The hot dog: it's been the source of many eating contests—think the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating contest, in which enthusiasts vie to chow down as many hot dogs as they can in 10 minutes, or "Man v. Food's" Adam Richman trying to set his own personal best.
Our nod to the country's best hot dog joints is marked by the variety and cleverness of ingredients used, eateries that are local institutions, have a great story and are just fun places to chill. So mull over the menu (so many great choices abound), grab a seat and savor these creations.
What sets it apart: The world's best-known hot dog stand, thanks in part to its huge celebrity following, Pink's began as a neighborhood mom-and-pop hot dog stand; it opened in 1939 and today has 10 locations worldwide, including Manila, Philippines; Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio; and on the Las Vegas Strip at Planet Hollywood Resort. Celebrity chefs who have been known to enjoy a Pink's dog include Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis, Guy Fieri and Emeril Lagasse—and De Laurentiis and Lagasse have dogs named after them.
What to try: So many dogs, so little time! You can't go wrong with one of the special celebrity-named dogs; those with big appetites and who want to try something new should opt for a burrito dog—the pastrami burrito dog is a giant tortilla wrapped around two hot dogs, filled with grilled pastrami, Swiss cheese, chili and onions.
In Hollywood at La Brea and Melrose (709 N. La Brea Ave.)
Jack's Cosmic Dogs
What sets it apart: It's been voted Charleston's best hot dog joint since 2000. Plus, Food Network's Alton Brown called the signature Cosmic Dog the "Best Thing I Ever Ate."
What to try: "If you ask me what the flavor of childhood is, I'd say slaw dogs, that was the food that defined summer for me," said Brown on the aforementioned show. "The quintessential slaw dog is now to be found at Jack's Cosmic Dogs," he continued. "I get everything when I go to Jack's, I get my entire childhood back."
Follow Brown's lead: the Cosmic Dog is loaded with Jack's original blue cheese slaw and sweet potato mustard. The Astro Dog will give you a zip with onion relish and spicy mustard. For a sweeter kick, the Planet Dog is made with Jamaican relish (a sweet relish of red peppers, watermelon and onions) and yellow mustard. Or, make your own—choose from four handcrafted sausages with up to five toppings.
2805 U.S. 17, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina
The Beer Bar
What sets it apart: Owner and "Modern Family" star Ty Burrell tapped Viet Pham, named one of Food and Wine magazine's best new chefs of 2011, to head up this restaurant's menu of housemade sausages, tempting sides and a 130-plus beer list.
What to try: You can't really go wrong with any of these artisanal dogs, but for a change of pace, try the Sicilian, made with white wine, pecorino romano cheese and fennel. The Buffalo with Chipotle uses locally sourced bison infused with chili peppers. The Lamb and Herb is a fresh mix of herbs de Province, cloves and garlic. And the elk bratwurst is a tradition German brat made with elk.
161 E. 200 S. in Salt Lake City
Biker Jim's Dogs
What sets it apart: Biker Jim's prides itself on its sausages made out of exotic meats such as elk, buffalo, wild boar, pheasant, German veal and Alaskan reindeer; duck and rattlesnake upon availability. Plus, Anthony Bourdain's a fan.
What to try: Choose your dog and load it up desert-style with Harissa-roasted cactus, Malaysian curry-jam scallions, cilantro and onions both ways. Or, go for The International, with wasabi aioli, caramelized apples and shaved Irish cheddar. Like bacon much? The Bat Dog is a smoked bacon brat topped with avocado puree, tomato cream cheese, caramelized onions, bacons bits and tomato bacon powder.
In downtown Denver at 2148 Larimer St. and at Coors Field
El Guero Canelo
What sets it apart: Restaurant owner Daniel Contreras won a 2010 "Food Wars" show for making the best Sonoran hot dog.
What to try: The Sonoran, of course, a southwest legend: a bacon-wrapped frank is grilled until crispy, stuffed into a Mexican roll and garnished with beans, grilled onion, raw onion, tomato, mayonnaise, mustard and jalapeno sauce. For 50 cents more, you can get it with two franks.
"Everyone should start [a trip to Tucson] by going to El Guero Canelo," resident Jessica Bright told Where Tucson. "They set the standard for all things Sonoran dog. The bread is just right; the bacon is just right; mustard, mayo, jalapeno—all just right."
