The Absolute Best Hot Dog in New York

Everything you want in a hot dog at Katz’s. Photo: Melissa Hom

Has there ever been a better time to eat a frankfurter? Feltman’s, the world’s first bunned wiener, is back where it belongs on Coney Island, right next to the Cyclone roller coaster. (A tip: ride first, then eat.) Thanks to the superb work of new-wave butchers, who buy hormone-and-antibiotic-free beef and pork that come from contented cows and pigs, and cure and smoke their own hot dogs, you no longer have to feel bad or afraid before you tuck into a tube steak. And even condiment purists have got to admit that we’re living in a golden age of hot-dog toppings, and that when spooned and squirted onto a frank, kimchee and Kewpie mayo go together like bacon and eggs. What do we look for in a hot dog besides good meat; spicy, smoky flavor; and zingy condiments? For one, a natural casing that seals in not only the juice but the smoke, and snaps like fire kindling when you bite into it. Size matters: Sleek and streamlined usually beat big and bulky, but balance and proportion and dog-to-bun ratio is all. And a little nostalgia never hurts. Here, then, are the absolute best hot dogs in New York, and some excellent places to eat them in.

The Absolute Best

1. Katz’s
205 E. Houston St., at Ludlow St.; 212-254-2246

You can’t write blurbs about Katz’s without mentioning that scene from When Harry Met Sally — well, you can, but suppose you couldn’t. Our point is that, although it’s generally overlooked or forgotten, what Sally is having during the I’ll-have-what-she’s-having gag is a turkey sandwich, but most people remember it as pastrami. And yet, as far as we’re concerned, if anything were to inspire someone to unleash a series of ecstatic yips and moans while dining at Katz’s, it would be the hot dogs. Everything you want in a hot dog, you see, you’ll find at Katz’s: a good amount of char; some flavor-enhancing mojo imparted by a greasy old griddle; the essential natural-casing snap; the tongue-tingling jolt of salt; and a garlic-forward blend of spices that finds its gustatory counterpoint in the soft, bland roll that cradles it. In fact, some deli aficionados we know go to Katz’s solely for the dogs, while other super-fressers consider a proper full-course dinner chez Katz to consist of the following: amuse-bouche (hot dog), appetizer (potato knish), intermezzo (can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray), main course (pastrami sandwich), salad course (coleslaw), dessert (hot dog).

2. Feltman’s
80 St. Marks Pl., nr. First Ave.; 646-337-6755
Surf Ave., at W. 10th St., Coney Island; no phone

Before Nathan’s, there was Feltman’s, as in Charles Feltman, the man credited as the first to bun a dog and call it a Coney Island red hot circa 1867. Feltman built a juggernaut of a hot-dog-and-beer-garden business before it all went bust in 1946. Seventy-some years later, a tour guide named Michael Quinn bought the name and the recipe (secret spice mix included), and although only old-time Feltman’s groupies can say for sure, it’s hard to imagine the original red hot being better than it is today: beautifully balanced and abundantly juicy, with a notable snap, and served on a Martin’s bun with homemade mustard (onion, Ba-Tampte sauerkraut, chili, and cheese are optional). Quinn has been busy getting his dogs set up in places like McSorley’s (see below), and Mikey’s Burger on the Lower East Side, but the big news is that a Feltman’s outpost has returned to the original Coney Island location. Still, it’s nearly as much fun to visit the Feltman’s takeout window at Theatre 80 St. Marks where, on occasion, Quinn griddles the red hots himself. Eat a pair on a china plate on the bench outside the theater, or wash them down inside the adjacent William Barnacle Tavern with an ice-cold bottle of Miller High Life.

3. Dickson’s Farmstand Meats
Chelsea Market, 75 Ninth Ave., at 15th St.; 212-242-2630

A hot dog for those who do want to know how the sausage is made — in this case, on-site, of 80 percent lean dry-aged beef and 20 percent Berkshire-pork back fat, both from whole animals raised on small New York State farms. Pedigree aside, the smoky flavor’s intense and the spicing’s on point. Dickson’s dogs come in two sizes — an eighth of a pound and the quarter-pound Big Fred — but the sheep-casing-clad regular is the perfect proportion for its accompanying Martin’s bun. The shop makes preserved chiles by fermenting Chinese long peppers, and offers them as a topping with Kewpie mayo, a delicious flavor profile that reminds us of a New Mexican Hatch green-chile burger: spicy enough to make your mouth water, but not blow your head off.

