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The Great American Hot Dog Wars

Epicuriousity
Writer
Nadia Malyanah
The American hot dog wars

Both old rivals and new favourites compete for hot dog dominance in America.

There is perhaps no other food that is more identifiably American than hot dogs – despite the existence of other fairly worthy contenders in the form of burgers, corn on the cob, and apple pies. These bunned sausages (also known as frankfurters) are available pretty much everywhere in the United States, whether at a baseball game, a backyard barbeque or a roadside convenience store. The country even has a designated National Hot Dog Month and Day, with nearly every American state having their variations of the hot dog - a testament as to how much the country loves its hot dogs. It also means that there’s usually a hot dog rivalry to be found somewhere.

In fact, one of the more pressing food rivalries in American cuisine is centred on two specific variations of the American hot dog: the New York-style versus Chicago-style. The New York-style hot dog is often boiled, then topped with spicy brown mustard and either sauerkraut or onions sautéed with tomato paste. Meanwhile, the Chicago-style hot dog includes yellow mustard, chopped white onions, bright green sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices or wedges, pickled sport peppers and a dash of celery salt with no ketchup.

Nathan's Famous hot dogs Coney Island
Nathan's Famous hot dogs (Photo: facebook.com/nathansfamous)

However strongly you may feel about those two variations, though; the story of the modern American hot dog undeniably began in New York – specifically at the boardwalks of Coney Island. While Nathan’s Famous hot dogs steal much of the spotlight on Coney Island these days, it was Charles L. Feltman (of Feltman’s) who first conceptualised and commercialised the modern hot dog as we know today. The original Feltman’s Ocean Pavilion first opened in 1871, becoming one of the largest restaurants in the world by the 1920s before it was sold off by his descendants 20 years later. Later, a former bun cutter at Feltman’s, Nathan Handwerker,

Feltman's Coney Island in 1904
Feltman's Ocean Pavillion at Coney Island in 1904. (Photo: facebook.com/feltmansconey)

ended up opening a restaurant of his own in 1916. Located only blocks away from his old employer in 1916, Nathan’s began selling hot dogs at lower prices and effectively undercut his previous employer. Today, it is still going strong with supermarket presence all over America, as well as club stores and restaurants across more than 10 countries. As far as reviews go, their hotdogs at the original Coney Island location still pack a pretty good punch. Feltman’s, however, has now pivoted to selling packaged hotdogs after the loss of its original brick-and-mortar store at Coney Island in 2019 – just four years after the brand was resurrected.

Gray's Papaya New York
Papaya King (Photo: Facebook.com/papayaking) (L); Gray's Papaya (Photo: Instagram.com/grayspapayanyc) (R).

Then there’s the famous rivalry between the hot dog joints of Papaya King and Gray’s Papaya. Papaya King opened first, in 1932, serving papaya juice with their hot dogs. Initially a tropical juice bar, they expanded to sell hot dogs due to the German-American influence in their neighbourhood. Papaya King’s success spurred one of its founding partners, Nicholas Gray to start Gray’s Papaya in the 1970s. It soon eclipsed Papaya King, both in stature and, perhaps, even taste for some.

Portillo's hot dog Chicago
Portillo's (Photo: facebook.com/portillos.hotdog)

Moving towards the Midwest, two long-time Chicago street food chains are currently vying for mass-market hot dog dominance in the Windy City. Portillo’s has been around for slightly longer than 50 years, compared to Buona Beef’s 30-plus years of operation. Both chains essentially serve similar menus: Chicago hot dogs, Italian pulled roast beef, and staples such as burgers and milkshakes. However, these old-timers have a competition coming up in the shape of Superdawg’s plump all-beef frank, Gene & Jude’s fries-topped dogs and Fatso’s Last Stand’s charred hot dogs. Each has consistently ranked near the top of Chicago’s best-of hot dog lists in recent years. A slightly left-field choice

Superdawg SuperdawgDriveIn
Superdawg (Photo: facebook.com/SuperdawgDriveIn)

would be Kimski, which serves fusion Korean-Polish street food. Much praise has been lavished on their signature item named Maria’s Standard. It is no Chicago-style hotdog, though – Maria’s Standard is essentially Polish sausage on a bun topped with soju-spiked mustard, scallions, sesame seeds and purple cabbage kraut fermented in kimchi hot sauce. Unconventional, but interesting!

Another famed local American hot dog rivalry takes us to another part of the American Midwest – to Michigan’s Motor City, which is the home of Detroit’s famous coney dog. A coney dog is essentially a hot dog in a steamed bun, coated in beanless chili with mustard and raw chopped onions. But the coney dog’s distinguishing characteristic is the chili sauce, or (“coney sauce”) enveloping it: the concoction is loose and almost soupy in consistency, which is made extra-meaty with ground beef, and flavoured with a spice mixture. While three Detroit restaurants have laid claim to the original Detroit coney dog, both American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island stand out due to their fierce sibling rivalry. American Coney Island was originally opened in 1919 by brothers Bill and Gust Keros, but a falling out between them lead to Bill eventually setting up Lafayette Coney Island next door in 1936. Detroit’s many residents usually swear allegiance to one or the other, with some even refusing to step foot inside the competition.

American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island
American Coney Island (L); Lafayette Coney Island (R).
Duly's Place hot dogs Coney Island
Duly's Place (Photo: facebook.com/DulysConeyIsland)

Alternatively, another Detroit establishment that’s also worth checking out is Duly’s Place, located in Southwest Detroit. They’ve courted the likes of the late Anthony Bourdain, who enjoyed their chilli-laden coneys so much, he bought two while shooting an episode of his famed Parts Unknown show. There also exists a variation of the Detroit coney dog, which can be found in the neighbouring city of Flint, this variation topped with a drier mixture of finely ground meat and spices instead of the coney sauce. Locals often assert that the only place to get an authentic Flint coney is at Angelo’s, as it’s prepared with meat from a local hot dog brand called Koegel’s. That just goes to show how loyal hot dog lovers can be, when even meat suppliers ensure the authenticity of taste patrons can expect when ordering from their favourite hot dog stand.

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