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.
Before Nathan’s, there was Feltman’s, as in Charles Feltman, the man credited as the first to wrap a bun around a frank 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 (raw onion, Ba-Tampte sauerkraut, chili, and cheese optional). You can get a Feltman’s hot dog at a new stand inside Coney Island’s Luna Park, but it’s just as much fun to visit the takeout window at Theatre 80 St. Marks where, on occasion, Quinn griddles the red hots himself.
3. McSorley’s Old Ale House
15 E. 7th St., nr. Third Ave.; 212-473-9148
It’s almost too perfect that you can now get the original hot dog (Feltman’s, see above) in the oldest bar. Next to the Coney Island boardwalk or, say, Wrigley Field, it’s hard to think of a better setting for snarfing frankfurters. Go on a weekday afternoon, get a pair of dogs with sauerkraut, dab on some hot mustard taken from a tin pot on the table, and wash them down with your twin mugs of McSorley’s ale.
4. 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.
5. 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 hard to beat. And no one toasts a bun like Old Town. Even an old moccasin placed inside a toasted Old Town bun would probably taste good. (For the record, Old Town puts Sabretts, not moccasins, into 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. 5 hot dog in New York.
6. Hard Times Sundaes
Andrew Zurica griddles some of the best smash burgers in town. His all-beef deep-fried “Brooklyn style” hot dogs are nearly as good. For an extra two bucks, get them bandaged like mummies with strips of bacon, then smothered with great gobs of chili and American cheese, and kiss your Memorial Day beach body good-bye.
7. Empellón al Pastor
132 St. Marks Pl., at Ave. A; 646-833-7039
Why doesn’t this corn dog taste like the one you got that time at the street fair? Because Alex Stupak batters his Hebrew Nationals with the same housemade masa he uses for his tortillas. The shell is light and supple, practically dosalike, and fairly bursting with sweet, creamy, fresh-corn flavor. What’s more, Stupak serves them with housemade huitlacoche mustard as black as squid ink that’s been funneled into a repurposed bright-yellow French’s mustard squeeze bottle, which makes for a pretty good sight gag.
113 St. Marks Pl., nr. Ave. A; 212-614-0386
There’s something strangely 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 issue forth from the Crif Dogs kitchen next door, they taste even better in the swankier setting. There are several to choose from including the bacon-wrapped Chang Dog, named for Momofuku kingpin David Chang and topped with kimchee hauled over from his nearby Noodle Bar. Several years ago, in an attempt to bump up their bar food, the PDT crew offered to pay Chang’s drinks tab in exchange for the topping — an arrangement that other prominent local chefs wanted in on. Thus began a PDT tradition (and a designer-dog waitlist).
9. 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.
10. Mile End
Hot-dog buns are like ketchup, in that you upgrade at your peril. No matter how well-intentioned the artisanal bun is, it rarely outdoes the mass-market variety. That was the story with an early iteration of Mile End’s Hoyt Dog: a housemade wiener undone by a fancy-pants poppy-seed roll. Now that the kitchen has switched over to the delightfully squishy and never-in-the-way Martin’s, the proportions are spot-on, the balance is superb, and you can really taste how great the all-beef, natural-casing wiener is. It comes with housemade sauerkraut, Gulden’s mustard, and some of that sweet Day-Glo green-pickle relish Chicagoans are weaned on from birth.
11. The Cannibal
113 E. 29th St., nr. Park Ave. S.; 212-686-5480
LaFrieda makes the franks. The crackerjack kitchen makes the mapo-tofu-inspired tripe-and-ground-short-rib chili that, along with cilantro, scallions, and crispy shallots, goes on top. And Martin’s (who else?) makes the the potato rolls. You’ll want more than one, which is why they come two to an order.
12. Nathan’s Famous
1310 Surf Ave., at Stillwell Ave., Coney Island; 718-946-2202
If hot-dog-eating is all about context, then there are few better places in the city — maybe the world — to eat an all-beef, natural-casing tube steak than among the flowing summertime hordes at the original Coney Island Nathan’s. And next to MSG, you can’t beat salt air as a flavor enhancer.
