A few words of advice for the no-fun-niks harrumphing about the country’s homogenization: Eat more hot dogs.
According to wiener taxonomists, there are no fewer than two dozen regional variations on the snack, from northeastern Massachusetts’ boiled Frankfurt rolls to Seattle’s cream-cheese-wearing dogs. In the 150 years since an entrepreneurial German-American (historians debate over whether to credit Charles Feltman of Brooklyn or Antonoine Feuchtwanger of St. Louis as inventor of the nation’s favorite stand-up-and-eat treat) plopped a sausage in a bun, the hot dog has emerged as an edible tabula rasa. Let other cultures produce fancy art and architecture – the chosen medium for communal expression in the United States is hot-dog toppings.
Western North Carolina’s take on the frank calls for chili, coleslaw, mustard and finely chopped onions. But, nobody really knows why: There’s been a remarkable lack of scholarship on the hot dog. Maybe people are too busy eating them to make any serious study: According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, last year, Americans gobbled up 20 billion hot dogs. But not everyone’s eating their allotted 60 dogs: Residents of Western states – who apparently aren’t big on processed meats – are notorious under-indulgers. So it’s up to Southerners to pick up the slack: A full 25 percent of hot dogs are downed on this side of the Mason-Dixon Line.
One of the nation’s few hot-dog researchers contends that’s because the slaw dog, as it’s known in places where coleslaw isn’t a standard condiment, is irresistibly delicious. “Have you ever tried one?” writes Stanton in response to an e-mail pressing him to explain the Appalachian appetite for hot dogs. “And you have to ask?”
(Such is the stature of hot-dog scholars that Stanton, the brains and belly behind www.wvhotdogs.com, uses just one name to protect his reputation. “I am a somewhat highly visible person in my community and my employer doesn’t want me to be known as the Hot Dog King,” he writes. Toiling in anonymity, Stanton has meticulously charted the West Virginia slaw dog’s popularity by county.)
Stanton has a theory as to why mountaineers reach for the coleslaw whenever the sweet aroma of dogs cooking wafts beneath their noses. And since he’s the only hot dog aficionado willing to venture a guess – albeit under a pseudonym – his hypothesis seems worth sharing.
According to Stanton, the tradition of slawing dogs started in the early 1920s at The Stopette Drive-In on Route 21 outside of Charleston, W. Va. “During the Great Depression, when weenies and cabbage were two of the most plentiful and affordable food items, every eatery in the area copied them,” Stanton writes. He believes the signature dish moseyed down the Hillbilly Highway as West Virginians in search of work migrated to other mountain states.
But even Stanton can’t explain the chili – the slightly spicy, beanless meat sauce that completes the slaw-dog flavor meld that mystifies Northern hot-dog fans. To a Chicagoan, who dresses his all-beef dog with pickle relish, sport peppers and celery salt, the slaw dog – in which no element can be so distinctive as to overwhelm another – is a maddening proposition.
“All you keep telling us is they have slaw on them,” grumbled one member of Chowhound.com who stumbled upon an online discussion of Southern hot dogs. “What else, if anything, is on a ‘Southern’ dog? What type of roll? Who manufacturers these dogs? Is this ‘Southern’ dog beef or all meat? A natural casing or skinless? WHAT ARE YOU PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT???”
The answer, of course, is right here in Asheville, where every day hundreds of lunch breaks are spent in joints serving up dogs swaddled in tight-fitting buns, painted with chili and doused with sweet, buttermilk-based slaw. While many local restaurants offer Appalachian-style dogs, the following are the only (presently open) spots I found within – or very close to – Asheville city limits that specialize in hot dogs, most of them good enough to make your annual 60-dog quota seem slightly less daunting.