4. Old Town Bar & Restaurant
45 E. 18th St., nr. Park Ave. S.; 212-529-6732

Three words: butter-griddled buns. If you’ve ever been to an old fish shack in Maine or Massachusetts, the kind that specializes in lobster rolls, but also does a brisk business in crappy hot dogs that, despite the dubious pedigree of the meat, taste like the best freaking frankfurters you’ve ever eaten, you know what we’re talking about. A lavishly buttered top-loading hot-dog bun toasted to an even shade of golden brown on a hot griddle is a thing of beauty and uncannily delicious. And no one toasts a bun like Old Town. Even an old moccasin placed inside a toasted Old Town bun would be hard to resist. (For the record, Old Town puts Sabrett’s, not moccasins, in their buns.) Why more hot-dog joints don’t amp up their toasting game is beyond us. So for Old Town’s proficiency in bun-toasting and also doing a great job with the hot dogs and the condiments, they get our vote for the No. 4 hot dog in New York.

5. White Gold Butchers
375 Amsterdam Ave., at 78th St.; 212-362-8731

Where there is a nose-to-tail butcher shop, there tend to be high-quality hot dogs; and where there is April Bloomfield, there are invariably good things to eat. And so it is at White Gold Butchers, where Bloomfield’s lunch menu offers a delicious pork-fat-enhanced beef hot dog, swaddled in a mayo-griddled top-loading Orwasher’s bun. Chef de cuisine Robert Flaherty applies funky kimchee relish and a swipe of Kewpie mayo, an inspired pairing that we have to admit is up there with mustard and kraut.

6. The Cannibal
113 E. 29th St., nr. Park Ave. S.; 212-686-5480

LaFrieda makes the hot dogs. The crackerjack kitchen makes the mapo-tofu-inspired tripe-and-ground-short-rib chili that goes on top. And Martin’s makes the bun. You’ll want more than one, which is why they come two to an order.

7. PDT
113 St. Marks Pl., nr. Ave. A; 212-614-0386

There’s something immensely satisfying about gorging on junk food while you’re sipping a meticulously made craft cocktail. So even though the deep-fried Jersey-style hot dogs on offer at this East Village speakeasy emanate from the Crif Dogs kitchen next door, they somehow taste better in the swankier setting. There are several to choose from, but the best of all is the Chang Dog, named for Momofuku kingpin David Chang, and topped with kimchee hauled in from his nearby Noodle Bar. Several years back, in an attempt to distinguish their dining options, the bar’s managers offered to pay Chang’s drinks tab in exchange for the topping — an arrangement that other prominent local chefs wanted in on. Thus began the PDT celebrity-chef hot-dog tradition, and the rest is vanity-dog history.

8. The NoMad Bar
10 W. 28th St., nr. Broadway; 347-472-5660

The gourmet wiener that Daniel Humm whipped up in 2009 for PDT was called the Humm Dog, and it dared to go where no bacon-wrapped, deep-fried frankfurter had ever gone before: beneath a topping of celery relish and melted Gruyère, and above a slathering of black-truffle-laced mayo. Needless to say, it was a smash hit. But due to the prohibitive cost of fresh black truffles, PDT had to cut the Humm Dog from the celebrity-chef hot-dog lineup. Not one to let a good thing go to waste, Humm reinvented the Humm Dog as a two-bite snack called the Petite Dog for his Eleven Madison Park bar menu. And when he opened the NoMad Bar, he brought the original Humm Dog out of retirement, reengineering it and making it even better with an all-beef frank and a toasted top-loading brioche bun. If this World’s Best Restaurant thing doesn’t pan out for Humm, he has a skill (hot-dog-making) he can fall back on.

