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Haute Diggity Dogs!

From its Frank ’n Beans Dog, with cheddar, baked beans and Fritos, to the much-loved Chicago Dog, the Cool Dog Café in Cherry Hill, N.J., serves up some creatively loaded links. Photo courtesy of cool dog cafe Dogs are hot right now, whether high-end, multi-cultural or loaded with funky toppings

By Robin Schempp

Every dog has its day, and momentum for bringing culinary spotlight to casual classics and handheld street food is making classic and contemporary hot dogs the new favorite of the downscale-goes-upscale movement. As with its (amazingly still thriving) burger brethren, quality and differentiation in both the carrier and accompaniments have triggered a full-on foodie frenzy.

Surely the new appreciation for wieners, boudin, brats, bangers and a whole slew of ethnic and regional sausages has also been helped along by associated trends in beer-focused foods and a riot of cured meats making headlines and bringing acceptance and admiration for nose-to-tail tastes.

And while we are rediscovering the craft of honest, unpretentious, time-honored sausages, we can also make a case for regional novelties such as Alaska’s Reindeer Dogs found at venerated M.A.’s Gourmet Dogs in Anchorage, or Shake Shack’s Mutt Dog (with kraut, Shack cheese sauce, spicy tomato-simmered onions, Shake Shack relish), which brings New York’s street-cart classic to the world.

Fueled by food trucks and fanned by hip multi-cultural chefs going gourmet — such as Chicago chef Bill Kim, who serves his Belly Dog with kimchi, salsa and egg noodles — burgers aren’t the only sandwiched food dressed for success. Though hot dog culture is embedded in American folklore, globally inspired innovation shows up in Pacific Northwest’s avant-garde Asian Gourmet Dog Japon, while a drool-worthy display of meat, toppings, combo and side selections at Denver’s top dog Biker Jim’s makes the case for both proper and progressive pedigreed pups.

Here, the link elite provide some cues for adding dogs to the menu so that you too can get on the case.

Meat Matters
In the never-ending quest for tasty, experiential adventure and the newly wonderful embrace of parts, menu makers are making the most of the meat. While hot dogs have traditionally been all about the blending of meats — of fatty, tasty and, yes, let’s be frank, otherwise unused parts from a single or separate species — now, more than ever, diversity rules. After the classic beef and pork variety meats, customers are game for all manner of poultry and game. Even if you are not in a position to make your own links, it’s possible to work with local, regional, and even nationwide producers to contract blend or at least choose the meat/spice combination, quality, smoke level and size that can give your dogs distinction.

> Fatty Dog: Pork shoulder, fatback, Thai chiles, pickled ginger and garlic, shrimp paste hot dog with aïoli, pickled Thai chiles and radishes, cilantro and cucumber — Fatty Crab, New York City
> Alligator & Pork Smoked Andouille Sausage, topped with sauerkraut and sweet peppers — Wurstküche, Los Angeles

Old-School Obligations
Most agree that the first American frank was really a German Frankfurter (Würstchen), and with it, beef, veal and pork sausages like bratwurst, bierwurst, knockwurst, rostbratwurst… well, let’s just say the wursts were one of the best things to happen to an American bun. On their heels, other tubular Euro-immigrant varieties emanated: from delicate Franco boudin to rich Polish and Italian sausages, as well as the spicier Mediterranean merguez, linguiça and chouriço/chorizo. As with the current foodie demand for authenticity, trend-driven chefs and consumers alike are propping up a resurgence of old-style butchers and meat artisans bringing back old recipes, most often served simply and traditionally.

> The Bavarian Brat: Beer braised and char-grilled on a pretzel roll with sauerkraut
— Bavarian Inn, Milwaukee, Wisc.
> Hot Boudin: Plain or with pimento cheese, chow chow and grainy house mustard
—Cochon Butcher, New Orleans

For dogs with distinction, look for meats that can hold their own, like this smoked andouille sausage, here, with grilled onions, mushrooms, mayo and American cheese. Photo courtesy of johnsonville.
Tube steaks with a Twist
When Chicago hot dog haven Hot Doug’s turned the conventional frankfurter inside out and upside down with its famous Foie Gras and Sauternes duck sausage dressed with truffle aïoli, foie gras mousse and fleur de sel, other frankfurter kingpins took a long look. Savvy slingers of the link are all about paying attention to their wieners, carefully making or sourcing from reputable sausage makers who pull off flawless Thüringer, veal bratwurst and even buffalo, reindeer, boar, crawfish or vegetable proteins, spicing to spec with a nod to tradition and a bow to the future.

