As baseball season gets into full swing, hot dog consumption is also ramping up. During the height of hot dog-eating season, Memorial Day through Labor Day, Americans will chow down on a staggering 7 billion frankfurters (that's 818 per second, says the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council).
Even though ketchup and mustard are by far the most popular condiments, a small but growing minority of hot dog eaters are bypassing tradition in favor of more exotic ingredients. Bolstered by street food trends, international ingredients like kimchi — and even cactus — are making their way into this quintessentially all-American meal.
Want Seaweed With That?
Japadog, a Vancouver-based hot dog chain, specializes in Asian fusion hot dogs that are much more than a vehicle for ketchup. These dogs come topped with out-of-the-ballpark ingredients including plum sauce, seasoned rice and flying fish roe.
Owner Noriki Tamura opened the first Japadog in Vancouver in 2005. Tamura now has five locations in Canada and opened a sixth in New York City last year. Two more are scheduled for San Francisco and Richmond.
On his Travel Channel show, No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain personally sanctioned Japadog’s Kurobuta Terimayo. The hot dog, made with Berkshire pork, comes topped with seaweed, teriyaki sauce and Japanese mayo.
But Bourdain, who seems to be somewhat of a hot dog connoisseur, reserves his highest praise for Hot Doug's Encased Meat Emporium in Chicago. In business for nearly 13 years, Hot Doug's was named by Bon Appetit as one of the 50 best restaurants on the planet. Bourdain called the Chicago-style frank here “perfection in a dog.”
Kenta Naito, an employee of one British Columbia location, personally recommends trying the Okinomi dog, a wild combination that comes topped with fried cabbage and bonito — flakes of dried, smoked fish. These are not your father's hot dogs.
Proprietor Doug Sohn's core menu is supplemented by a rotating list of specials at least 200 dogs deep. He also experiments with seaweed, but his toppings know no international boundaries, and include anything from stinky European cheeses to smoked shrimp.
But the ne plus ultra for hot dog aficionados seems to be the foie gras dog, a sauterne and duck sausage slathered with truffle aioli and topped with almost obscene amounts of foie gras, French for “fatty liver”. According to Forbes, it's one of the 10 best hot dogs in the world.
The dog caused a stir in 2006 when Sohn refused to stop serving it during a citywide foie gras ban. Sohn was fined for his use of foie gras, and his stock of the liver was seized. The ban was lifted two years later.
“We're still, to my knowledge, the only restaurant to be fined for using foie gras,” Sohn said.
Despite the tendency to feature fancy ingredients, Sohn says Hot Doug's is a neighborhood joint at heart.
“People say Hot Doug's is a gourmet place, but I tend to shy away from that,” Sohn said. “We're really trying to be a classic throwback Chicago hot dog stand, the kind of places I grew up going to here. My focus is still making the best Chicago hot dog in the city.”
Getting Into the Game
In in the western United States, reigning Denver hot dog king Jim Pittenger, a.k.a. Biker Jim, is a self-described former hippie with a journalism degree and a penchant for game meat.
Stuck in a rut as a repo man, Pittenger took the advice of an Alaskan vendor friend and bought a hot dog cart. “I started with one cart and a couple of years later, the Democratic National Convention was in Denver, and I made 50,000 new friends that week,” he says.
Thanks to his new hot dog-eating buddies, Pittenger scrounged enough money for a second cart. By 2011, Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs was a mini meat empire with two carts, a truck and a brick and mortar restaurant. The local alt-weekly has since named Biker Jim's the best hot dog in Denver. Bourdain, who apparently likes a good dog, also highlighted Biker Jim's on No Reservations.
While Biker Jim carries standard franks, his specialty is wild game. Here you'll find boar, buffalo, Alaskan reindeer, even rattlesnake. “Game sausages are cool because they're almost entirely raised without hormones or antibiotics,” Pittenger said.
Forbes named Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs among the 10 best in the nation late last year. The magazine singled out the spicy elk jalapeño-cheddar dog topped with Biker Jim’s Classic, a mix of cream cheese and Coca-Cola caramelized onions.
Pittenger says caramelizing onions with Coca-Cola cuts the cooking time — his carts burn through at least 25 pounds of onions daily. “Coke is perfect,” he says. “The liquid breaks the onions down in a hurry and there's already sugar in there. Depending on how hot you can get that pan, you can do a whole pan of onions in 10-12 minutes as sweet as someone would take an hour to do.”
Other toppings come close to stealing the meat selection's thunder, like wasabi aioli with caramelized apple and shaved Irish cheddar, or harissa-roasted cactus with Malaysian jam. “It's fun for people, though sometimes the customers need a little hand holding,” Pittenger says. “We're throwing a lot of stuff out there that people aren't used to eating.”
Funny things can happen when you're known for getting wild. Pittenger's BAT dog, a bacon brat with avocado and tomato cream cheese, sparked concern among certain members of a bat conservation society. “I told them what was in the BAT dog and I told them not to worry,” he says. “But I (said), 'If you know anyone from the unicorn conservancy society, do not tell them about next week's special.'”
In Los Angeles, the city that consumes the most hot dogs annually, the haute hot dog trend is gaining momentum. There, you'll find restaurants riffing heavily off of the food truck culture, topping hot dogs with everything from kimchi (a la Kogi) to cotija cheese.
“The food truck movement really took off from LA — that's where it really began,” says Ray Byrne, the owner of The Slaw Dogs. “There are a lot of people doing Korean tacos and stuff like that. I think all of those things contributed to inspiring the gourmet hot dog movement.”
At The Slaw Dogs, which has three locations in the LA area, Byrne slathers sesame aoili on some dogs and tops others with macaroni and cheese. Others adhere to tradition, including the Chicago-style and chili dogs. “We honor all of the classics with as much integrity as we do with our own creations,” he says. “All the things that have been familiar for decades, we just throw our own twist on it. It's not all Asian, or truffles or foie gras — though we do have those things.”
One of the best sellers is the picnic dog, which has potato salad, pickles spears, barbecue sauce and onion rings. “That's inspired by all-American barbecue, just sitting around the grill with your flimsy paper plate with your potato salad, which just always ends up on top of your sandwich,” Byrne says.
For a Byrne, who has a fine dining background, it's about bringing some levity to the food scene, while eliminating some of the pretension. “It's time to get back to what's really fun and pure about food,” he says.
All You Need Is the Bun
Still waiting for a haute hot dog joint to come to your city?
Wanting to dream up a DIY dog? You might want to start with a fancy sausage. If
you don't have a butcher making handmade hot dogs in your town, here are a few
Rocky Mountain Organic Meats: Located in Wyoming close to Yellowstone Park, this farmer-owned ranch specializes in products made from certified organic, grass-fed beef. Their naturally smoked all-beef hot dogs are made with no added nitrites or MSG and are entirely gluten-free.
Organic Prairie: This farmer-owned co-op offers hot dogs and brats in bulk packages large enough for a family gathering. Looking for uncured, organic chicken dogs? Here's where to find them.
American Pride Foods: This company stocks hot dogs, sausages and brats made with everything from Alaskan reindeer to buffalo spiked with jalapeños. Prices start around $9 for four reindeer dogs. Take a look.
Top Dog Hot Dog: Open since 1966, this hot dog restaurant now has four locations in California and a thriving mail-order business. There's a $100 minimum per order, which means you have to buy a lot of dogs. Choose from sausages like oak-smoked linguica, hot links and genuine brats.