(USA Today) -- 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.
According to a recent study by GrubHub, the country's most popular hot dog topping is cheese, followed by chili, mustard, onion, and Chicago-style. Ketchup is further down on the list, and, surprisingly, sauerkraut is down towards the bottom.
On our quest to find America's best hot dogs, we kept an eye out for drive-ins, restaurants, and roadside stands with a definitive style of hot dog and topping, one which embodies not only the region's quirks but the particular tastes and culinary traditions of its people. We judged these hot dogs based on several criteria: the quality of the ingredients (sourcing the franks from well-known regional producers and using fresh-chopped onions, for example), the entire hot dog-eating experience, from driving up to placing your order to taking that first bite, as well as reputation among professional critics and online reviewers.
In order to be included in our list, the vendor needed to have a trademark dog, with toppings that are unique and renowned. For example, Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C. doesn't just have a trademark frank (the half-smoke), it has a trademark topping (chili), is well-regarded by locals and professional eaters alike, and eating there is a memorable experience unto itself. For those reasons, it's high on our list.
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.
1) Fat Johnnie's Famous Red Hots, Chicago: Mighty Dog
The number one hot dog spot on this list is admittedly a bit of a sleeper, one that some Chicagoans might even do a double-take at. It's a small, ramshackle, white-paneled hut that's just a bit taller and just a bit wider than a canoe, on an industrial stretch of Western Avenue, a 20-minute drive from The Loop. You order through a tiny window in wonderment at how someone can fit inside the shack, after looking over a menu that includes amazing named items like the "Mother-in-Law" (a tamale on a bun with chili), a "Father-in-Law" (tamale on a bun with chili and cheese), and a tamale sundae (a tamale in a bowl of chili). If you're noticing the tamale trend here, you might see where this is going. As every Chicago hot dog lover knows, hot dogs and tamales go hand in hand at many of the city's storied spots (though they're frequently not the best thing on the menu). Not so at Fat Johnnie's Famous Red Hots where John Pawlikowski serves the Mighty Dog - a hot dog and tamale on a bun with chili and cheese. Sounds like a monster, right? You're right to be scared, it's a mess. You want tomato, sport peppers, relish, and pickles on that? You bet you do. Soft steamed bun, moist tamale, fresh snap of the dog, chili, cheese, and a slice of cucumber sliced on the bias - it's one of the best hot dogs you'll ever have. Johnnie celebrates 40 years this May. Go wash down a Mighty Dog with a Suicide (cola, fruit punch, grape soda, lemonade, orange, root beer, 7-UP, and strawberry soda) to celebrate.
2) Rutt's Hut, Clifton, N.J.: The Ripper with Relish
Even if Rutt's Hut, located in blue-collar Clifton, N.J., served their trademark Ripper, a pork-and-beef Thumann's link that's deep-fried in beef fat until it rips apart, out of the back of a minivan, it would still be one of the country's most delicious hot dogs. The fact that this roadside shack has not only a counter to end all counters amid its stand-up dining room, but also an adjoining tap room where you can drink cheap beer and chat with old-timers and fellow pilgrims, propels Rutt's Hut to legendary status. Whether you order an "In-And-Outer," (just a quick dunk in the oil), a Ripper, a well-done "Weller," or the crunchy, porky, almost-overcooked "Cremator," make sure you get it "all the way," topped with mustard and a spicy, sweet, onion- and cabbage-based relish.
3) Hot Doug's, Chicago: Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage
When Hot Doug's first opened at its original location in Roscoe Village in 2001 (it moved to its current spot in 2004 after a fire), there were people who doubted its owner Doug Sohn's vision of a menu limited to hot dogs and sausages - even Sohn's own family. "My brother told me, 'Don't you think you'll have to sell hamburgers?'" Sohn related in an interview, adding, "I have it on very good authority that the people at Vienna gave me a few months. They came in and they were like, 'Well, this isn't gonna last.'" Now? Along with Doughnut Vault, Hot Doug's is probably Chicago's most famous line for food. While its main menu is delicious, its items can be replicated elsewhere. The specials' flavors and ingredients, however, differentiate Hot Doug's. The normal menu ranges in price from $2 to $4 per order and the special sausages are $6 to $10. It is the type of place where you extend yourself monetarily and calorically because you don't know when the next time will be that you will be able to carve out hours for lunch on a weekday or Saturday to soak up the experience. The signature order here of course, is the foie gras and sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli, which garnered quite a bit of press in 2006 following the banning of foie in Chicago. Defying the ban pushed by chef Charlie Trotter and Alderman Joe Moore, Sohn named the dog after Moore, was fined, but was ultimately victorious when the ban was repealed in 2008. It's a brilliant pairing - the snap of the dog against the creaminess of the foie - a visionary move celebrated by gout-defying offal lovers everywhere.
