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Hot dogs: a love letter

Sing the praises of the American staple, then check out 25 places to eat them in Austin

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
The Black Sheep Lodge serves several takes on the hot dog, including one smothered in chili and cheese. [LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

My Little League Baseball games ended. We headed to James Coney Island for hot dogs. Every time.

The ballpark lights had not yet darkened by the time I grabbed my red plastic tray and made my way down the service aisle at the restaurant on Westheimer Road in Houston. I can still hear my cleats on the restaurant’s slick floors.

I’d usually order three Coney dogs, two with just mustard, onions and processed cheese from a gun, the third with chili. The same lovely woman greeted us at the register every visit. Always with a smile, always with some small talk about how the game went. She always made me feel like an all-star. When I returned more than a decade later, she remembered me on sight, even though I wasn’t wearing baseball pants and stirrup socks.

Hot dogs might not be my favorite food, but they’ve been as sentimental a part of my life as any. They bonded baseball teams and family in my youth at James Coney Island (which maddeningly closed its Congress Avenue location in Austin more than a decade ago), and those cheesy dogs served as a great hangover curative in my besotted years right after college.

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I moved to Italy in my 20s and spent the majority of my time dining on Italian cuisine; they do it quite well over there. But trips to Naklar Dart Club helped me stay connected to home. The bar, which didn’t open until most other bars had closed, offered darts and backgammon. And hot dogs. The barman would grill the hot dogs on a panini press, and I’d dress the seared and juicy dogs simply with mustard and ketchup. It was almost as miraculous as the famed snow from the nearby Santa Maria Maggiore. I wasn’t even mad I couldn’t get onions and cheese. In an age before smartphones, the late-night meals tethered me to home.

Long talked about in hushed tones due to the questionable provenance of some of the meat, hot dogs haven’t always been a food people feel comfortable admitting they love. So, I felt an immediate rush of relief when I discovered that my future wife loved hot dogs as much as I did. She had no shame, especially in her thirst for ketchup. When I visited her small hometown of Mount Airy, N.C., I discovered that most of the charming diners, pure slices of Americana in the home of Andy Griffith, featured hot dogs on the menu. They come dressed with coleslaw. I’d never considered the prospect, but at 41 years old, this old dog found a new thing he loved about one of his most cherished meals.

While nobody can ever replace James Coney Island, Naklar Dart Club or the Mount Airy's Dairy Center in my heart, a man still has to get his hot dog fix. Below are 25 places in town where you can dine on a variety of hot dogs, both traditional and with a twist on the sausage-in-bun formula.

Alamo Drafthouse. Multiple locations. drafthouse.com. The Austin-based national theater chain teamed with Syracuse Sausage out of Ponder for a smoked, quarter-pound, all-beef Angus dog. The classic comes with grilled red onion relish and yellow mustard. The chili cheese dog is a messy and piquant affair with both beef chili and Hatch green chile queso.

Banger’s. 79 Rainey St. 512-386-1656, bangersaustin.com. Not dogs in the traditional sense, but this beer-loving, sausage-smoking, whole hog-cooking spot on Rainey Street serves more than two dozen creative varieties of sausages made with hog, beef, chicken and wild game. There are even vegetarian sausages on the menu.

Black Sheep Lodge. 2108 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-707-2744, blacksheeplodge.com. Whether you want your dog covered in queso and spicy slaw or chili, or even done up Chicago style, this sports bar has you covered with a quartet of beef dogs. You can also substitute a veggie dog. Either way, get the tots as your side.

Casino El Camino. 517 E. Sixth St. 512-469-9330, casinoelcamino.net. The grill at this timeless spot turns out a traditional hot dog, as well as chili cheese and Italian sausage options. There's also the signature Double Dog Texas Tommy (two dogs covered with bacon and melted cheese) with a side of attitude.

Chi-Town Hot Dogs. 3595 RM 620. 512-226-1140, facebook.com/eatchitown. Get a taste of the Windy City at this lake-area location, which also serves another Chicago specialty, Italian beef sandwiches.

Delray Cafe. 1133 E. 11th St. 512-987-4294, nickelcitybar.com. A Detroit-style Coney dog at the trailer on the patio of Nickel City means a beef dog buried in chili and electrified with bright yellow mustard and a shower of diced onions on a steamed bun soft enough to light up Joey Chestnut’s eyes. And at less than $4, you can buy enough to soak up all the booze you put away inside the bar.

Ditty Dog. 670 Red River St.; 611 Trinity St. dittydog.com. These Houston transplants meet your late-night dog needs with two food trailers in downtown Austin. The quarter-pound Ditty Beef dog is loaded with cream cheese, Asian ketchup, caramelized onions, crunchy mix (fried onions and Lay’s chips), honey mayo, chipotle mustard, sriracha and spicy green sauce on a toasted bun. Yeah.

Domo Alley-Gato. 1600 E Sixth St. domo-tatsuya.com. A unique dog in a unique setting. The owners of Ramen Tatsu-Ya serve street food at night in the alley adjacent to their East Austin noodle shop. The Japanese-inspired dog pulls sweet and savory flavors from curry chili, teriyaki aioli and cabbage, all served in a panko-crusted brioche bun.

