HOT DOGS aren't just for baseball games and barbecues anymore. Check the menus at a handful of gastro pubs or even high-end restaurants around town, and you'll see a haute dog gussied up with all manner of homemade fixings.
Brought to America by German immigrants in the late 1800s - the word frankfurter comes from Frankfurt, Germany - the humble wiener's original pedigree was more show dog than mutt.
Traditionally, butchers ground leftover cuts of meat, usually pork shoulder, added spices and then emulsified the mixture, making a kind of mousse. This was then stuffed into natural casings and ready for steaming, boiling, grilling or frying.
It wasn't until the dog was mass-produced commercially that it lost its blue-ribbon rep, thanks to the addition of additives, nitrates, tons of sodium, and, in some cases, less-than-mainstream cuts of meat. Cheap, commercially produced dogs are suspect on many levels, from the way the animals that provide the meat are raised to the number of contaminants allowed in the manufacturing process and the high level of fat and sodium in the finished product.
Now, we're not saying that gourmet hot dogs are health food, but the snap of a pure, 100 percent beef or pork hot dog is truly a thing of beauty.
Marcus Rieker knows a thing or two about quality dogs. The second-generation butcher took over Rieker's Prime Meats in Fox Chase from his father, Walter, in 2004. He makes three kinds of wieners - a beef, pork and veal mix, a veal dog and a turkey dog.
"My father tells the story about starting his business and being asked by a supplier how much egg whites, powdered milk and soybean powder he'd be ordering for his hot dogs. When he was told none, the guy said he'd [Rieker] be out of business in a year."
Fillers, preservatives and salt plump up dogs by retaining water and adding weight. "We don't use any of that, which is why our dogs have a shorter shelf life of 5 to 7 days in the refrigerator," Rieker said. He sells all his dogs for $4.99 a pound, or you can taste one at Brauhaus Schmitz, the German beer hall on South Street.
Beef vs. pork is always a lively debate when it comes to which makes the best hot dog.
"I grew up on kosher dogs because I'm Jewish," said Matt Prensky, chef/owner of Supper Restaurant and Global Dish Catering. "But I'm a huge fan of pork. It's such flavorful meat."
Prensky and catering chef Matt Davis make all their own charcuterie, including hot dogs, from heritage pork breeds like Berkshire, Duroc, Red Wattle and Tamworth. The restaurant's summer menu offers a Backyard Barbecue Plate, an oversize array of pork prepared four ways, including brats served with corn relish and homemade mustard.
When it opens for lunch starting in mid-October, Supper will offer three signature hot dogs: the Transplanted New Yorker, a street-food classic with yellow mustard and house-made pickle relish, sauerkraut and spicy onion stewed in tomato sauce; Asia Dog, inspired by a Vietnamese bahn mi hoagie, made from spicy pork paté with cucumber, pickled daikon and carrot, cilantro, jalapeño slices and sriracha mayo; and Texas Tommy, a Philly classic wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon and deep fried, served with melted sharp cheddar, house-made smoked chili BBQ sauce and fried house-made pickles.
The hot dogs, priced in the $9-$10 range, will be served with house-made "fixins" and house-baked buns.
Out in Limerick, not far from the new Philadelphia Premium Outlets, Cliff Fisher and Adam Brush own Philly Hot Dog Café, with Vienna beef dogs at the heart of 25 different wiener presentations.
Made in Chicago, Vienna beef dogs have legions of fans, including Cliff and his wife, Susan, who first tasted them at a place called Mel's, in Susan's hometown of Tampa, Fla. "We loved them and couldn't find them around Philly. So when we were looking for a business venture, we thought, why not?" said Susan, who minds the café while her husband and his business partner keep their day jobs in sales.
The family-run business, which opened July 4, 2008, sports a creative menu geared to true hot-dog fanatics, with dogs available boiled, grilled or fried, priced from $2.79-$7.49. Stay with the classic Chicago dog - tomato slices, peppers, dill spear, diced onions, relish, mustard and celery salt on a poppy seed bun; try the Philly cheesesteak dog - topped with a cheesesteak and fried onions; or, if you're really brave, try the Junkyard Dog, a mastiff of a preparation that includes chili, Cheez Whiz, dill pickle spear, onions, relish, cheesesteak and bacon on a small hoagie roll.
Playing to the kosher-dog lovers in the crowd, Stephen Starr's new Square Burger, in Franklin Square, offers the Philly Dog ($3.75), a Hebrew National dog with some interesting trimmings. "We wrap the hot dog in kosher salami," explained Shane Cash, executive chef for Starr's Events division. "Then we top it with homemade sweet pickled cucumber, sweet mustard, small-diced onions, hot sliced cherry peppers and sliced plum tomatoes."
The dog is delivered on a toasted Martin's potato roll.
Another, even swankier take on the traditional beef frank is showing up around town: the Kobe beef dog. Kobe beef refers to beef from the black Tajima-ushi breed of Wagyu cattle, originally raised in Japan but now also raised in the U.S. and Australia, and prized for its well-marbled texture and rich flavor.
Try one on the lunch menu at Rouge ($16), topped with sweet relish, whole-grain mustard aioli and served with pommes frites. Or during happy hour at the venerable Prime Rib, where five Kobe beef pigs in a blanket are served with spicy brown mustard for just $5.
Chef R. Evan Turney, of Varga Bar, raises the bar even further, delivering a beer-braised Kobe topped with Kobe beef chili and melted aged cheddar ($9). "We first tried offering a Kobe dog at Valanni, topped with a mango and tomatillo chutney, and everybody loved it," said Turney.
A hot-dog fanatic as a kid, he played around with the Varga dog until it was just right. "We simmer them in beer until they plump up and then we grill them," he said. Served in a poppy seed bun with a side of smoked paprika onion rings, the dog is a true thing of beauty, and that's before it's topped with chili.
"Really, who doesn't like a chili dog?" Turney said. Truer words were never spoken.