dog from D.C. to make it onto our list, it’s the undisputed best hot dog in The Federal City.