In the world of grilled meats and buns, hot dogs almost always get the short straw. Big Burger casts a wide shadow, after all, and although the cheeseburger has enjoyed a haute-cuisine renaissaince, moving beyond the Golden Arches to A-list menus, nobody’s pining for the Weenie Beenie to dream up a $20 gourmet chili dog. And that’s perhaps the best reason to love hot dogs even more right now: They’re better than ever, but they aren’t acting like it. If the last hot dog you ate was with ketchup and mustard at a baseball game, it is, quite frankly, time to take another look at one of America’s most enduring, palate-pleasing culinary pastimes.
Recent years may have ushered in an influx of luxe apartment buildings and condos around it, but Arlington’s Weenie Beenie maintains its steadfast retro appearance and prices. (Not to mention the strictly walk-up setting: Be prepared to eat while perched on your hood or over your steering wheel.) The hot dogs are the all-beef Sabrett brand, grilled to perfection and nestled in a chewy potato bun. Order your dog “all the way” and get a zippy, crunchy, napkin-worthy mix of yellow mustard, onions, relish and chili, the latter of which owner Travis Hackney said is made in-house with ground beef, spices and onions cooked until they practically melt. New customers tend to come on the weekend, but the rest of the week sees a steady trickle of familiar regulars. “Most of the time we know who they are and what they want” even before they get out of their car, Hackney said. 2680 Shirlington Rd., Arlington. $2.59.
— Becky Krystal
The hot dogs Katy Chang is offering at Haiyo Dog almost defy categorization, but we’ll try: Think Asia meets the Midwest. Housed inside EatsPlace, the pop-up-hosting rowhouse that Chang owns in Petworth, Haiyo Dog’s links are especially unique, thanks to their Asian milk bread bun and toppings that include seaweed salad, kimchi, edamame, dan dan noodles and Cincinnati chili, inspired by Chang’s childhood visits to family in Ohio. The beef links come from a regional Amish farm, and they’re boiled, grilled and coated in Chang’s tamari butter for an extra-savory umami hit. (There are chicken and vegetarian options as well.) Chang expects her pop-up to run at least through the summer. “I think hot dogs are one of those things like dumplings,” a universal concept with protein and carbs packaged in a conveniently portable format. “It’s the ultimate fusion food.” EatsPlace, 3607 Georgia Ave. NW. 202-882-3287. eatsplace.com. $6-$8.
Greatest American Hot Dogs
Ordering a classic dog at Greatest American Hot Dogs seems like a wasted opportunity. The tiny restaurant makes up for its snug digs with a playful menu that’s 80 hot dogs deep. Think: a Kansas City BBQ Dog (stuffed with pulled pork, slaw and crispy onions); a Maui Dog (crammed with fried Spam and pineapple-jalapeño salsa); a Maryland Dog (loaded with four-cheese mac-and-cheese, lump crabmeat, scallions and Old Bay). The standard order brings a butter-toasted steamed bun with a Vienna Beef dog, perfectly juicy thanks to a dip in the deep-fryer followed by some time on the grill. But every one of these not-so-little guys is customizable. If you’re in a less adventurous mood, you can order the All American, with ketchup, mustard, neon-green relish and onions — but at least be sure to make it a foot-long. 7206 Muncaster Mill Rd., Derwood. 800-570-4243. greatestamericanhotdogs.com. $4.50-$9, plus additional toppings.
— Emily Codik
Colombians take the boiled hot dog and next-level it with crushed potato chips and bacon. Then things start to get weird: Sauces can range from a pink mix of ketchup and mayonnaise to whipped cream and raspberry. Perroloco doesn’t reach whipped-cream levels of quirkiness, but the place definitely goes all-out on toppings. The no-frills Gaithersburg shop loads its version with the basic Colombian hot dog accoutrements, plus shredded mozzarella cheese, pink sauce, tartar sauce, pineapple sauce (!) and — because, at this point anything goes — a hard-boiled quail egg. It’s a guaranteed mess of chips and sauce, savory and sweet. But, hey, isn’t that part of the fun? 811 Russell Ave., Gaithersburg. 240-801-9874. facebook.com/perrolococolombiano. $5.