Three restaurant locations in Tuscon, Arizona; also at the Tucson Meat Market
What sets it apart: Guy Fieri visited the eatery for "Drive-ins, Diners and Dives." The menu features 10 specially chosen local, organic sausages, served on organic buns with housemade condiments.
What to try: Fieri couldn't put down the House Merguez, a lamb sausage topped with mission-fig chutney and housemade Dijon mustard; he brought back the mustard recipe for the Food Network website. Other distinctive goodies here are the house wild boar sausage with red-wine poached cherries, house mustard and arugula; the house basil chicken, with house mustard, garlic confit and argula; and the Sunrise ShowDog, with smoked maple pork sausage, egg, piperade, organic sharp cheddar and arugula.
In San Francisco's Theater District at 1020 Market St.
Big Guys Charbroiled Sausages
What sets it apart: $1 plain hot dogs every day, $3 sausage specials Wednesday through Friday, and jumbo hot dogs for $4.50.
What to try: Known for their "blue-collar gourmet food" (and where else would you find that but in Chicago?), the guys at Big Guys not only vary up their hot dog offerings but the bread they're served on as well: poppyseed buns, French bread and garlic bread are among the options.
"I think our sausages set us apart," said Brendan O'Connor, Big Guys' president. "Our encased meats are homemade, and we use creative and homemade toppings for a great combination of flavors."
O'Connor's favorite hot dog at Big Guys is the giant sausage with red and green peppers, a mild Italian sausage served on French bread.
In Berwyn, Illinois (30 minutes from Chicago) at 7021 Roosevelt Rd.
King David Dogs
What sets it apart: King David hot dogs are an Indy original. The hot dog brand was developed by the Hene brothers in the 1940s; today, their grandson has brought back the family's original recipe.
What to try: The ultimate in comfort food-style dogs reign here. The Bad Decision Dog is loaded with beef-and-bean chili, bacon, mac & cheese, cheddar cheese, chopped onions and ranch dressing. Or, just concentrate on cheese in the Dog-A-Roni & Cheese, with mac & cheese, topped with cheddar cheese. In the Idaho dog, King David has the only dog we've heard of that's in a baked potato instead of a bun; it's laden with butter, sour cream and your choice of two premium toppings.
In downtown Indianapolis at 135 N. Pennsylvania St.
Haute Dogs & Fries
What sets it apart: Sausages are sourced locally from Loudoun County, Virginia; the all-natural beef franks are gluten, dairy and sugar free, with no added MSG. Gluten-free rolls are also available.
What to try: The combination of uncommon toppings, all-natural meat and the restaurant's housemade warm onion relish make for a true taste sensation. Create your own (dog choices are beef, veggie and chicken) or try one of the many surprising choices: the bahn mi, with sriracha mayo, carrots, cucumber, jalapenos and cilantro; Duck, Duck, Dog, topped with hoisin sauce, scallions and cucumbers; or the kitchen's own Haute Dog, with warm onion relish, yellow mustard, mayo and celery salt. Among the unexpected list of toppings are potato sticks, blue cheese and—yes—rainbow sprinkles.
610 Montgomery St. in Alexandria, Virginia; also at Nationals Park
Buldogis Gourmet Hot Dogs
What sets it apart: Uniquely topped dogs done in Asian sensibility; the kim chi, which takes three days to prepare, is some of the tastiest around.
What to try: Named after bulgogi, a popular Korean dish that literally means "fire meat" in Korean, Buldogis' gourmet eats are dressed up in Asian flair. Go Gangnam style with toppings of roast pork belly, cucumber, nori, sesame seeds and K-chili sauce; the Angry certainly has you hot under the collar with spicy pork bulgogi, Asian slaw, diced jalapenos and fiery mayo.
In Summerlin, Nevada, at 2291 S. Fort Apache Rd., 15 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip
Steve's Hot Dogs
What sets it apart: Musician/owner Steve Ewing started a hot dog cart when he wanted to feed his friends at the end of their shows—now he has three locations around St. Louis and is consistently ranked among that city's best casual dining establishments. The menu is frequently updated with new items.