13. 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 so it is at White Gold Butchers, where the 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 a funky kimchee relish and a swipe of Kewpie mayo, an inspired pairing that we have to admit is up there with mustard and kraut.
14. Boys Don’t Cry
22 Orchard St., nr. Canal St.; no phone
If you’re intent on taking a hot dog out of its natural habitat and shoving it into something other than a soft and unassuming bun, you could do worse than rolling one up like a Persian rug in a scallion pancake. They squiggle-squirt the top of this chewy-flaky wrap with hot sambal and hotter Chinese mustard and bombard it with sliced-scallion confetti. Inside lies a snappy, grass-fed Brooklyn Hot Dog Company frank and some crunchy fried onion bits that lend a surprise textural effect, like potato chips concealed inside a turkey sandwich. It’s called the Chuck after a BDC regular and friend of the chef who pulled a MacGyver and came up with the idea when the kitchen ran out of hot dog buns one night.
15. Brooklyn Diner
Old-school restaurpreneur Shelly Fireman’s masterpiece: a supercolossal, bun-dwarfing, all-beef stunt-furter that predates Instagram by about 20 years. Ridiculous, yes, but also juicy, snappy, and undeniably fun. Fireman calls it a 15-bite hot dog but that might be selling the monstrous thing short.
16. 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 trip.
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. In keeping with age-old Basque tradition, the kitchen serves them on Martin’s potato buns.
18. 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.
19. Chez Ma Tante
90 Calyer St., at Franklin St., Greenpoint; 718-389-3606
The owners named this Greenpoint gastropub after an old Montreal fast-food dive that specializes in steamies — steamed franks on steamed buns, “tout garnie” (or “all-dressed”), interpreted here as yellow mustard, chopped onions, and cabbage marinated in the pickling liquid reserved from jars of Spanish peppers. What really sets these things apart from the competition, though, is a hearty swipe of the restaurant’s housemade aïoli, and the snappy pork-and-beef dogs themselves, which come from the great Ridgewood Pork Store in Queens. The only downside to these steamies is that they’re hard to come by. Appearances on the restaurant’s brunch menu are as rare and unpredictable as East River dolphin sightings, an unconscionable act of cruelty to hot-dog lovers for which we have no choice but to dock Chez Ma Tante several points and lower their ranking on this list.
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.
21. Tony Dragon’s Grille
62nd St., nr. Madison Ave.
Tony Dragonas may be best known for the char-grilled chicken he whips up in his spiffy Tony Dragon food truck parked incongruously outside the Hermès menswear store on Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side, but he also makes a mean Sabrett. Get it “Gypsy Dog”–style, with housemade “chili moni” sauce, a super-savory purée of roasted tomatoes and jalapeños that Tony ought to bottle and sell for a fortune.
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 health food) on a Rockland Bakery bun (perfectly ordinary), 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 two bucks more than what you’d pay on 72nd and Broadway.
23. Carnegie John
56th St., nr. Seventh Ave.
What distinguishes the Sabretts dished out by this undersung street-food slinger who goes by the name Carnegie John is some advanced street-cart-ninja technique. John and his assistant start the dogs off on the griddle to seal in the juices, move them over to the hardwood-charcoal grill to impart a little smoky flavor, then bring them back to the griddle for a final sear. Anoint them with a pile of grilled onions and peppers — another Carnegie John specialty.
24. Papaya King
179 E. 86th St., at Third Ave.; 212-369-0648
You can’t compile a list like this without including Papaya King, whose motto —“tastier than filet mignon” —we’ve always considered a bit of an understatement. We’ll take ours with “NY onions” and kraut, and —why not? — a chalky-sweet cup of coconut “Champagne.”
25. Rudy’s Bar & Grill
627 Ninth Ave., nr. 44th St.; 646-707-0890
Not only are the hot dogs at this distinguished dump famously free and perfectly edible, they’re pretty damn good. Pricewise, at least, a Gray’s Papaya Recession Special has nothing on a $3 bottle of Bud and a Hebrew National hot off the Nemco Roll-A-Grill at Rudy’s.