A number of years ago at a point I can't exactly recall, as the hot dog's tenure as New York's default street food unofficially ended, I had what would be my last hot dog for years.
It wasn't intentional, I swear. I don't remember when it happened, but I know there was a point after which I ate no hot dogs. They just never felt worth eating, not with a decent slice a block away or a freshly grilled burger at a neighbor's cookout. Hot dogs the way this New Yorker grew up eating them didn't taste bad; they just tasted irrelevant.
That is, they did until I moved to Chicago, where I spent four years relishing every one I could find. Now that I'm back in New York, the hot dogs are what I miss most.
Let's review your average New York and Chicago dogs. The former are fished out of a murky pool of tepid water from a cart and slapped into a stale bun, perhaps topped with tame sauerkraut or yellow mustard. (Or, god forbid, ketchup,.) This is the case nearly everywhere you look.
The latter are plump, all-beef, natural casing Vienna Beef sausages given a good crisping on the grill or griddle, and topped with as little as onions and mustard or as much as a small deli salad, pickles, relish, peppers, and tomatoes. Those add-ons may be plentiful and perhaps structurally unsound, but they're beautifully calibrated to layer sweet, tangy, and hot elements on a warmly spiced, plenty snappy link—the banh mi of hot dogs. When Ed asked aloud one day, "which is the better hot dog city," how else could I answer?
Now I've had days-long arguments with a proud, proud New York hot dog lover about the technicalities of what a good hot dog is—New York, Chicago, or otherwise, and I'll admit: a truly great New York-style hot dog, which you can basically only get these days at Gray's Papaya or Papaya King, is a beautiful thing. There's nothing else like a natural casing dog carefully griddled to a crackling snap, innards dosed with paprika and garlic, and the whole thing topped with some sauerkraut or brown deli mustard. When you get one made right, time stands still.
And if you feel that two sources for great hot dogs make a great hot dog town, then I'm happy you're happy. But that strikes me as a little light.
By comparison, let's look at this map, which shows just how plentiful good natural casing hot dogs are in Chicago.* If you want a well-made, natural casing New York-style hot dog in New York, you've committed yourself to cooking at home or visiting one of the last scions of the trade. In Chicago you have, at press time, over 70 places to satisfy your craving, all brick and mortar shops with a defined aesthetic and sense of permanence. In a city with one-third of the people.
* Of course a natural casing dog doesn't equate to a good hot dog, but it suggests an amount of care and attention lacking at most New York dirty water stands.
A great hot dog town is defined by more than just its great hot dogs. It's built on a foundation of discussion, debate, and fierce adoration. It relies on a sense of tradition that's protected in the face of change. Chicago has maintained its hot dog tradition. New York, by and large, has not. Why did it take living in Chicago to make me fall in love with hot dogs? Because so many of my neighbors were head over heels for them.
No one's waiting in a two hour line at Gray's the way they do at Hot Doug's. In all my time in New York, never have I seen a drunk guy on the subway trip down the aisle, losing his keys but fiercely clutching his hot dog. And I'm still waiting to watch a shouting match at a New York hot dog stand over whether ketchup is considered an acceptable topping. Had I as a kid, my hot dog world view might be different today.
I'm not saying that your average Chicago dog is great. For every Hot Doug's or Gene's & Jude's you have a dozen lesser contenders. But I will say that your average Chicago dog is a far better specimen than your typical New York version: Chicago's are sweet and tart and hot and thoroughly spiced, all on a reliably beefy, delicately flavored sausage. I've had many New York hot dogs that I'd call bad. But I've yet to taste a Chicago dog I wouldn't finish.
New York has a way of building up great traditions and then forgetting about them. Finding a good bagel these days requires a treasure map. Public interest in pastrami, despite the city's new-found fascination with smoking and curing meats of all kinds, is at a dangerous low. Hell, even getting a good slice of pizza, perhaps our most vital contribution to American eating, is harder and harder by the day. The hot dog of today's New York is a dirty waterlogged walking corpse, and it's probably too late to save it.
That's not so in Chicago, where the people are wise enough to treat their hot dogs with respect. Great sausages demand great loyalty, and I'm thankful the city hasn't given up.