9. Huertas
107 First Ave., nr. 7th St.; 212-228-4490

The dogs at this East Village pintxos bar are made from the restaurant’s own pimentón-spiked chistorra sausage — thinner and smoother than chorizo, but just as rich and garlicky. They’re also dressed with aïoli and a housemade piquillo-pepper mostarda that might be the best thing to land on a hot dog since Gulden’s. And in keeping with age-old Basque tradition, the kitchen serves them on Martin’s potato buns.

10. Schaller’s Stube
1652 Second Ave., nr. 86th St.; no phone

This nicely designed “sausage-bar” annex to the great Schaller & Weber butcher shop serves a Swiss-cheesed, sauerkrauted, and secret-sauced all-beef frankfurter called a Steuben’s Reuben that could change a hot-dog purist’s views regarding toppings. It comes on a Balthazar brioche bun that gets ironed out on a panini press, which sounds like a horrible thing to do to a hot dog bun, until you try it.

Honorable Mentions

50 Macdougal St., nr. King St.; 917-639-3571

With their deep-dish pizzas and their soggy roast-beef sandwiches, the culinary ambassadors at Emmett’s have convinced us that the foodstuffs of their native Chicago do not suck. The most persuasive argument of all, though, is the Vienna Beef wiener on a poppy-seed bun, bountifully equipped with all the fixings: onions, tomatoes, pickle spears, sport peppers, neon relish, celery salt, and yellow mustard. Ask for ketchup at your own peril.

631 Manhattan Ave., at Nassau Ave., Greenpoint; 718-389-2302

What the young brothers Zach and Alex Frankel (ancestral cuisine: Zabarsian, a.k.a. Upper West Side Jewish) do so well is celebrate old New York deli culture, while simultaneously pushing it forward, but not too much. So, a delicious Brooklyn Hot Dog Company hot dog (hormone-free, antibiotics be damned, practically virtuous) on a Rockland Bakery bun (perfectly basic), with Ba-Tampte’s mustard (classic Brooklyn). The homage to Gray’s Papaya in the form of a two-dogs-and-soda “recession special” is a nice touch, too, even if it costs you two bucks more than what you’ll pay on West 72nd Street and Broadway.

Gray’s Papaya
2090 Broadway, at 72nd St.; 212-799-0243

Maybe it’s the pop and sizzle of frankfurters frying or the smell of fat wafting. Or it could be the bright red-and-yellow color scheme, or those papier-mâché fruits hanging overhead like piñatas at a children’s birthday party. But just crossing the threshold at Gray’s Papaya still gets us as excited as kids in a candy store. We miss the slightly roomier branch that used to be on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 8th Street, within walking distance of our apartment. Now, a round-trip subway ride to the Upper West Side Gray’s costs nearly as much as a Recession Special, but as the folks at Michelin are fond of saying, it’s worth the (occasional) trip.

Hard Times Sundaes
At UrbanSpace Vanderbilt, 45th St. at Vanderbilt Ave.; 646-747-0810

Andrew Zurica griddles the city’s best smash burgers. His all-beef “Brooklyn-style” hot dogs — bandaged like mummies with strips of bacon, deep-fried to a crisp, then smothered with great gobs of chili and American cheese — are nearly as good.

McSorley’s Old Ale House
15 E. 7th St., nr. Third Ave.; 212-473-9148

It’s almost too perfect: eating the primordial hot dog (Feltman’s, see above) in the oldest bar. But next to the Coney Island boardwalk or, say, Wrigley Field, it’s hard to think of a better setting (in a kind of weird time-travel way) for snarfing frankfurters. Which might be why Feltman’s Michael Quinn recently went on a mission to get his franks on the menu here, not taking no for an answer. Go on a weekday afternoon, get a pair of dogs with sauerkraut, and dab on some sinus-clearing Colman’s mustard taken from a tin pot on the table. Wash them down with twin mugs of McSorley’s Light.

Nathan’s Famous
1310 Surf Ave., at Stillwell Ave., Coney Island; 718-946-2202

If hot-dog-eating is all about context, then there is no better place in the city — maybe the world — to eat an all-beef, natural-casing tube steak than among the flowing summertime hordes at the original Nathan’s near the boardwalk. And next to MSG, you can’t beat salt air as a flavor enhancer.

The Absolute Best Hot Dog in New York