In defense of the hot dog, and in praise of those who advance the art of the frankfurter
Published: April 4, 2012
It's spring. The robin and cardinal come winging our way. The sun follows us home from work. The crack and roar of baseball return to our town. And with them comes the cry of the hot dog vendor, a sure sign that spring's in swing. Without fail, we look forward to the snap of a natural casing ballpark frank as we take our first bite every year.
Whether you call them frankfurters, red hots or wieners, hot dogs seldom get the respect they deserve. H.L. Mencken once dismissed the frankfurters of his day as "a cartridge filled with the sweepings of abattoirs."
But frankfurters have a long and storied history. Invented 500 years ago, these little sausages were first put in a bun in the 1870s at Coney Island, N.Y. (And since the 1910s, Detroit dog vendors have traded on the fame of that name.) Since the 1960s, Americans have consumed, on average, somewhere north of 60 hot dogs a year, nothing to sniff at. And, of course, one sort of dog is our regional treasure, the coney dog, usually dressed in working-class glory with beef chili, raw diced onions and a strip of yellow mustard.
Whatever their status today, hot dogs have come a long way. In 1929, Mencken foresaw the various hot dogs of the future. He cried, "Throw off the chains of the frankfurter! There should be dogs for all appetites, all tastes, all occasions. They should come in rolls of every imaginable kind and accompanied by every sort of relish from Worcestershire sauce to chutney. The common frankfurter, with its tough roll and its smear of mustard, should be abandoned as crude and hopeless. ... The hot dog should be elevated to the level of an art form."
If only the Sage of Baltimore could see today's red hots, which include a slew of regional meat sandwiches vying for attention, a field of contenders that includes Cleveland's Polish boy, Chicago-style dogs, New Jersey's "Italian-style" dogs, Arizona's "sonorans," Southern slaw dogs, Hawaiian "puka" dogs and many more variations. Although metro Detroit is the world's "coney capital," this listing of selected hot dog spots should inspire the kind of creativity Mencken would have us aspire to.
American Coney Island 114 W. Lafayette, Detroit; 313-961-7758: Here's where you can get your dressed-up dogs with all fixings. The frank has a natural casing that gives quite a satisfying snap when you bite into it. Coneys are topped with chopped, mild white onion and mustard, and with a chili made with richly seasoned ground beef. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Auntie Anne's in Fairlane Town Center, 18900 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-441-1905: This pretzel chain serves a variety of tempting pretzel dogs. Forget about the buns. Get your hot dog wrapped with Auntie Anne's flavorful, famous pretzels and topped with jalapeño. For a meal or a snack, pretzel dogs are surprisingly handy and filling.
Bob E's Super Chief 340 W. Walton Blvd., Pontiac; 248-333-2028: Bob E's gets high marks for serving its franks on toasted buns. Mouthwatering hot dogs are served with "Miami sauce," which is a secret recipe containing mustard, mayo, ketchup and steak sauce. The dining area is small, so pick up your order if you treasure your personal space when digging in.
Bucharest Grill 2040 Park Ave., Detroit; 313-965-3111: Bucharest Grill is often tagged as a Middle Eastern restaurant for its tasty, inexpensive shawarma, but it has a whole section of the menu dedicated to "gourmet dogs." Its dog selection ranges from the local Detroiter, a sausage with coney chili sauce, onions and cheese, to the Berliner, a sausage covered in sauerkraut, onions and spicy mustard.
Campau Tower 10337 Joseph Campau St., Hamtramck; 313-873-7330: They've been a fixture in Hamtramck for as long as anybody can remember, as a ghost of the old White Tower chain, a tiny building that looks like it had to wedge in between those on either side of it. And, day after day, this slider joint serves the few characters who always seem to be waiting for a coney dog. And, as coneys go, the Campau Tower's are kosher, right down to the National City chili they use.
Duly's 5458 W. Vernor Hwy., Detroit; 313-554-3076: Duly's is a tiny coney island with counter stools and a few tables in the back. They have a whole legion of followers raving about things like their chili cheeseburgers and atmosphere of controlled chaos. They've got breakfasts and coney dogs and they serve it all up 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you're lucky enough to come at the right time, you'll find a real Detroit character holding forth up front. He calls himself "Mayo," and as the bar crowd wanders in for post-beer coneys, Mayo treats the front counter as his personal vaudeville stage, wisecracking with the customers up front by the cash register. A sharp-eyed host, he runs the room well, chattering in French, English and Spanish. Along with your onion rings, you could get his philosophy about life, with a host of Mayo-isms along the way. Deadpan and funny, most of his utterances are unpublishable here — in a good way. Cash only.
Famous Izzy's Restaurant and Bakery 20733 13 Mile Rd., Roseville; 586-294-6750: This east side sandwich shop has earned a loyal following based on the size of its portions. It's the home of the 7-pound steak burger (which the menu describes as "not for wimps"), and sandwiches that aren't just double-deckers or triple-deckers — but four-deckers so tall they have to be served on skewers. In such an environment, you might expect the focus to be on quantity while the quality slides. Thankfully, Izzy's pays attention to the details. Their policy prohibits sharing sandwiches, but that's no problem, as we can confirm that the doggie bag from one of their $12.99 "Ex-Wife Specials" can last you three lunches at work. See also their "Mile High" cakes — cakes so big they are decorated with little cakes of their own. But for hot doggers, here is the grandest creation of all, a frankfurter that's more than 2 feet long, 25 inches in all, weighing in at a half-pound. Truly, Izzy's is a land of the giants.
> Email Michael Jackman