Most hot dogs inspire memories of baseball games and weekend afternoons grilling in the park. The corn dog, on the other hand, has always been much more at home at state fairs, probably because it’s served on a stick. At DC3, on Barracks Row, the corn dog stands out among the bacon-wrapped and fancifully garnished items on the menu — and not just because it’s $2.99, while others are $4.99. Served out of the fryer, this is a simple but well-made corn dog, with a welcome crunch and an admirable cornmeal-to-dog ratio. It’s the best, and least messy, way to consume a hot dog on the go. 423 Eighth St. SE. 202-546-1935. eatdc3.com. $2.99.
— Fritz Hahn
Meats & Foods
Scott McIntosh makes a wide variety of flavorful sausages to sell and grill at his Florida Avenue NW store: lemon basil chicken, spicy chorizo, turmeric chicken, even cheddar brats for the Fourth of July. Still, he says, “half-smokes sell two-to-one over everything else. It doesn’t matter what else is on the menu.” One bite and it’s easy to see why. McIntosh’s own recipe, a chunky mix of beef and pork, employs spices and red pepper flakes to dance on your tongue with the right amount of heat. The snap of the casing is perfect, too. About half of Meats & Foods customers order half-smokes with chili, McIntosh says, and although the house-made chili adds a little more heat to the package, this is a half-smoke that’s better enjoyed when you can actually taste the meat, simply topped with a mix of grilled peppers and onions. You wouldn’t say that about most half-smokes in Washington. 247 Florida Ave. NW. 202-505-1384. meatsandfoods.com. $6.
Red Apron Butcher
You could earn a degree in applied physics in almost the same time it took chef Nathan Anda to create a hot dog that satisfied his palate. For nearly four years, the Red Apron founder futzed around with his hot dog recipe before landing on the current one, an emulsified all-pork beauty with forcemeat nearly as light and lush as the boudin blanc at Marcel’s. At one point during his experimentation phase, the chef used to smoke his dogs; now Anda just steams the Haute Dog, which is why he adds smoked paprika to the ground pork. “I still wanted the depth of smoke,” he says. When tucked into a soft Gold Crust bun and set to swim in a tide pool of house-made “atomic whiz” ($1 extra), the Haute Dog is the anti-street dog. 8298 Glass Alley, Fairfax, 703-676-3550; 709 D St. NW, 202-524-5244, redapronbutchery.com . $5 per Haute Dog; bacon kraut, relish, chili and atomic whiz are extra.
— Tim Carman
Ben’s Chili Bowl
Say what you want about the defining dog at Ben’s — and believe me, half-smoke-bashing has become a tag-team sport — but when I want to feel good about the District again, I park my tired bones on a red vinyl stool at the original U Street location and order its signature sausage with chili and cheese. I punch up James Brown on the jukebox as a steady stream of tourists and regulars await their moment at the Formica counter, where they watch links sizzle in their own juices on a hot flattop. People smile. They dance in place. They talk to strangers. They take photos inside a diner that doesn’t conceal its liver spots or its lifelong friendships, no matter how hard it may be for the Ali family to continue to stand by the disgraced Bill Cosby. It’s that rare place where age is revered, not reviled. The half-smoke — a half-beef, half-pork smoked link made by Manger’s in Baltimore — is a time capsule that offers a glimpse into our past, before artisan butchers and chef-driven sausages. For that alone, it rightly deserves a place of honor among those who love food in the District. 1213 U St. NW. 202-667-0909; 1001 H St. NE. 202-733-1895. benschilibowl.com. $5.95.
Haute Dogs & Fries
One look at the menu at Haute Dogs, and you’re reminded that frankfurters are swagger-jackers of extreme skill. They can adopt the persona of a banh mi sandwich, a Reuben or even a Tex-Mex platter. The Vietnamese-inspired banh mi dog starts with an all-natural, all-beef frank from Fields of Athenry Farm in Purcellville. The link is nestled into a toasted New England roll, a rich buttery stand-in for the standard mini baguette. Visually, the whole thing looks like a hot dog dressed up as a banh mi for Halloween. On the tongue, though, the sandwich’s pickled carrots and cucumbers, Sriracha mayonnaise, jalapeños and cilantro do a fine banh mi impersonation, even if the meat leans closer to ballpark, not Vietnamese deli, fare. In the end, this Southeast Asian bite makes the case, not for its banh-mi bona fides, but for the timeless appeal of processed meats paired with acidic, creamy and spicy garnishes. This is one fine dog. 609 E. Main St., Purcellville, 540-338-2439; 610 Montgomery St., Alexandria, 703-548-3891; hautedogsandfries.com. $4.50.