Easy Tiger. 709 E. Sixth S. 512-614-4972; 6406 N I-35. 512-491-4151, easytigerusa.com. From a classic kielbasa to a Cajun chicken with Creole cream cheese, the two locations of this bakehouse and beer garden create artisan sausages served on housemade pretzel buns.

The Evil Wiener. theevilwiener.com. This roving food trucks serves an assortment of all-beef dogs with myriad influences, from the carne guisada-topped Tex-Mex to a Carolina Dog topped with pulled pork. Don’t worry, you can go less evil and just get a standard dog.

Five Guys. Multiple locations. fiveguys.com. This chain serves classic griddled dogs topped with traditional condiments of your choice (and bacon, if you wanna lean into it).

Frazier’s Long and Low. 2538 Elmont Drive. 512-527-3082, fraziersbar.com. Their logo features a long dog (as in canine), and their patio is dog friendly. What else would you expect from a retro East Austin dive bar that specializes in hot dogs onto which you can pile the rarely seen griddled sauerkraut?

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Glory Hole. 80 Rainey St. 630-631-9757, facebook.com/gloryholeatx. Discomfiting name aside, this food truck recognizes there are few foods better for the late-night Rainey Street crowd than a hot dog. And they really go for it with their Sassy Gurl, loaded with mac and cheese.

Lucky’s Chicago Style Grill. 300 Hesters Crossing. 512-828-4300, luckydogchicagostyle.com. Sport peppers, neon relish, pickle spear, celery salt, tomato wedge … all of the hallmarks of a true Chicago dog can be found at this Round Rock spot owned by Windy City transplants. A native Chicago Southsider has given me his stamp of approval on the Italian beef, as well. Hot dipped, of course.

Mighty Fine. Multiple locations. mightyfineburgers.com. The griddle dog doesn’t get top billing like the burgers, but for less than $3, the flat-top cooked dog is a classic choice with modest adornment.

Mission Dogs. 1701 E. Cesar Chavez St.; also a mobile truck. missionhotdogs.com. One of the early movers on the multicultural dog scene, the fanciful bacon-wrapped creations here include an homage to the Vietnamese bánh mì, a Korean-inspired dog and a Japanese-influenced dog with nori, teriyaki glaze and pickled ginger. You can also just go with a plain bacon-wrapped dog and make your own creation with your choice of condiments.

Schaller’s Stube. 600 W. Sixth St. 102 1/2 W. Third St. schallersstube.com. This New York transplant specializes in German-style sausages like bratwurst, but you can also taste an ode to NYC with an all-beef Reuben dog loaded with sauerkraut and Swiss.

Scholz Garten. 1607 San Jacinto Blvd. 512-474-1958, scholzgarten.com. After more than 100 years, you know you can trust this German original when it comes to bratwurst with mustard and sauerkraut, or you can add a Texas accent to your order, with a Schweinewurst, a smoked pork bacon, jalapeño and sage sausage dressed with mac and cheese and Texas barbecue sauce.

Shady Grove. 1624 Barton Springs Road. 512-474-9991, theshadygrove.com. You gotta dig through the layers of Texas and Southwestern classics, but there you’ll find a chili dog layered with mustard, onions and two types of melted cheese.

Shake Shack. 1100 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-717-0430; 11228 Domain Drive. 512-717-0422, shakeshack.com. The burger and the chicken get most of the love at this New York City-based fast-food spot, but the griddled dogs, crispy at the edge and, if you’re smart, layered with cheese dip are a nice change of pace.

T-Loc’s. 5000 Burnet Road. tlocs.com. This trailer was one of the first to bring the bacon-wrapped dogs popular in Northwestern Mexico and Arizona to Austin. If you’re new to the genre: It’s a bacon-wrapped dog topped with beans, jalapeño sauce, tomatoes, mayonnaise and mustard. T-Loc’s also serves carne asada in burrito, quesadilla and taco form.

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Top Notch. 7525 Burnet Road. 512-452-2181, topnotchaustin.com. The chargrilled dogs here will fire up your nostalgia centers and remind you of backyard cookouts to such a degree that you won’t even tussle with the question of whether a hot dog is a sandwich or not, even though these butterflied beauties topped with chili, mustard and onion arrive on a hamburger bun.

Violet Crown Cinema. 434 W. Second St. 512-495-9600, austin.violetcrown.com. Yes, you can get lettuce wraps or Asian noodle salads at this boutique theater’s cafe, but why not play it a little more traditional with an Akaushi beef Chicago dog served on a hoagie roll or a fancy dog covered with melted Swiss, red bell pepper, balsamic reduction and basil?

Wise Guys. 3200 Greenlawn Blvd. No. 120. Round Rock. 512-614-4027, wiseguysonline.net. This Chicago-themed restaurant in Round Rock serves everything from cheesesteaks to pastas and burgers, but it keeps it traditional with its quartet of Vienna beef hot dogs.

Wrigleyville South Dogs and Beef. 1311 S. Lamar Blvd. 630-885-8008, wrigleyvillesouthdogsandbeef.com. The trailer located in the parking lot of the Genie Car Wash stays true to its name with Vienna beef dogs, polish sausages and Italian beef sandwiches, while also nodding to Texas with a dog topped with chili, barbecue sauce and jalapeño.

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