A decade ago, the hot dog was declining in America. Sales were down 3% in 2012, compared to the previous year, after slowly dropping before that. Recently, the dog has made a comeback.
Sales skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic as Americans gravitated toward comfort food, and the portability of hot dogs made them ideal for social distancing. Now that ballparks are back in business, sales are climbing even more: The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council estimates that 19.1 million hot dogs will be eaten by Major League Baseball fans this season. On July 4th, Americans will eat 150 million of them.
Comparing the best is impossible; everyone has a favorite. And it goes without saying that we should all revere the time-tested, roadside dogs that haven’t changed for generations. But hot dogs can respect tradition without being prisoners to it. Walter’s, in Mamaroneck, N.Y., is a restaurant that’s proudly cooked hot dogs the same way for more than a hundred years, but it isn’t afraid to tuck deep-fried mashed potatoes inside a bun. The stand’s Double Puffy Dog is one of 13 exceptional hot dogs that push the boundaries of what a frank can be, as researched by Bloomberg’s journalists and friends.
Even I, a son of Chicago, see benefit in leaving the classic Chicago-style hot dog off a roster like this one. That beautiful tube of Vienna Beef nestled under a crunchy salad of pickles, chopped onions, tomatoes, sport peppers, green relish, mustard, and celery salt on a poppy seed bun is all-too-familiar to most. Instead, the lesser-known, enigmatic Flub-A-Dub-Chub’s in Chicago’s Lakeview makes the list.
So let the hot dog battles begin.
Barrio Dogg, San Diego
The Order: El Pueblito
Located in San Diego’s historic Barrio Logan neighborhood, Barrio Dogg originated as a hot dog cart fashioned from a hollowed-out low-rider. Among its selections, served in an ample brioche-like bun, is the El Pueblito, with toppings that represent a deconstructed chile relleno. The hot dog is wrapped in bacon and then topped with mesquite-roasted poblano peppers, aged manchego, spicy cotija cream, crunchy fried red onions, and pomegranate seeds. The melty, cheesy richness calls out for one of Barrio Dogg’s refreshing Michelada drinks.
Destination Dogs, New Brunswick, N.J.
The Order: The Cleo McDowell
The menu at Destination Dogs is filled with cheeky plays on words and inside jokes, such as the Brat Favre and Pig Trouble in Little China. If you wonder what a Big Mac would taste like in hot dog form, meet the Cleo McDowell. Inspired by the character in Coming To America who owns McDowell’s, a fictional take on McDonald’s, the dog is topped with all the fixings of a classic Big Mac: special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onion, and sesame seeds.
The Thirsty Pig, Portland, Me.
The Order: The Spicy McFirepants
At the Thirsty Pig, a downtown Portland bar specializing in hot dogs and sausages, with daily changing specials, the Spicy McFirepants is a top seller and a nod to the fiery personality of the restaurant’s owner, Allison Stevens. The griddled hot dog delivers heat on multiple fronts: It’s topped with a housemade hot relish, banana peppers, pickled jalapeños, and jalapeño cream cheese. For an additional $1, you can swap out a standard dog for one of Maine’s famous scarlet-skinned “red snappers.”
The Order: The Pulled Pork Chub Dog
Is it possible that the best hot dog in Chicago isn’t a Chicago-style hot dog? (Now that the Cubs have won a World Series, anything is possible.) At Flub-a-Dub Chub’s-which gets its name from a children’s book-the Chicago-style dog is indeed exceptional, but the signature hot dog is a quarter-pound Vienna Beef frank swaddled in two slices of bacon and piled high with pulled pork simmered in guava barbecue sauce. Don’t try to put ketchup on this-or on any hot dog-here. They’ll shame you on Instagram.
Boonedogs, Lexington, Ky.
The Order: The Pimento Dog
This hot dog from Boonedogs, which opened during the pandemic, is pure Southern hospitality. It’s all-beef, made by a local butcher and topped with homemade pimento cheese made with Duke’s mayo, pickled red onions, bacon bits, and, yes, fried green tomatoes. The latter are more reminiscent of a delicate tempura than a coarse southern breading, and the kick of spice in the pimento cheese sneaks up on you. The bartender also makes a mean Old-Fashioned because this is, after all, bourbon country.
