Hot Dog Showdown


courtesy of Sahlen’s

We shouldn’t be surprised that a trend is developing to upgrade the hot dog to haute dog status. Just consider the popularity of HD1 in Atlanta. The two-year-old brain child of celebrity chef Richard Blais, the restaurant elevates hot dogs to new heights, injecting some with sousvide carrot, others with red currants, minted cucumbers, and dense yogurt. Or, you can get a dog with crème fraiche, walnuts, and grape relish. Here in Buffalo, we have Lucky Dogs on Allen Street (Spree, 6/11) and the city’s most recently launched food truck, Frank Gourmet Hot Dogs. Yet, for most people—until convinced otherwise—a hot dog is still a hot dog.

And that’s what we thought, as we set out to taste, compare, and rank a representative selection of readily available hot dogs, mostly from local producers but with several from other areas. The first order of business was to reassemble our experienced tester panel from our Italian bread tasting (Spree, 2/13): Tom Burrows, arts executive; Carol Calato, businesswoman; Dan Duke, businessman and wine connoisseur; David Folmar, caterer; hostess Margot Glick; Rocco Termini, Buffalo developer; and (new panelist) Keenan Toohey, social media consultant.

It was relatively easy to select the hot dogs for inclusion in the competition. Some are household names and have been around for over a century, while others seem to have recently increased their budgets for advertising and marketing. The hot dogs selected were: Hebrew National, Hofmann of Syracuse, Sahlen’s (both natural casing and skinless varieties), Spar’s, Wardynski’s, and Zweigle’s.

A detailed ballot was prepared with categories of snap, skin, seasoning/spiciness, texture, and taste. Numerical values from one to five, five being the best, were assigned to each category and a comment section included. A secret identification system was devised and adequate portions of each hot dog were prepared for grilling.

As the judges arrived and were served beer or wine, talk turned to the hot dog creation story. Outside a ballpark in St. Louis? The Polo Grounds? The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893? From a local perspective, the creation story often has a Ted’s angle. Personal stories about Ted’s, the hot dog stand to beat all hot dogs stands and a regional treasure, were exchanged, with judges trying to best each other by remembering an earlier location and sharing family memories.

Meanwhile, the first sample was being carefully grilled just outside the Glick residence. Grilling had been deemed in advance to be the best testing method, since the majority of WNY’s hot dogs are grilled before consumption. (Several varieties were boiled and tested, before it was decided that grilling was the most appropriate method.) All dogs were grilled at the same temperature until well browned and charred.

As each different hot dog was brought out and served (buns in bite size portions were offered for optional use), spirited discussion ensued over merits and/or shortcomings of each dog. Some made note of a smoky taste, greasiness was found in one sample, while another was deemed oily. One judge said, “This is the kind of hot dog my Dad asks for each spring when he returns from Florida.” Another said that a certain dog was “chewy in a good way.” A hint of veal (not a bad thing) was detected in one dog, and another was found to be soggy and without “snap,” bringing to mind the opinion of Florence Fabricant, author and New York Times style and restaurant critic, that “a good hot dog is about the snap and the spicing.” Overall, however, the general agreement was that Buffalo offers the tastiest and highest quality hot dogs available anywhere in the country.

After double-checking the numerical totals and confirming the secret identification number assigned to each hot dog, the winner was announced—Sahlen’s natural casing was the undisputed top dog. The Sahlen’s skinless version was a close second, while Wardynski’s took third, and Syracuse’s favorite dog, the Hofmann, finished fourth.

The winner came out on top in taste and seasoning and was seen as more flavorful and tightly encased than the others. It also lacked the general mushiness some dogs have. Wardynski’s was also highly regarded in taste and seasoning, while the Hofmann dog was tops in “snap.” The judges were uniform in determining that the robust flavor of the Sahlen’s dogs was the dominant reason for the high favorability.

Sahlen Packing Company is a Buffalo institution. Now marketed throughout the northeast and beyond, the company is proudly approaching its 150th year under continuous family ownership, with Joseph E. Sahlen and his son, Joseph L. Sahlen currently at the helm.

As in prior taste tests, we concluded the hot dog challenge with satisfaction that the process was properly orchestrated and the results were fair and arrived at honestly. The most meaningful takeaway, however, was that while we are all pleased that the Buffalo food scene is more dynamic than ever, with creative chefs, great energy, and an emphasis on local produce, the good old hot dog—especially the local variety—is in no danger of losing its culinary prestige.

Margaret Toohey is the owner of Lewistion Insurance and a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

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