Eats: The hot dog days of summer

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Each region of the country proudly embraces its own version. Frankly, the possibilities are endless.

The hot dog is as All-American as baseball, and just as people are loyal to their regional teams, they are equally as devoted to their local hot dog.

But a hot dog is just a hot dog, no matter where you eat it, right?

Wrong. If you want to get into the middle of a debate, just ask a New Yorker their opinion on the Chicago dog or vice versa.

Americans eat billions of hot dogs each year — 155 million just on July 4th — and they are everywhere, including restaurants, street corners, ball parks and back yards.

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The American hot dog owes its origin to two European cities: Frankfurt, Germany, and Vienna (pronounced “wien” in German), Austria. Although the terms “hot dog,” “frankfurter” and “wiener” are pretty much interchangeable, most frankfurters are considered to have a natural casing, while a wiener is thought of as a skinless ballpark-type hot dog.

The man responsible for making the hot dog so popular in the states was neither German nor Austrian. In fact, Nathan Handwerker was a Jewish immigrant from Poland who worked at a hot dog stand on Coney Island slicing buns. He lived totally on hot dogs and slept in the kitchen for over a year until he had saved enough money to open his own stand. By charging five cents instead of 10 for this crowd pleaser, he wiped out his competitor and Nathan’s Famous was born.

Cities across the U.S. claim ownership of their own hot dog style thanks to distinctive cooking methods, types of buns and, most especially, the toppings. Just travel anywhere in the country and you will find that while everyone is united in their love of the hot dog, conceptions on how it should look and taste can vary significantly.

Among the many regional standouts:

The standard Chicago dog in the Windy City is a Vienna beef frank on a poppy seed bun. It is probably the most well-known and unique dog out there. Most toppings are fresh from the garden and consist of tomatoes, onions, peppers and dill pickles, slathered with relish and yellow mustard.

The Big Apple is where the simple dog reigns supreme. The classic hot dog in New York City is typically grilled and smeared with spicy brown mustard and topped with sauerkraut (which often has been sauteed with tomato paste and has a bit of an extra kick from a touch of chili powder and beer).

The Sonoran dog is a favorite of the Southwest. The hot dog is wrapped in bacon, grilled and put in a steamed bolillo roll. Mexican-inspired toppings such as jalapenos, chopped tomatoes, pinto beans, onions and mayo make this dog one spicy-hot mama.

Washington state has the Seattle-style dog; a natural-casing frank that is grilled, sliced in half, placed on a toasted bun and slathered with cream cheese. Garnishes include onions, jalapenos and grilled cabbage, with most dog lovers finishing it off with squirts of sriracha, barbecue sauce or pico de gallo.

The Newark Italian-style dog is very common throughout New Jersey. The hot dogs are often long and skinny, and garnished with sauteed onions and red peppers. And if it’s not deep fried and placed in half-rounds of pizza bread, fuhgettaboutit!

West Virginia and the Carolinas take pride in their slaw dog. Typically an all-beef affair, it is usually topped with chili, coleslaw, raw onion and minced chilies.

Kansas City is known for its Reuben dog, which was inspired by the deli sandwich. It’s topped with melted cheese, caraway seeds, sauerkraut and loads of Thousand Island dressing.

Even Hawaii has its own signature dog; the puka. More of a grilled Polish sausage, the dog is served in a large bun that has a hole drilled through the middle. The contraption that drills the hole also toasts the inside of the bun. The most common topping is a tropical, garlic-lemon sauce that ranges from mild to habanero hot-hot. One popular garnish consists of hot sauce, mango relish and lilikoi mustard.

Maine’s claim to fame: the red dog

Although popular in a few other states, Maine’s claim to hot dog fame is the Red Snapper, with its bright, neon-red color that comes from a dose of FD&C red dye #40. When steamed, boiled or grilled the dog has a serious snap to it . . . and looks amazing with a vivid stripe of yellow mustard and diced raw onions.

For one of the best Red Snappers, there’s no need to go any farther than Simones’ World Famous Hot Dogs in Lewiston, which recently ranked 65th on MSN’s list of America’s 75 Best Hot Dogs.

“We’ve been serving red hot dogs since 1908,” said co-owner Jimmy Simones. “Our red hot dog has a natural casing made with a combination of beef and pork. We also carry an all-beef ballpark dog for those with allergies or reasons to not eat pork.”

By far the steamed Red Snapper is the most popular at the downtown Chestnut Street diner.

