I have never had a bad hot dog. I have also never a great hot dog. The American frankfurter has the highest floor and lowest ceiling of any major meat product.
What makes a hot dog special is rarely the experience of the grill master or the freshness of the bun. That brings me to the Unifying Theorem of Hot Dogs:
The key factor is the context in which one eats the hot dog.
This food demands the ideal situation even more than it demands the ideal cook. That is why 16-year-olds working summer jobs often make better hot dogs than actual hot dog restaurants with dedicated hot dog chefs.
So I’m here to tell you the best and worst places to eat a hot dog. I have considered these locales based on 1) how the hot dog compares to expectations, 2) how much value a hot dog adds to the experience, and 3) whether one would’ve been better off eating something else.
Assume every hot dog served at each of these venues is the same: a replacement-level, fine hot dog. That describes every hot dog anyway.
1. After nine holes of golf
A hot dog is the perfect snack for the kind of person who plays golf. Look at all that strenuous exercise you’ve been doing for two hours, occasionally getting out of a cart to whack a ball. It’s tiring, and you’ve earned some protein. You need some protein. Tiger eats more calories in one day at The Masters than most people do in a week.
You call the clubhouse from the ninth tee and tell them you’ll be there in 15 minutes. Your expectations aren’t high, but you need something quick. A peak-performing athlete isn’t going to carry a burger and fries around the whole back nine, and a bag of potato chips will not give you the fuel to drop bombs.
You reach the turn, bite into your hot dog, and are rejuvenated.
You aren’t expecting much, because you’re at Costco, a place that attracts people who want to eat all their meals at home. You don’t go thinking, “Costco, a place to get a $1.50 hot dog special that includes a refillable soft drink, served to me by a kind man named Gene.”
That’s exactly what Costco is, however. Costco hot dogs are awesome, and I’m convinced the key thing is that you’ve just put in a ton of hard work as you’ve walked a 5K while pushing a 150-pound cart. You’ve earned some hot food, there are no other options of note, and buying a hot dog elevates the activity into Making A Day Out Of It.
The reason an Ikea hot dog goes below Costco’s is that Ikea’s cafeteria has numerous other good options, so you can’t be sure you picked right.
4. A reception (note: pigs in a blanket count)
You might get lucky and attend a cocktail hour that circulates fried mac-and-cheese balls and little roast beef sandwiches. But you might not, and your options might be cheese and crackers, stuffed Brussels sprouts, and an obscure seafood. In that case, pray there are pigs in a blanket, which are mainly there for the children. In a case like that, these tiny hot dogs will be the only thing separating you from an empty stomach, a war zone after a few gins.
5. A minor league baseball game
Short of driving a Jeep Wrangler off a desert cliff and deploying an American flag parachute, few things will make you feel more American than sitting in a minor league ballpark on a 78-degree night and eating a hot dog.
6. A little league baseball game
Ranked just behind a minor league game, only because little league concession stands tend to also have really good nachos. Like hot dogs, nachos operate on the “where you have them matters” continuum, and they’re somehow always good at little league games.
7. A street cart
You’re a busy person about town, and you’ve secured a minor feast at the cost of $2 and 35 seconds. The small talk with your neighborhood hot dog cart operator is worth at least half the price of the dog itself, and you feel better because you’ve supported a small vendor rather than given money to Big Frank.
8. The local fair
The sort of person who runs the little league snack stand also runs the fair every fall in the church parking lot just off that divided highway.
9. Any place in which hot dogs are not welcome
Walk into your bank, pull a hot dog out of your bag (but not threateningly), and munch that thing right in front of your teller. There’s no stronger blow against greed.
10. A block party
The whole neighborhood’s here, and that means someone is bringing a much more involved meat. Everyone likes hot dogs, but someone will bring something – a rack of ribs, maybe, or a vat of buffalo chicken dip – that reaches much higher upside.
If your neighborhood only has mediocre cooks, a replacement-level hot dog is worse than a replacement-level hamburger. I refuse to believe the cooking situation in your area is so bad that nobody can safely cook a hamburger.
None of this is to say you shouldn’t have a hot dog at a block party. I’m saying nobody goes to a block party, goes home, and raves to their spouse about the great hot dogs.
11. A fast food joint
You could get almost anything, and most big-ticket items will fill you up more for roughly the same price as the hot dog. I’ve also never come across a fast food joint that makes a standout hot dog.
12. An amusement park
Amusement parks have a million places to eat, and most have at least one well-known item that’ll tug at your taste buds until you give in. That’s usually something like fries, cotton candy, fried Oreos, or a chicken sandwich. You only go to the amusement park once or twice a year, so you’re not excited about getting something easily obtained elsewhere. A hot dog’s portability plays well in this environment, but it might not sit well on a roller coaster.
13. A high school cafeteria
High school students learn the ropes quickly. By October of their freshman year, a good student will know their menu offerings inside and out. The hot dogs (as well as the burgers and chicken sandwiches) transport you to the summer, creating a feeling that you’re somewhere other than in a cafeteria during fifth period.
The problem is that you could be eating french toast sticks, spaghetti, or smiley fries, depending on the day. Are you going to get a hot dog instead of the Wednesday Special of taquitos, french fries, and a cosmic brownie? No.
14. Any non-baseball sporting event
The hot dog will not provide good bang for your buck. If you’re at a high school football game, keep it simple and get youth-sports nachos.
If you’re at a pro game, why spend six bucks on a hot dog when you could spend $11.25 for a chicken tender basket with fries? That tender basket represents the best value at almost any venue, because it’ll fill you up even if you share it. It costs less than twice as much as a hot dog but is more than twice as filling. (Calorie counts vary, but if you’ve had both of these dishes, you know.)
15. A movie theater
Popcorn will keep you occupied for at least half the movie, and you’ll get comfort from the knowledge that concession employees are good at making popcorn. They pop it right in front of you.
But you’ll have no such confidence in a theater hot dog. They’re not slaughtering the pig and grinding it up with spare parts of cow, squirrel, groundhog, raccoon, and bird right there in the projection room. Peace of mind matters.
16. A dedicated hot dog shop with “hot dog” in the name.
You’ll enter with massive expectations. Nobody opens a hot dog shop unless they have a unique skill for them. Right?
But you’ll be disappointed, because it’s goddamn hard to make a special hot dog. The truth about places with “hot dog” in their name is that they almost always have better fries than hot dogs. That’s not even a knock! The Original Hot Dog Shop in Pittsburgh – “The O,” as everyone calls it — is awesome, but I’ve gotten one hot dog there and will never get one again. I will, however, eat their perfectly textured fries until I puke.
17. A concert
One time, I committed to abstain from alcohol for an entire month. During that month, I went to a concert with a friend. He drank beforehand and bought one or two drinks at the show. I wanted something, so I bought a hot dog. You do not want to be the person standing in the general admission section, swaying along with the crowd to a beautiful acoustic while everyone else has a plastic cup and you have ketchup dripping from your hot dog onto your shoulders.
18. A major league baseball game
Imagine being told for your entire life that a Dodger Dog is a special rite of passage, then eating one and realizing you could’ve bought the same thing at Harris Teeter.