H ot dogs seem caught these days in a bit of a conundrum. Do they wait patiently inside their 10-packs for summer, when Americans down 7 billion of them between Memorial Day and Labor Day? Do they duke it out at ballparks and backyard barbecues for top-dog status with regional toppings like steamed onions and deli mustard in New York, or chili, cheese, and jalapenos in Texas? Or do hot dogs, including the South’s slaw-topped beauties, simply relax and enjoy their new celebrity status as comfort food lovingly reinvented by nostalgic chefs?
In Memphis, hot dogs take on multiple roles as humble harbingers of summer and highfalutin superstars costing $10 each. I can vouch firsthand, because over the course of two weeks, my husband and I ate several dozen hot dogs, determined to discover the city’s very best. What I thought would be a straightforward task quickly got complicated beginning with the definition of what makes a hot dog a hot dog. Is a corn dog a hot dog? What about pigs in blankets, those prosaic appetizers from 1960s cocktail parties, or chicken sausages tucked into spicy onions on soft squishy buns?
Ultimately, we left sausages for a later story and settled on sensible criteria: buns, toppings, and hot dogs made with cooked or smoked meat or poultry (yes, the utilitarian hot dog uses lots of scraps) that are emulsified and blended with seasonings like salt, pepper, garlic, coriander, or mustard. Sodium nitrate, the additive that gives hot dogs their pink color and distinctive taste, is found in some of our picks while toppings like blue cheese and kimchi slaw handsomely disguise the more healthy merits of others.
Compiling an exhaustive list of favorites also got tricky, especially as word of our escapade spread. A friend sent an Instagram of the Philly dog from the Green Beetle loaded with grilled peppers, onions, and white cheese sauce, but we never made it back downtown. A cheese dog with pick-your-own toppings at Five Guys and a blue corn dog with mango ketchup at DKDC made us question our rules (no corn dogs, no chains). And we couldn’t push deadlines to wait for the new hot dog menu at Overton Square’s Chiwawa’s, a sure bet for high rankings. So in the end, we knit together a list of our seven favorites to honor the seventh inning stretch, the very best time, we think, to celebrate baseball’s iconic sandwich.
Beef and Cheddar Dog
at hog & hominy ($8)
The Beef and Cheddar Dog at Hog & Hominy started as a food memory. Chef/owner Andrew Ticer tossed out the challenge to butcher Aaron Winters to recreate a childhood mainstay: split hot dogs, layered with cheddar cheese, and heated to bubbly in the microwave. Winters’ response was a soul-satisfying house-made blend of all-natural beef trim from Claybrook Farm (brisket, chuck, sirloin cap, and short ribs), fattened up a little with Newman Farm pork and cheddar cheese, and sous vided. At the restaurant, dogs are seared on the flat top, served in pretzel buns with zigzags of French’s mustard, and nestled in red-and-white hot dog boats next to skinny skin-on fries.
707 W. Brookhaven Circle | 901-207-7396
at Slider Inn ($9)
Between the sound track, the picnic tables, and the spray from misters softening the heat, a quick lunch on Slider Inn’s deck stretches into an afternoon party, courtesy of a Jameson slushie and a Fearless Frank with caramelized onions, melted Gouda, and barbecue sauce. Toppings change daily at the chef’s whimsy, but the all-natural Niman Ranch hot dog stays the same: plump, juicy, and made with 100 percent beef raised sustainably on the California coast. (Tip: Order the mac ’n’ cheese Fearless Frank if you luck into it.)
2117 Peabody Ave. | 901-725-1155
A Fine Feathered Dog
at The Dog and Slaw ($6)
Vince Alfonso owned golf courses in three different states before returning to Memphis, and The Dog and Slaw, a cart he runs with his son Jason Bowles, daughter-in-law Leah Fitzpatrick, and wife Sally, showcases one of his most popular dishes: an all-natural beef frank from Wellshire Farms in New Jersey. Split, feathered on the edges, and grilled to order, the hot dog comes with a sensational cabbage slaw made since 1978 with a secret family recipe. Says Alfonso: “If it’s not the best slaw you’ve ever eaten, I’ll give you your money back.”
The Dog and Slaw | 901-230-7771
at Elwood’s Shack ($7)
Hot dogs have been central to Elwood’s Shack since the restaurant opened in 2012, thanks to inventive staffers who come up with the hot dog toppings. These days, nine different combinations start with Hebrew National all-beef franks and then move in different directions. The popular Slaw Dog showcases the Shack’s much-loved barbecue, but first-timers should go straight for the hearty Chicago Dog, served in a lightly grilled hoagie bun to accommodate cucumbers, tomatoes, dill pickle spears, and two kinds of relish, sweet and spicy.
4523 Summer Ave. | 901-761-9898
Cardinals Bacon Wrapped Hot Dog
at AutoZone Park ($8.25)
An import from Busch Stadium in St. Louis, the Cardinals Bacon Wrapped Hot Dog honors the relationship between the Redbirds and the Cardinals with a Memphis original: 100 percent all-beef hot dogs from King Cotton. The dogs, sold from a cart on the stadium’s main level, are split lengthwise, wrapped in bacon, started in the oven, finished on the grill, and topped with relish, pico de gallo, barbecue baked beans, and a crunchy layer of French’s fried onions. (Tip: Grab a fistful of napkins and sit down before eating.)
198 Union Ave. | 901-721-6000
at Three Little Pigs Bar-B-Q ($3)
Since 1989, when Charlie Robertson bought Three Little Pigs Bar-B-Q on Quince, the Double Dog has been hiding toward the end of the menu: two hot dogs split and grilled and served on a hamburger roll with mustard and cabbage slaw sweetened with plenty of sugar. Robertson emphasizes that the Double Dog is all-meat, not all-beef. “I don’t really want to know what’s in it,” he says, laughing. “But it tastes like a hot dog should taste, and I never get tired of eating them.”
5145 Quince Rd. | 901-685-7094
The Seoul Patrol
at Oshi Burger Bar ($11)
Smothered in Korean short rib barbecue, the Seoul Patrol looks dressed down on its cute butcher block plate, but don’t be fooled. It deserves a name like Fancy Pants. First, the hot dog is made with Wagyu American Kobe beef, prized for its marbling and rich flavor. Next, the toppings make delicious sense: cilantro, chili aioli, and kimchi slaw. And finally, the restaurant’s drink options add a hip diner vibe to lunch or dinner, especially the Malt Shoppe, a stately vanilla ice cream shake spiked with bourbon and malted milk balls.
94 S. Main St. | 901-207-5097
Illustrations by Anna Rose
Pamela Denney/ Illustrations by Anna Rose