Since I grew up in New York City (and I’m Jewish), I grew up eating kosher all beef hot dogs, mostly Hebrew National and Nathan’s. In the years since, I have developed a fondness for almost every kind of sausage but the all beef dog remains my comfort food.
Actually, few people know this about me but when I was 18 years old, I spent a few weeks one summer as a hot dog vendor, pushing one of those classic carts.
It was the summer of ’72 and I was working at the restaurant in the Bronx Botanical Gardens. After a few weeks the owner and I couldn’t stand the sight of each other and he couldn’t fire me since he knew my parents so he got me out of the restaurant by having me push one of these carts. I’d stand there all day in the shade dishing out “dish water dogs” on buns with sauerkraut and mustard (sometimes people complained that I didn’t have the classic red onion sauce, more on that later). After a few weeks of this, I quit and took off for London with a friend. (That’s another story too.)
Just like pizza, New Yorkers will argue incessantly about the best hot dog. Some will say it’s at Katz’s – and that’s a damned fine dog. Some will say Nathan’s, but only at the original Coney Island location. But for many of us, the ultimate dog became the one you’d find at Gray’s Papaya. ”Tastier than filet mignon!” their signs would proclaim. Or was that their competitor – Papaya King? Who decided that hot dogs and papaya juice should go together? It’s a New York thing. Gray’s has multiple branches in NYC but for 10 years I lived in walking distance of this branch:
It used to be 2 hot dogs and a small fruit juice cost just a buck. Now it’s more like 4 or 5 bucks I guess. I miss this place!
Oddly enough, for the longest time, an all-beef hot dog was one of the hardest things to find in Hong Kong.
City Super used to get occasional shipments of Hebrew National (maybe they still do; I haven’t shopped there in ages) but it was hit and miss. I’d only find them there about 1 out of every 5 times I’d shop there, and I’d buy as many packages as possible.
Then when Doghouse first opened in Wanchai, they were using an all beef dog for their chili dogs. (I asked several times but no one would tell me where they sourced them from.) My taste buds tell me that they now use a dog that’s a beef/pork mix. The now departed East End Brewery had a good one – over-priced but I often went for it. Presumably other places from the same owner, El Grande – Inside Out, Hong Kong Brewery) – still have the same one on the menu.
I’ve since found that Taste (a slightly higher end supermarket, one of many brands owned by Park & Shop and hence by Li Ka-Shing) stocks a US brand that I’d never heard of called Saag’s, which is not as good as either Hebrew National or Nathan’s but is more than good enough.
Of course, hot dog buns in Hong Kong suck sweaty donkey balls. They’re too small and too indifferent and only come in packages of four (whereas the dogs I buy come in packages of five). Not much I can do about that since my few attempts at making bread at home all resulted in disgusting gloppy messes.
Mustard I have. If you’re American (and of a certain age, I suppose), maybe you remember the TV commercial for Gulden’s Spicy Brown Mustard. ”Ever notice that hot dogs always taste better at the ballpark? Maybe it’s the mustard they use.” I bring back several bottles of that from the US each year.
Here’s something I learned – it takes a minute to heat up a hot dog in a microwave. It only takes about 3 minutes to heat one up in a frying pan on the stove – and the difference in taste is night and day, even if you’re using a teflon pan. Even better on the barbecue, of course, but my barbecue is two floors above my kitchen and it’s too big a deal to get it going just for a single hot dog.
Another thing I’ve learned – a slice of onion, chopped or diced, elevates the dog almost all the way to heaven. Almost all the way because it’s still not the NYC hot dog onion sauce.
And wouldn’t you just know it – the NY Times’ Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, came up with the history of this sauce.
The man behind today’s sauce, Alan S. Geisler, died last week at the age of 78,as The Record of Bergen County reported. Half a century ago, hot dog vendors went through the time-consuming process of making their own onion sauce, but Mr. Geisler’s version — made at the behest of a hot dog and bun supplier who later became his partner — superseded all of those. If you are slurping up the red onion sauce in New York (and likely elsewhere), chances are the sauce was made by Sabrett, the supplier behind Katz’s Delicatessen, Gray’s Papaya, Papaya King, the legendary Dominick’s truck in Queens and the “dirty water dog” carts.
The sauce — which is made from vinegar, onion, tomato paste and other ingredients– is the subject of much speculation and longing by displaced former New Yorkers.
A food technologist trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. Geisler first came up with the sauce at the request of Gregory Papalexis, who was a close family friend of the Greek immigrant founder of Papaya King, Gus Poulos. The onion sauce became a hit, and Mr. Geisler and Mr. Papalexis later went into business together at Tremont Foods, which after some mergers and various names (including House of Weenies), has been absorbed into Marathon Enterprises. Mr. Geisler lived in New Jersey, but passed away in Florida.
Hey, if you live in the US, here’s a place that ships Sabrett hot dogs, the onion sauce and even Gabila’s knishes (sigh). (I have never found a decent potato knish in Hong Kong. The ones they serve at Main Street Deli are an abomination in the eyes of God and Man.)
I guess I’m gonna have to learn how to make this onion sauce. A quick search has yielded a lot of different variations (1,2,3,4) but the basics are the same and it should be easy enough to do. I guess I could make a batch and shove it in a mason jar or similar and it ought to last a decent amount of time.
So – if you’re not from Hong Kong but you live here now, what are the comfort foods you love that you can’t find here?