We're officially there - the dog days of summer. So I took it a bit literally and decided to explore "the dogs" of America - hot dogs!
If you ask someone from say, Chicago or Atlanta or San Antonio to describe their favorite hot dog style, you're gonna get very different answers. In fact, as I've just learned, the regional hot dogs of America are taken VERY seriously by the folks who devour them. They mostly start out the same - an all beef hot dog with a natural casing. But from there all bets are off. I remember a long time ago, probably at a ball game, putting ketchup on my hot dog and one of the people I was with being shocked that I would do that. It was as if I had violated an unwritten law.
After my initial research, I decided to head over to a locally owned hot dog restaurant that specializes in serving up different hot dog styles just like the areas of the country in which they originated. Famous Uncle Al's Hot Dogs, at Tatum and Bell in Phoenix is run by Pat and Ernie King and is truly a family business. Their son Joe mans the grill. And, let me tell you - they know dogs.
They also are really specific about the ingredients and the order in which they land on each regional style. In fact, when I went in to pick up the ingredients for my samples - they had me draw out each dog and how it should be "put together." The mustard on the correct side, the celery salt sprinkled on after the sport peppers - which must go on at an angle... Joe even did a demo for me on how to precisely position a pickle spear. But, their customers expect their Chicago Dog to taste like The Windy City dogs of their youth. That's the fun of the fact that regional hot dog styles even exist. And, when we live in a transplant state like Arizona, people bring their cravings with them. And, sometimes nothing tastes better than a hot dog just like you remember it.
But before I go through some of the styles I learned about, let's talk about cooking these puppies. Grill 'em. I learned that a perfectly cooked hot dog has what's called a "snap" when you bite into it. It's the burst of juices that explode out of the grilled casing. Without that snap, many folks just aren't happy. But, in order to experience the snap, you have to cook a dog that is made with a casing and it should be grilled, turning it frequently to cook all sides.
Now, I also learned about "dirty water dogs" as they're called on the East Coast. These are the dogs that are boiled by the street cart vendors. As they sell the dogs, more are added to the same water. And fans of this style say the later in the day, the better the "dirty water dog." With these you won't experience the snap so casing really doesn't matter.
Acknowledging that most of us are unwilling to leave a pot of boiling hot dogs on our stoves for hours and hours at a time, we're going with the preferred cooking method - grilled to snap.
I asked the King's for a few of the most popular hot dog styles they serve up at Al's and here's what they said:
Hot Dog Styles
The Chicago Dog Probably one of the most familiar regional styles, especially since we have so many Illinois transplants. Pat described it as a hot dog walking through a garden. It has mustard, tomatoes, a funky bright green relish, onions, sport peppers, celery salt and a dill pickle. Plus, it MUST be on a poppy seed bun.
The Atlanta Slaw Dog This one's topped with homemade coleslaw that adds veggie crunch to the snap of the dog.
The San Antonio A slice of bacon is nestled between the dog and the bun on this number. From there, chili is piled on top with cheese, onions and jalapeo peppers finishing it up.
The Virginia Beach Virginia claims a variation on the chili dog that includes shredded cheese on top of a bean-free chili topping.
The New York This hot dog defines a regional specialty because it relies on a certain brand of sauce - Sabrett's Onions in Sauce, direct from New York. It starts with spicy mustard and has the drizzled on top of the hotdog.
These regional styles are only a sampling - there are many more. There's not a Phoenix Dog... yet. Famous Al's is running a contest in September that will develop a Phoenix Dog. What do you think... refried beans anyone?
Plus, if you're seeking an unusual type of hot dog, Everyday magazine recently did a taste test that might interest you. The winner for best turkey dog was Oscar Mayer's version, best veggie dog was Morningstar Farms Original Veggie and, this I love, best oddball was Nathan's Cheese Hot Dog (my husband was crazy about these.)
Hot dog! Summer's almost over. Mix up some Watermelon Lemonade (recipe below) grill up some dogs and savor the snap - regardless of what you pile on top of 'em. Or stop by Famous Uncle Al's and tour the country.
Famous Uncle Al's Hot Dogs is located on the southwest corner of Tatum and Bell Road in Phoenix (602-992-DOGS).
Watermelon Lemonade Recipe
2 lemons cut into quarters 1 cup fresh mint leaves 1/2 cup packed brown sugar 1/2 medium seedless watermelon, rind removed and flesh cut into chunks
Squeeze lemons into a large pitcher, and squeezed lemon quarters. Add mint and sugar and using a wooden spoon, mash until sugar is dissolved and mint is bruised.
In a blender, puree' the watermelon in batches until smooth. Pour through a fine-mesh sieve into pitcher (you need about 8 cups of juice). Refrigerate for up to 3 days.
By the way, a cup of vodka can be added to make into a cocktail! (Recipe from Everyday Food magazine)
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