> Mr. Stivic: Tri-pepper kielbasa, haus slaw, spicy barbecue and tots — Dog Haus, Pasadena, Calif.
> Tunisienne, Spicy Lamb & Mint Merguez, with lemon-braised spinach and chickpeas
on a bun — DBGB Kitchen, New York City

Distinguishing Methods
Whether steamed, roller grilled, broiled, griddled, grilled, fried, braised, ripped, wrapped, dipped or a combination thereof, there is a particular system for every joint and a method for adding dogs to a more diverse menu. Many locations make the preparation as much an art form as the dogs and sausages, extolling the virtues of a particular cooking method. For instance, Jim Pittenger of Denver’s dog empire Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs is a grilling advocate. “Most of my sausages are way too hardy for steaming,” he says. “You need to crisp the casing a bit; you need to char the meat. A bit of caramel and carbon complements the character, texture and flavor of these sausages,” he adds, referring to his specialty game sausages that range from elk and buffalo to rattlesnake, pheasant and reindeer. Though Biker Jim’s sometimes bakes, broils, fries, pan fries and even marinates some of their dogs, grilling is their claim to fame.

> Azteca Dog: Char-grilled, carnitas-marinated wild boar sausage with smoked poblano corn salsa and chile-lime mayo
— Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs, Denver
> The Humm Dog: Bacon-wrapped, deep-fried dog topped with melted Gruyère and celery relish; seasoned with truffle mayo — Crif Dogs, New York City

Added Indulgence
In an effort to up the ante, franks are being augmented with abandon. Some include: porky bits of bacon, sausage, belly or back; beefy short ribs; rich sweetbreads, creamy pate, fried livers; and exclusive breeds like wagyu or Kobe beef and Berkshire or Mangalitsa pork. This method of overindulging the dog is as often applied not only to the wiener blend but to the wrapping or topping of these dogs. These over-the-top combos lend additional value (and price point) as well as a spin to the menu.

> All the Way Hot Dog: Giant dog with a burger (!), bacon, chili and cheese
— Tasty Burger, Boston
> Strictly Business Dog: Deep-fried with special sauce, mustard, onions, slaw, jalapeños, shredded cheddar and Wham Bam Thank You fried Spam — Hillbilly Hot Dog, Lesage, W.Va.

Meatless Mastery
Given that the resurgence of the dog is due in part to its all-around laid-back, artisan hipster appeal, it follows that healthy, pescatarian, vegetarian and even vegan options are widely held as desirable if not necessary to a major or mini wiener menu. Furthermore, dogs often didn’t get their due among culturally and religiously diverse populations until now, when all manner of vegetable and seafood protein can make a tube steak.

> Hola Amigo Vegan Dog: Creamy avocado, Philadelphia or tahini and jalapeños
— Simon Hot Dogs, Sedona, Ariz.
> Healthy Fish Dog: Top-quality salmon grilled to perfection and topped with special sauce, grilled sauerkraut, chopped onions, sport pepper and tomato wedges, served on a steamed poppyseed bun
— Billy’s Gourmet Hot Dogs, Denver

Put a Stick in it
Clever culinarians are making twists on Americana fair food and taking a spin on the corn dog. From panko-crusted beer batters and inside-out, sausage-encased mini cornbread dogs, options are limited only by the imagination. Both kid-friendly and adult versions are eminently dippable in signature sauces, making these handheld treats as fun to eat on the street as they are shared at the bar.

> Corn Hog: Spicy pork belly corn dog with housemade toppings — Company Burger, New Orleans
> Crispy Bacon Polenta Dog: Big beef dog in grainy corn and bacon crust on a stick
— 4505 Meats, Ferry Terminal, San Francisco

Regional Revelations & Cult Classics
Hot dogs are perhaps our most regionally nationalistic food. Differentiating characteristics might be as simple as the bread (think butter-grilled New England-style split-top bun), as complicated as the through-the-garden toppings that compose a Chicago dog (chopped onion, tomato slices, sport peppers, a pickle spear, shocking green relish, yellow mustard and celery salt), or as offbeat as Jersey’s Italian-style (deep-fried slim sausages on pizza bread with fried onions, peppers and potatoes). There is a lot to say about rehashes of once-regional but iconic dogs. The current darling, the Danger or Tijuana Dog, may have started a half-century back when Mexican street vendors wrapped hot dogs in bacon and loaded them with then-strange condiments. Hip Western desert and coastal locales have transformed the archetype — now often called the Sonoran — with everything from artisanal bacon to chipotle en adobo and steamed soft bolillo rolls.