“And served with mustard on a split New England hot dog roll,” said Simones. “The most popular add-on is celery salt, which is quite a local thing. And it’s been that way for years. I remember as a child hearing the order of a steamed dog with mustard, celery salt and (served with) chocolate milk.”

Other popular dogs on the menu are chili-cheese dogs and kraut dogs. Simones said he’s probably heard every possible order on the planet.

“People have signed our guest book from all over the world” he said. “And because of that we have had quite a few unique topping requests as well. People have ordered them with pickles, tomatoes, cheese and tomatoes. Even strawberry jam for the top has been ordered. . . . To each his own, we’ll serve whatever they like.”

Val’s Drive-In at 925 Sabattus St. in Lewiston is another place known locally for serving up a lot of dogs. The place is a legendary and nostalgic throwback to the ’50s, where carhops still serve up orders on a tray brought to your car. Customers can be seen swaying back and forth as they listen to piped-in music from the sock-hop era. On the weekends waitresses don poodle skirts, while on Monday night cowboy hats, plaid shirts and cut-off jeans liven up country night.

Now a third-generation hot dog eatery, Val’s serves a beef-and-pork skinless dog on a New England split bun.

“It’s the same hot dog served since my dad, Val, took over A&W Root Beer in 1974,” said Gail Lawrence. “People seem to really love the ‘Happy Days’ atmosphere. It’s funny though, how people swear we had carhops on roller skates, but we never did.”

Val’s well-known hot dog is normally steamed, but can be grilled to order.

“The most popular topping is just plain mustard,” Lawrence said. “Quite a few little ones like to add the ketchup, and many enjoy the smothered onions. For a side, customers have fries or onion rings. And, of course, Val’s homemade root beer is a favorite,” she added.

Many other eateries in and around the Twin Cities offer hot dogs, so check your favorite restaurant for their specialties. For a hot dog you might want to eat with a fork and a knife, the Fire House Grille at 47 Broad St. in New Auburn puts its award-winning firehouse chili on top of a large, quarter-pound, all-beef dog and serves it on a crusty sub roll.

“It’s the only hot dog on our menu,” said firefighter and owner John Roy. “It’s all we need; hands down, it’s the best dog in town.”

This big, ol’ fat dog is called The Sparky and it’s loaded with onions, chili, sauerkraut and shredded cheddar.

“The key is our homemade chili,” said Roy. “It’s been voted the most popular chili in the area for three of the last four years . . . by the public. It’s made with our special Fire House sauce, which has the perfect amount of beans and one of the hottest peppers in the world.”

According to Roy, the most common side, naturally, is the restaurant’s homemade Baxter beer-battered onion rings.

The perfect hot dog: plump yet charred

(From thepauperedchef.com)

Directions:

Barely cover the bottom of a fry pan with water.

Bring water to a boil, add hot dogs and continue steaming until water is gone.

Add butter and finish cooking to desired charring.

Note: Pure boiling can make a hot dog plump, yet soggy and lacking flavor; pure grilling can cause too much charring and an undercooked center.

Chicago dog

(Compiled from the best of several recipe websites)

Ingredients:

4 split hot dog buns

2 tablespoons melted butter

1 tablespoon poppy seeds

4 natural-casing hot dogs

4 long, dill pickle spears

8 tomato wedges

Yellow mustard

Sweet relish

6 tablespoons finely diced sweet onion

4 sport peppers or banana peppers, sliced

Celery salt

Instructions:

Brush the outside of the hot dog buns with butter.

Sprinkle with poppy seeds.

Bake in oven till warm (about 5 minutes) or heat on griddle.

Cook hot dogs per instructions on package.

Place hot dogs on buns.

Slide pickle slice on one side of hot dog and 2 tomato wedges on other.

Squirt desired mustard and relish on top.

Top with prepared onions and peppers.

Sprinkle desired celery salt.

Firehouse chili dog

(From the Fire House Grille in Auburn)

Ingredients:

4 foot-long all-beef hot dogs

4 crusty sub rolls

Sliced or diced onions

Ketchup

Mustard

Your favorite firehouse chili recipe with beans

Sauerkraut

Grated cheddar cheese

Instructions:

Warm sauerkraut and chili, set aside.

Cook hot dogs per instructions on package.

Toast sub roll.

Open heated roll and add onions, mustard and ketchup.

Place dog on top.

Layer with chili, then sauerkraut and top with cheese.

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