Hot-dog eating is (almost) all about context. That most plebeian of foods wants to be devoured outdoors, ideally at a stand like the original Nathan’s in Coney Island, or at a ballpark, or a cookout, with little thought, no silverware, and an ironclad don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy on the derivation of a shade Martha Stewart might christen Nitrite Pink.
Having said that, there are certain things one requires in a dog. The elemental snap, of course, and the tongue-tingling jolt of salt. A certain juiciness, and a garlic- forward blend of spices that finds its gustatory counterpoint in the soft, bland roll that cradles it.
The Underground Gourmet has yet to hit Nathan’s this year, but we’ve sampled the wares at a couple of new hot-dog establishments, each taking a different approach to a crowded wiener market. Willie’s Dawgs, a cheerfully idiosyncratic Brooklyn arrival, is by far the most ambitious, its menu a sociological study of the appetites and apprehensions of the modern eater, Park Slope genus. They’re a skittish bunch, those Michael Pollan–reading, Co-op-shopping Slopies, and Willie’s menu caters to all their ecogastronomic neuroses. There is a tofu dog, a turkey-and-chicken dog, and even, most profanely, a carrot dog—yes, a whole carrot, boiled and marinated and griddled, topped with avocado and Cheddar cheese. Willie’s might be the only East Coast purveyor of Let’s Be Frank, the San Francisco haute dog made from all-natural, grass-fed beef pastured on the Hearst Ranch. It’s brownish and spicy, with a dense, grainy texture more reminiscent of a finely ground meatball than a hot dog. One step down on the hot-dog chain is Willie’s “Pedigree” dog, a thicker, skinless tubesteak with the familiar pink hue and frank flavor. Evolved eaters as we thought we were, we have to admit that our favorite Willie’s dog is the “Mutt”—an all-beef Karl Ehmer with a natural casing and a good snap—and our favorite way to eat it, despite the range of toppings (like Swiss cheese, bacon, and even peanut butter), is with a swipe of mustard, of which there about a dozen obscure varieties to choose from. Willie’s, which promotes local dog-rescue organizations and animal adoptions, gets points for effort (not to mention excellent onion rings and bake-sale-style desserts), but house-baked buns are better in theory than in practice: They dwarf the dogs, and never quite coalesce with them. Still, Willie’s has a lot of heart and a mighty Mutt.
If Willie’s Dawgs takes an innocent, kid-friendly approach to the genre, PDT is the hot-dog joint for grown-ups. Actually, it’s the cocktail-lounge annex to Crif Dogs, an East Village mainstay known for its deep-fried Jersey-style franks. Accessed through a vintage phone booth within Crif Dogs, PDT (short for Please Don’t Tell) is a snug, sexy speakeasy with a twist: Along with its high-quality classic cocktails and a well-chosen selection of beer and wine, patrons can order food from Crif’s kitchen next door. Oddly, it works: A paper boat of foil-wrapped waffle fries goes nicely with the Astoria Bianco, a refreshing martini derivative. PDT’s abbreviated menu offers a smallish, bowling-alley-style burger, and four kinds of deep-fried dogs—although you can put in special requests from the full Crif Dog menu next door, which includes our favorite, the New Yorker, Crif’s sole grilled all-beef frank. The idea is genius and a time-saver: food you eat when you’re drunk, served while you’re in the process of getting that way.