> Puka Dog: Grilled Polish sausage, hollowed and toasted bread loaf, mango relish, spicy jalapeño sauce and lilikoi mustard — Puka Dog, Koloa, Hawaii
> Philly: All-beef dog on a double-wide bun with a fishcake, onions, yellow mustard
— Moe’s Hot Dog House, Philadelphia

The Sea Dog at New Orleans’ Dat Dog is a cod fillet fried in tempura batter and served with housemade tartar sauce. Photo courtesy of dat dog.
Asian Inspirations
The Asian-style hot dog is a modern-day mashup of Asian food culture and North American ingenuity, likely starting in 1995 with Noriki Tamura’s first JapaDog Asian fusion hot dog cart in Vancouver, Canada. With then unthought-of ingredients like Japanese-style mayonnaise, seaweed, plum sauce, dried and smoked fish, kimchi, seasoned rice and other umami-rich ingredients, he created shock and awe with his combinations.

> Banh Mi Dog: All-natural beef frank on a Euro bun topped with housemade banh mi slaw, crispy sautéed pork belly bacon, sriracha mayonnaise and fresh cilantro
— Buldogis Gourmet Hot Dogs, Las Vegas
> Sidney-Thai Style: Relish with mango, cucumber, red onion, cilantro, crushed peanuts, fish sauce — Asia Dog, New York City

Though they may hail back to German immigrants, we think of hot dogs as a quintessentially American food. But many cultures around the globe are also linked-in with encased meat, opening up opportunities for even more regional diversity in the meat/bun/topping/condiment continuum. North American operators are focusing on the lucrative versatility of hot dogs by developing variations linked to established global offerings.

> Colombian Dog: Beef, vegetarian or vegan dog with pineapple, mozzarella, house special sauce and crushed potato chips
— Simon’s Colombian Style Hot Dogs, Sedona, Ariz.
> Filipino Dog: All-beef hot dog, jasmine rice, mango and a spicy-sweet chile sauce — Cool Dog Café, Cherry Hill, N.J.

Over the Top
Iconic toppings still prevail — like Southern slaw, Seattle’s cream cheese or New York City red onion sauce as well as umpteen versions of chili, Coney and meat sauce — but more creative toppings are differentiating dogs even further. Presently, crunch is a big deal, so smashed chips, tortillas, crackers, toasted grains and salty nuts are making the rounds. Signature combinations of toppings and dogs are always fun, but the best operators say that those work better as LTOs and specials, providing a nudge but not locking customers into a veto vote. Experiment with ratios and unexpected themes, advises Biker Jim’s Pittenger.
Dat Dog in New Orleans has the classic condiments as well as a list of more exotic options such as crawfish étouffée, andouille sauce, hummus and Asian wasabi slaw. “Sell it as a style to mix and match with the dogs,” says co-owner Skip Murray.

> Toppings include harissa-roasted cactus, Malaysian curry jam and onions two ways — Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs, Denver
> Devil Dog: Topped with egg salad, Tabasco sauce, potato chips and scallions — Station Street Hot Dogs, Pittsburgh

Bun Undone
Fashionable franks now sport intentional wrappers that often provide the roots in a sea of sausage and topping choices. Better buns may or may not be housemade (like those that are “hand-crafted” at Bay Burger in Sag Harbor, N.Y., where a point of difference is the comfort of home), but well-constructed menus require a deliberate approach: Slightly sweet Hawaiian? Stiff and salty pretzel bread? Fluffy potato bread? Specially seeded? New England split-top? And then, consider the treatment: Steamed? Toasted? Buttered and griddled or grilled? Any way you slice it, a good, warm bun makes a big difference in the end delivery.

> Slovacek: Sausage, cheese and jalapeño stuffed inside a Tex-Czech hot baked kolache —The Zubik House, Austin, Texas
> The Waffle Dog: Andouille sausage wrapped in bacon, topped with homemade rémoulade served atop a crisp cornmeal waffle — Little Skillet, San Francisco

About The Author

Robin Schempp

Robin Schempp has always had a proclivity for exploring and enjoying the many expressions of the table, bench and tablet. For 20 years, she has shared her discoveries as president and principal of Right Stuff Enterprises, based in Waterbury, Vt., specializing in creative culinary concept and in product, menu and market development for food and beverage solutions. Robin regularly writes, speaks and teaches about food and culinary R&D. She is chair of the Slow Food Ark of Taste, vice chair of Chefs Collaborative, president emeritus of the Vermont Fresh Network and an active member of Research Chefs Association and the International Association of Culinary Professionals.