Dog days

In defense of the hot dog, and in praise of those who advance the art of the frankfurter

Apr 4, 2012 at 12:00 am

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.

Fleetwood Diner 300 S. Ashley St., Ann Arbor; 734-995-5502: Fleetwood Diner might not be the fanciest place to eat in downtown Ann Arbor, but it's open all night, and serves up quality diner fare, so it's often crowded at 2:22 a.m. Speaking of which, its infamous $2.22 coney dog is what you'll likely try when stopping in during the wee hours.

The Ham Shoppe 330 Monroe St., Detroit; 313-965-0088: After moving into their new digs on Monroe Street last year, owner Sal and company have been trying to come up with ideas to appeal to downtown's diners. Among them is building the better hot dog. Take his Kowaski stadium-style chili dog ($2.50): It has a much larger frank at its center. Sal says he got the idea from a hot dog documentary about Atlanta's Varsity dogs — perhaps in Rick Sebak's excellent Hot Dog Program (if you haven't seen it and call yourself a dog-hound, get crackin'). We love the idea that a hot dog could be something larger, bigger, grander. (For instance, see our listing for Famous Izzy's!) We've had one of Sal's "jumbo" dogs, and our verdict is that it's not too big (not everybody feels every meal must recall competitive eating) and not too small, just right for a side of fries and a pop. Thanks to Sal for switching it up.

Hippo's Hot Dogs 1648 Rochester Rd., Troy; 248-524-9778: What makes a dog Chicago-style? Start with a steamed, all-beef, natural-casing wiener. Slide it into a poppy seed bun and then "drag it through the garden" by topping it with mustard, onion, outrageously green sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices, sport peppers and a dash of celery salt. It's a triple-napkin dog. A little extra cleanup is a small price to pay for the incredible fusion of flavors and textures that was invented across the lake sometime in the late 19th century. But Chicago-style isn't the only dog in the house: There are loads of choices between a bun. The slaw dog comes heaped with coleslaw and mustard. Sauerkraut and relish top a New York dog. Local cultural sensitivity is evident with the inclusion of the coney dog. Big stomachs will crave an "Ultimate Dog": a quarter-pound hot dog complete with Chicago-style toppings, sauerkraut and giardineira (hot, marinated vegetables) all smothered under double chili. Or try a "Great Scot Hippo" — it's double-sized. In addition to the diverse list of dogs you can chomp a char-broiled Polish Hippo, Cajun sausage, Italian sausage, bratwurst, a Maxwell Street Polish sausage covered with grilled onions or a Chicago Avenue Polish sausage complete with sauerkraut and a pickle. Hippo's has an entire library of tube steaks, most of which cost less than four bucks. They pride themselves on being able to offer the classic Hippo dog for $2.15. Not turned on yet? Then aim for another Chicago classic: The Italian beef sandwich. Sliced top round beef comes packed into chewy Gonnella bread, topped with sautéed green peppers, grilled onions and your choice of marinara or the more traditional Italian gravy. A few years ago, Hippo's was inducted into the Vienna Beef hot dog hall of fame. That's how serious they are. Open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday. Plus, there's a newer location at 35520 Groesbeck Hwy., Clinton Twp.; 586-790-2775; open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

Lafayette Coney Island 118 W. Lafayette Blvd., Detroit; 313-964-8198: Quality is what makes Lafayette's plain coney dogs dependable: the thick, meaty chili sauce, fresh onion and mustard, and only all-meat franks — not the filler-laden "hot dogs" on the menu at lesser eateries. But perhaps what makes Lafayette one of the best hot dog spots in town is the character: the rattling plates, the shouted food orders and a bevy of cool characters around 2:30 a.m.

Le Dog 306 S. Main St., Ann Arbor; 734-327-0091: This humble-looking permanent hot dog stand serves tasty hot dogs in big portions at great prices. Le Dog's delicious soups and hot dogs bring a long line of diners at lunchtime. In the winter, it's also a good place to go to for a hot, homemade soup and a hunk of Zingerman's bread for only $6. You'll be glad you did. Take out only.

Lipuma's Coney Island 621 N. Main St., Rochester; 248-652-9862: In business since 1971, Lipuma's may know a thing or two about hot dogs. And they serve all manner of hot dogs from all over the country. Sure, they have a classic coney (and Vernor's to pair it with, no less!), but they also serve Chicago-style dogs, a New York-style frank with sauerkraut, even Polish sausages on a bun. Cozy vibe and very friendly staff.

National Coney Island 1812 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-398-6111: More than 20 southeast Michigan locations, including Detroit, Roseville, Royal Oak and Clinton Twp.: Chances are you're never more than a few miles from a National Coney Island or three. Two of three Roseville locations (on Gratiot and Grosebeck), Royal Oak and Utica are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; but the ones in Clinton Township and Warren are 24-hour gigs on Fridays and Saturdays. Which might not be very helpful if you're in dire need of chili dogs at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday, but it's better than trying to find something edible under the heat lamps at 7-11. Their coney dogs are served with chili, mustard and onions in a steamed bun, and they also serve plain hot dogs — and even coney burgers and tacos. National is a perennial Metro Times Best of Detroit winner.

Special thanks to editorial intern Sharon Jacobs for her assistance fact-checking this column.

See any inaccuracies? Let us know. Send an e-mail to [email protected] or call 313-202-8043.