4) Schaller's Drive-In, Rochester, N.Y.: Meat Sauce, Mustard, Onions
A Rochester, N.Y., institution, folks come for the nostalgia and stay for the timeless fries, hamburgers, and hot dogs. It opened in 1956, so that distinct Happy Days atmosphere is in fact purely authentic. Located right on the water, Schaller's specialty is the upstate hot dog variety known as White Hots, fat natural-casing dogs made from pork, beef, and veal, made by Zweigle's. Top it with some of their meat-based "hot sauce," mustard, and onions, grab a handful of pickles, and you're in summer vacation heaven. Two other locations have since opened, but the lakeside location is the one to visit.
5) Olneyville N.Y. System, North Providence, R.I.: NY System Dog
Olneyville N.Y. System, with three locations in Providence, North Providence, and Cranston, R.I., claims to serve "Rhode Island's Best Hot Wieners," and while that will always remain a point of contention, they're certainly the most legendary. The New York System dog is a regional specialty: small franks (in this case, from Little Rhody) are steamed, placed atop a steamed bun, and topped with a cumin-heavy meat sauce, yellow mustard, diced onions, and celery salt. You're going to want to order a few of these, because they're small and addictive (see how many of them the counterman can balance on his arm). The "wiener sauce" is so popular that people have been requesting the recipe for years; you can purchase a packet of seasoning online and make it yourself at home.
6) Superdawg, Chicago: Superdawg
Topped by what has to be considered some of America's best signage - a flexing hot dog showing off his muscles to a winking wiener girl - Superdawg has been an institution on Milwaukee Avenue across from Caldwell Woods since Maurie Berman opened it in 1948. The recently returned G.I. designed the building and devised his own secret recipe and set up a drive-in at what was then the end of the streetcar line where he planned to sell $0.32 Superdawg sandwiches to "swimming families and cruisin' teens" for a few months during the summer to help put him through school at Northwestern. In 1950, Maurie passed the CPA exam, but he and wife Flaurie decided to keep operating Superdawg and to open year-round. The family-owned, working drive-in still serves superior pure beef dogs, "the loveliest, juiciest creation of pure beef hot dog (no pork, no veal, no cereal, no filler) formally dressed with all the trimmings: golden mustard, tangy piccalilli, kosher dill pickle, chopped Spanish onions, and a memorable hot pepper."
7) Rawley's Drive-In, Fairfield, Conn.: "The Works"
In business since 1947, over the years Rawley's has become a local legend. Behind the small counter where legions of devoted fans place their order daily, plump Red Hots from Blue Ribbon take a trip to the deep-fryer and are then finished on the griddle next to toasting buns, where they develop a burnished, crusty skin. You have your choice of condiments, but regulars would recommend "the works": mustard, relish, sauerkraut, and chunks of crunchy bacon.
8) Katz's Delicatessen, New York City: Mustard and Sauerkraut
Katz's Deli, in New York's Lower East Side, is a New York institution. Their corned beef and pastrami, made on-premises and sliced to order, are legendary, and the simple act of taking your ticket, standing in line, bantering with the counterman while placing your order, and finding a table has become as New York an exercise as, well, eating a hot dog with a smear of mustard and a little sauerkraut. And it just so happens that the hot dogs here are very good. Made especially for the restaurant by Sabrett, these garlicky, natural-casing, jumbo-size all-beef dogs spend such a long time on the flat-top grill that the outside gets a nice char and snaps when you bite into it. A smear of mustard is all that's needed, but a little sauerkraut or stewed onions certainly won't hurt.
9) Flo's, Camp Neddick, Maine: Hot Dog with Mayo, Celery Salt, Relish
Flo's Hot Dogs in Neddick, Maine, is a family-owned and operated establishment that has been in business since 1959. They specialize in steamed hot dogs that only need a sprinkle of celery salt, relish, and mayo. The relish is famous, although the recipe is secret, and is sold separately in jars both on location and online. The classic joint is open year-round, with the exception of Wednesdays, but it only operates from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Pro tip: ketchup isn't available, so don't ask for it. The hot dogs have a spicy natural casing, and the secret relish is at once spicy and sweet. Know what you want to order by the time you get to the front of the line, and look for a spot at the six-seat counter inside, but if it's full (as it normally is), don't worry - picnic tables are provided outside.
10) Dew Drop Inn, Mobile, Ala.: Dew Drop Dog
If you're from Mobile, Ala., you know about the comfortable, wood-paneled Dew Drop Inn. Not only is it one of the city's oldest restaurants, having opened in 1924, it boasts a loyal clientele of regulars who don't even need a menu and consider the waitstaff old friends. There's a surprisingly expansive Southern-tinged menu with a handful of hidden gems (like the oyster loaf, a smaller-size oyster po'boy), but their hot dog, supposedly the first to reach this neck of the woods way back when, is a true standout. The bright red steamed dogs are stuffed into a squishy bun and topped with coarse-ground chili, sauerkraut, ketchup, mustard, and a bread-and-butter pickle. You can also order them "upside-down," with the dog sitting atop the condiments, but any way you slice it this is a very solid hot dog.