Excerpt from USA Today's "America's Best Hot Dogs"
The hot dog is one of the few foods that's nearly impossible to screw up. You heat it through, tuck it into a bun, squirt on some mustard, and call it lunch. But there's a big difference between not screwing something up and turning it into a paradigm-shifting, transcendental dining experience. And there are lots of hot dog stands, restaurants, and drive-ins out there that have the power to change your life.
The perennial grill mate to hamburgers, the hot dog sometimes gets the short end of the stick, charring at the back of the grill while juicy burgers are snatched up as soon as they hit the right temperature. But there's a science, if not an art form, behind constructing the perfect hot-dog-eating experience.
That experience was introduced more than 100 years ago, when German immigrants first brought over their frankfurters and started selling them on the cheap at amusement centers like Coney Island, arguably the epicenter for American hot dog consumption. Charles Feltman is widely considered to be the first person to have applied hot dog to bun, in order to avoid needing to supply plates and silverware to customers at his sprawling Coney Island restaurant. Employee Nathan Handwerker opened his own hot dog stand a few blocks away in 1916 and sold them for less than Feltman, and became wildly popular (and remains so to this day).
The hot dog diaspora then began to take on a life of its own, as people began developing their own spice mixes and making their own hot dogs, and every region and group of people soon put its unique stamp on the snack. Greek immigrants in Michigan concocted a cinnamon-rich beef chili that came to be known as Coney sauce, but it has nothing to do with Coney Island, while 'michigans' are big in Upstate New York but have nothing to do with the state. In Chicago they top all-beef dogs with mustard, fresh tomatoes, onions, sport peppers, bright green relish, dill pickles, and celery salt. Spicy Texas Red Hots are popular in New Jersey, but not in Texas, and the uncured, unsmoked White Hot is popular in upstate New York. And the regional variations go on and on.
Sadly, there were some popular favorites that didn't make the cut. While Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit ranks high, its modernized neighbor, American Coney Island, didn't, because it lost much of its charm in the renovation. And while the pretzel dog at chain Auntie Anne's has its loyal devotees, the experience isn't exactly sublime.
Our list runs the gamut from ancient stands that have been serving the same exact product day in and day out for decades to gastropubs putting their unique stamp on the hot dog to a place where people wait in line for more than an hour for one topped with foie gras. There's one constant thread between them, though: they're the country's best.
11) Lafayette Coney Island, Detroit: Coney
One of the culinary world's greatest rivalries is between two neighboring Downtown Detroit hot dog stands, Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island. While the battle over which hot dog tastes better is on par with the fight between Pat's and Geno's cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, most locals will tell you that it's Lafayette all the way, for several reasons. The hot dog has a juicy, salty, smoky snap, the Coney sauce is spot-on, and the fries are crispy, but it's the experience that puts it over the top in our book: While American is shiny and charmless, Lafayette is a divey, weathered, eccentric sort of place that hasn't been renovated in many years, but the charm is palpable, especially in the staff, who'll most likely bring you your order in less than 30 seconds. In short: the perfect hot dog stand.
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