Sweet Dogs 305, Miami
The Order: The Miami Vice
Sweet Dogs pays homage to the never-ending allure of white linen suits and 80s cool with this riff on a chili dog. Served on a buttered bun, the quarter-pound Nathan’s hot dog is smothered in hearty chili, diced onions, cheddar cheese, black sesame seeds, and crumbled Fritos. Sweet Dogs is the cure-all after a long night of clubbing on South Beach. It’s a menu of special hot dogs named for every major Miami team is popular among local sports fanatics.
Frank’s Gourmet Hot Dogs, Buffalo
The Order: The Violet Beauregard
Frank’s started as a street cart in 2014, and the Violet Beauregard, named for the infamous Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory character, was on the menu. The grass-fed pork and beef hot dogs are charbroiled (a hallmark of the western New York-style dog) and then slathered with a proprietary blueberry-balsamic barbecue sauce and topped with cheddar cheese and “onion crunch” on a potato bun. The brambly sauce is so good that Frank’s plans to start bottling it later this year.
The Red Hot, Tacoma, Wash.
The Order: The Hound Dog
The owners of the Red Hot know that most people will be skeptical about the idea of peanut butter on a hot dog. Alongside the Hound Dog, the menu simply reads: “Trust us.” The steamed and griddled hot dog, whipped by a secret purveyor in Chicago, is traced with a squiggly line of sweet, creamy peanut butter and bracketed with two crisp planks of honey-smoked bacon. Salty and sweet together with smooth and crunchy is a symphony of textures and flavors that shouldn’t work. Somehow, they do.
Walter’s, Mamaroneck, N.Y.
The Order: The Double Puffy Dog
Walter’s has been an East Coast institution since 1919, but unlike other legacy hot dog joints, it isn’t afraid to stray from the script. The Double Puffy Dog has two six-inch beef, pork, and veal hot dogs, sliced in half and griddled in a butter-based secret sauce. The franks are layered with potato puffs, orbs of deep-fried mashed potatoes that are smashed on the grill until they’re crispy. No need to order fries with this one.
El Güero Canelo, Tuscon, Ariz.
The Order: Chucho’s Dog
Sonoran-style hot dogs-which combine ingredients from north and south of the border-have become popular throughout southern Arizona. Chucho’s Dog at El Güero Canelo is a 100% beef dog wrapped in bacon and topped with pinto beans, grilled onions, mustard, mayonnaise, and jalapeño salsa. The pillowy Mexican bolillo bun, crustier than a typical hot dog bun, acts like a sponge for the juicy pork and beans. Chucho is Spanish vernacular for dog, and El Güero Canelo’s owner, Daniel Contreras, affectionately named this one a “Dog’s dog.” All bite, no bark.
Biker Jim’s, Denver
The Order: The Jack-a-Lope
The Jack-a-Lope at Biker Jim’s in Denver isn’t just a funny name. It’s a hot dog made with jackrabbit and antelope meat seasoned with cherries and habaneros. Eccentric owner Jim Pittenger (aka Biker Jim) recommends ordering it with the “Conspiracy” topping (bleu cheese, bacon-red onion marmalade, lemon aioli, and fried onions). The Jack-A-Lope is gamier than a typical hot dog, but the contrast between the sweet cherries and spicy chiles in every bite are unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. The menu calls it “mythically delicious.”
Dat Dog, New Orleans
The Order: The Vegan Banger
Dat Dog, a mini New Orleans chain specializing in franks and sausages, takes veggie dogs seriously enough to devote a section of the menu to them. A crowd favorite is a meatless version of Dat Dog’s Bacon Werewolf: The Vegan Banger is a plump, meatless brat slicked with Creole mustard, sauerkraut, dill relish, and grilled onions. The restaurant prides itself on having a wide selection of vegan and vegetarian-friendly toppings among the more than 30 it stocks.
Max’s Bar & Grill, Long Branch, N.J.
The Order: The Jersey Shore
Although Max’s originally opened on the Long Branch boardwalk in 1928, its menu has branched out (pun intended) to include hamburgers and other sandwiches. The Jersey Shore dog is a local, foot-long frank provided by a local purveyor, Wenning Foods, to be split open across the spine, stuffed with American cheese, and slowly griddled on a stainless-steel top-the same grill Max’s used in the 1950s). It’s topped off with seared pork roll, another Jersey staple that resembles a fat log of bologna and gives it extra porky goodness.