The Hot Dog King (on Biltmore)
No matter how many color-coded maps Stanton issues, he’ll never be known as the hot-dog king around these parts. That honor goes to this 29-year-old institution, which stays busy ladling out its 99-cent dogs. Outlets of this Buncombe County franchise are independently owned, and the owner of this location – who also supervises operations at the Hot Dog in Chandler – is obviously doing something right. The dogs here are a model of the genre – well-balanced presentations that play cold against hot, spicy against sweet and wet against dry. They go down easy: I confused the counterwoman by ordering just one. 63 Biltmore Ave.; 253-0448
The Hot Dog King (on Tunnel)
This strip-mall site proves there can’t be two kings. While the employees here are as friendly as those working at the same-named restaurant downtown, the dogs themselves come up short. And skinny. These little hot dogs don’t come close to filling their slightly dried-out buns. Someone in charge must suspect these dogs don’t deserve their crown: The walls are hung with pictures of hamburgers, which is tantamount to a Boston barbershop upholstering its chairs in pinstripes. 4 S. Tunnel Road; 298-8686
Cats and Dawgs
This was the only restaurant I visited that advertised its hot dog brand: Cats and Dawgs proudly uses Vienna Beef, the cornerstone of any Chicago dog. But while the lean all-beef link matches delectably with tomatoes and relish, its smoky seasoning is somewhat jarring when paired with chili and slaw. The eatery’s Carolina Dog – offered alongside Hawaiian, Italian, German and Alsatian preparations – probably wouldn’t satisfy taste buds trained on traditional Appalachian fixings. Then again, that might not be a fair measure of this top-notch spot, which consistently turns out terrific hot dogs. Grove Arcade, Suite 132; 281-8100
Cart (on Battery Park)
As at Cats and Dawgs, the Carolina dogs here suffer from being built around a too-tasty link. I chose not to shell out 50 cents to upgrade to a kosher dog (while I’m eagerly awaiting further research on Appalachian hot dogs, I’m pretty sure no scholarship will show that they were ever intended to conform to Jewish dietary restrictions), but even the standard $1.50 dog had a surfeit of flavor. Although the chili and slaw tasted fresh, these dogs would be better showcased with just a squirt of mustard. Corner of Wall Street and Battery Park Avenue; no phone
Cart (at Asheville Transit Center)
With an hour wait between most buses, it’s nice to have food available at the Transit Center. This cart set up in July and has had steady traffic since. Slaw dogs are the standard order here, and they’re served spicy: The chili is harder-hitting than most local sauces. Although both the chili and the dog are a little too salty – and the bun I was served was stale around the edges – this is adequate cart fare for a captive audience. 49 Coxe Ave.; no phone
Even the bright-yellow walls at French Fryz, which make the restaurant feel like an offshoot of a roller-skating rink, can’t cheer the staff – or at least not the woman who took my order one busy weekday afternoon. After refusing to serve me cheese fries with the cheese on the side (it’s easier to take notes when I don’t have to burrow my fingers into a mound of cheese), she snapped at me when I asked if she had a to-go menu. “Do you see a menu?” she countered. No. But I have no plans to place an order anyhow: My hot dog was mushy, the chili tasted tinny and the coleslaw wasn’t fully defrosted. Maybe I should have had the chicken tenders. 2109 Hendersonville Road; 684-0416
Celebrity’s Hot Dogs
Celebrity’s started as a joke. NASCAR driver Robert Pressley, son of legendary Asheville short-track racer Bob Pressley, had been telling his buddies since 1990 that when he had to hang up his helmet, he’d start slinging dogs. Although still involved in racing, he recently made good on his promise, opening Celebrity’s, which he envisions as the first of many sport-themed restaurants. The walls and tables are plastered with NASCAR memorabilia, but he has the goods to make the shtick stick – the Carolina dogs here are quite possibly the best in town. The restaurant takes obvious care with its product, asking customers to allow 15 minutes for the preparation of five or more dogs at lunchtime. Pressley won’t reveal which brand of hot dogs he uses – it’s a secret worth guarding – but the salt-tinged beef-and-pork links, nestled in buttery buns, are beautifully complemented by the perfectly textured chili, onions and slaw. Carolina dog lovers, start your engines. 1409 Brevard Road; 670-5954