What to try: There's a great variation of choices here. Start with the St. Louligan, the winner of Steve's 2016 new hot dog contest; a smoked dog wrapped in bacon with caramelized onion, garlic, cream cheese, shredded cheddar and jalapenos. Go Jamaican-style with the Bacon Bacon Jamaican, piled with two slices of crisp bacon, pepper jack cheese, jerk seasoning, bell peppers and sweet chipotle sauce. And the Back Yard BBQ dog is smothered in baked beans, potato salad, bacon and barbecue sauce. Should you need to double it up, you can make your own combo.
2131 Marconi Ave.; 3457 Magnolia Ave.; 16 S. Euclid Ave. in St. Louis
Diesel Filling Station
What sets it apart: This sports bar is home to myriad special events, such as "Game of Thrones" and "Walking Dead"viewing parties and trivia; televises all the games and has more than 50 beer selections.
What to try: Each traditional 1/3-pound dog is topped to order. The Ripper is wrapped in bacon and deep fried; among the toppings you can dress it up with are raw or sauteed onions, pimento cheese, spicy mustard, chili and Coca-Cola ketchup. Or opt for the loaded Chicago dog, topped with sport peppers, tomato, onion, pickle, green relish, celery salt and mustard.
870 N. Highland Ave. in Atlanta
What sets it apart: The joint's name originated when owner Brian Shebairo tried to say his former partner's name—Chris (Antista)—with a hot dog in his mouth.
What to try: The tempting bacon-wrapped Chihuahua dog, topped with avocado and sour cream beckons; another bacon sensation is the Spicy Redneck, topped with chili, coleslaw and jalapenos. Those who'd prefer a ham-wrapped dog should get behind the Garden State, topped with pepperoncini, American cheese and mustard.
St. Marks Place between First Ave. and Ave. A in NYC
Short Leash Hot Dogs
What sets it apart: Short Leash owners Brad and Kat Moore helped to create the Pinewood Derby, a community event that raises funds for the nonprofit Food for the Hungry. And, instead of traditional hot dog buns, their dogs are served on warm, buttery naan.
What to try: On the signature dog menu (dog options are regular, all beef, bratwurst, chicken, spicy beer hot or vegetarian), the Lady is topped with chipotle cream cheese, sauteed onions and fried pickles. The equally enticing Bear beckons with peanut butter, smoked gouda, bacon, barbecue sauce and Cracker Jacks. Among the premium dogs, the Sunny stands out—a chicken wiener piled with grilled seasonal fruit, prosciutto, argula, goat cheese, honey and cracked pepper.
110 E. Roosevelt St. (Sit ... Stay); 2502 E. Camelback Rd. (Short Lease at Biltmore) in Phoenix
Fab Hot Dogs
What sets it apart: Owner/chef Joe Fabrocini has restaurants in his blood; after working on various restaurant projects of his own with his father and brother, he opened this popular SoCal joint. He traveled around the country to discover the best hot dog creations in the U.S. and bring them together in one place.
What to try: The Lincoln Log dog is a standout, a bacon-wrapped, all-beef dog with cream cheese, tomato, diced onions, hot sauce, mustard and celery salt. For those who like to build their own hot dog creations, toppings include fried eggs, grilled pastrami, guacamole and barbecued baked beans; get a spicy kick with red onion sauce, spicy cherry pepper relish and roasted hatch green chiles. Bratwurst and burrito dogs are also available.
19417 Victory Rd. in Reseda, California; 28255 Newhall Ranch Rd. in Santa Clarita, California
The Red Hot
What sets it apart: Four vegan-style dogs are available and the restaurant lives up to its name in its spicy dog selections. Those who need some cooling down get help from the 25-plus selection of craft beers on tap.
What to try: The restaurant's namesake dog is a spicy-sweet sensation, with spicy brown mustard, onions and sweet relish; get more of the spicy-sweet combination in The Big Kahuna, a housemade Hawaiian sausage with Saigon sauce, onions, coleslaw and grilled pineapple rings. The Veganerwurst could turn any meat-eater—it's a grilled vegan beer brat with curried ketchup, onions, sauerkraut and dill.
2914 Sixth Ave., Tacoma, Washington