Spiral–cutting a hot dog doesn’t just give it a distinctive Slinkylike look, it also expands the surface area of the dog, allowing more contact with the grill and more nooks and crannies for toppings. And at Swizzler, a food truck run by three friends, the toppings are everything. Take the J(ersey) Dawg, which comes buried in a small avalanche of zippy house-made sauerkraut, vidalia onions and mustard. Or the Feast Mode, a hot dog slathered in whipped herb goat cheese, caramelized onions and candied jalapeños. (Don’t skip the truffle Parmesan fries on the side.) Of course, all of those toppings are heaped upon a good foundation: Swizzler gets its grass-fed-beef hot dogs, which are free of added nitrates, from Chicago’s Tallgrass Beef. You can definitely taste the difference. Various locations. Check @swizzlerfoods on Twitter for up-to-date locations. $8.18.
— Maura Judkis
The Vienna Inn opened 56 years ago, and you get the impression when you enter the restaurant that little has changed over the years. Old team trophies and place mats decorated by children serve as the Inn’s main decorations, and drinks are self-serve, unless you order a cheap beer in a heavy, frosty mug. A lot of the customers remain the same, too — this is the kind of place where you stand out if you need a menu. Many of those regulars are ordering the chili dog, a turkey frank smothered with the original-recipe beef (no beans) chili, mustard and diced onions. (The restaurant goes through more than 10,000 dogs a month.) The thick, liquid cheese tops things off with a tang and ties the messy meal together. It’s nothing fancy, and there’s not a thing wrong with that. 120 Maple Ave. E., Vienna. 703-938-9548. viennainn.com. $2.50.
— John Taylor
Ivy & Coney
Everything about Ivy & Coney invokes Chicago and Detroit, from the murals of Harry Caray and Sparky Anderson to the Goose Island and Bell’s beers on tap. The menu is no different, with the Chicago Dog “dragged through the garden,” with tomatoes, relish, onions, sport peppers, mustard, a pickle spear and a healthy shake of celery salt, and the Coney Dog, with onions, mustard and a house-made beef chili that owner and Detroit native Chris Powers loads up with plenty of cumin and turmeric. (No matter which dog you order, there’s a large “NO KETCHUP!!” warning on the menu.) The bar’s owners knew both dogs had to be served on poppy seed rolls to be authentic, Powers says. They couldn’t find a decent local source right away, so they now have them custom-baked by Gold Crust bakery in Landover. 1537 Seventh St. NW. 202-670-9489. ivyandconey.com. $4.
The dogs of Nationals Park
To stroll the corridors of our hometown Major League Baseball stadium is to encounter waves of ballpark-frank aromatherapy. You could wolf down a different one per inning . . . but then again, you might exit the stadium with major-league indigestion. In 2011, the Washington Nationals designated Hatfield Quality Meats of Pennsylvania as its official brand for the Traditional Nats Dog — a beef-and-pork blend that, as prepared, rests in an unremarkable bun, sports a casing without snap, cries out for yellow mustard and prompts a mild burp.
Some inside-the-park competition: In addition to its ode to the banh mi, the Haute Dog outpost here serves a Chili Cheese Dog whose toppings are generous, yet fail to deliver much flavor; the dog itself offers an honest, chewy meatiness. Box Frites’s BLT Dog appears most promising on the menu overhead: applewood smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato plus bacon aioli on a snappy, garlicky Hebrew National link. But served cold and garnished sparingly, the sandwich goes down dry — saved only by its potato roll and a side of overpriced garlic Parmesan fries. 1500 S. Capitol St. SE. Traditional Nats Dog, $5.25; Haute Dog’s Chili Cheese Dog, $7; Box Frites’s BLT Dog, $6.50 (Garlic Frites, $9.50).
— Bonnie S. Benwick