Spoiler alert: The Twin Cities is not really a hot dog town.
Our neighborhoods aren’t built around dusty corner diners where wieners go back generations. We don’t argue at the drop of a hat about brands of mustard or pickle taxonomy. (And, no, parsing the relative virtues of Pronto Pups versus corn dogs for two weeks each year doesn’t count.)
The nuances of a great hot dog are lost on Twin Citizens, who couldn’t pick out a poppy seed bun from a bakery lineup, let alone explain the difference between a chili and a Coney sauce. For the most part, the Minnesota hot dog is regarded as a lowly and overlooked craft. Even the measly French fry gets more culinary scrutiny, more listicles and attention, than a good Minneapolis wiener.
It’s easy to understand why. Hot dogs are ubiquitous in American culture, the definition of cheap, easy food for everyone from toddlers to retirees. Hot dogs are the epitome of ballpark fare, easy to eat and easy to ignore, and easy to throw at Chuck Knoblauch. Pre-cooked, rolling endlessly at the gas station, for most Minnesotans, those glistening pink tubes are nothing but disposable food.
But behind the shimmering facade of cheese-stuffed burgers and brick-oven pizzas lurk wonderful exceptions. Hot dog artisans thrive in the diners and dives, pinball parlors and sushi counters of the Twin Cities’ food scene. Even here, in the wiener wasteland, you’ll chance across multi-generational sausage slingers, bun stuffers, and Coney connoisseurs.
For a primer, enjoy the following abbreviated tour of the Twin Cities’ hot dog scene.
The St. Paul Coney
A great hot dog displays a balance of simplicity and complexity, texture and flavor, and plants its feet firmly on a foundation of excellent ingredients. Particularly in the Midwest, there are two key schools of hot dog craft: the Chicago dog and the Detroit Coney. In their relationship to condiments, these two camps form something of a schism: The Michigan Coney tends toward simplicity, and the Chicago dog toward Dionysian excess.
Luckily you can find excellent versions of both here in the Twin Cities, and it’s in St. Paul where a unique tradition of Coney dogs really shines. There are dozens of bars and cafes offering distinctive takes on the Coney in the east metro, and I can safely say I’ve eaten them all.
The best version can be found at Keenan’s, a third-generation brick bar on West Seventh Street. Decades ago, owner Bill Keenan adapted a recipe for Coney sauce from the old Green Mill on Grand Avenue, and they’ve been making them in the small kitchen at the back of the bar ever since.
“Coneys are so funny,” says DJ Keenan, Bill’s son, who runs the menu at Keenan’s these days. “Me and my mom, we will bicker about it. We’re so picky about every little detail, because it’s just four things, but you have to do every step just right.”
DJ Keenan worked for years as chef de cuisine at the Kenwood, and brings his fine-dining pedigree to the world of bar food. As he explains it, a great Coney begins with the bun, and Keenan’s gets theirs delivered fresh from PJ Murphy’s bakery up the street on Randolph Avenue. Crucially, like many St. Paul Coney chefs, Keenan’s uses a flat-sided lobster roll instead of a traditional hot dog bun.
“Sometimes they’re so soft you almost can’t cut ’em,” Keenan says. “It’s almost brioche-like, [and] that lobster roll bun is what makes it. Those two flat sides that we then just brush with a bunch of butter and griddle it just right.”
Throw on a flash-fried all-beef wiener, layer with house-made Coney sauce and a touch of mustard, and top it all with cheese to melt in the oven. Then sprinkle with freshly diced onion. Voila! you have the perfect St. Paul Coney—a balanced mix of savory and sweet that melts in your mouth.
“It’s nice to bring all those techniques and everything you learn at a place like [the Kenwood] into a small place here. It’s just the tiny little things you do,” explained Keenan, who has added a bunch of well-crafted bar food to the menu over the past year.
The Expatriate Chicago Dog
On the other end of the spectrum, the Chicago dog seems, at first, an excessive mess. With full-size pickles, tomatoes, neon-green relish, and peppers all fighting for space, they simply can’t be eaten without falling apart. But it doesn’t take long to realize that a great Chicago dog balances fat, salt, and heat with the best of them, and the flavor lingers in your head like a pop refrain long after you’ve finished. Far from excessive, a Chicago dog represent generations of Windy City palates.
There’s no better Minnesota spot to indulge in Chicago perfection than Uncle Franky’s. This small diner with catsup-and-mustard walls on Northeast Broadway has been home to Minneapolis’ most authentic hot dogs since 2001, with a menu that spans the spectrum from Coneys to Polish sausages to hot Italian beef. As blues play out of a boom box on the back wall, and the waitress calls you sweetheart and the cook calls you sir, it’s the perfect place to taste the spirit of Chicago.
“As any Chicagoan will tell you, this starts with an all-beef hot dog in a natural casing,” said Larry Domek, one of the owners. Once he gets going, Domek simply can’t stop talking about what makes a great Chicago dog, and if you want to learn about the subtle differences between pickles or varieties of yellow mustard, he’s your guy.
“When you’re cooking the hot dog, it helps seal in the flavors and the juices, and it has a distinctive snap when you bite into it. Any hot dog vendor worth his salt is gonna serve you an all-beef natural casing hot dog,” Domek explained.
Six years ago, Uncle Franky’s stopped shipping in their wieners from Chicago. Instead they’ve hired an undisclosed butcher to craft theirs from an exclusive family recipe refined through years of experimentation. They also have poppy seed buns delivered every other day. Compared to a lot of the old buns you get in the Twin Cities, these are palpably fresh.
“People think a hot dog is a hot dog, but put them side by side, and you’ll see a difference,” said Domek, who is justifiably dismissive of the cheap wieners in the grocery aisle. “People don’t understand the difference. It’s in the relish and in the pickle.”
To make a classic Chicago dog, you’ll need a steamed poppy seed bun, an all-beef frankfurter, a hint of mustard, distinctively sweet neon green relish, Roma tomatoes, a Chicago Pickle Company pickle, sport peppers—which are not jalapenos, but a special hybrid serrano pepper—and finally a few onions topped with secret seasoning.
(If you ask Larry he’ll tell you, with a wink, their “secret seasoning” is just celery salt.)
“The pickle slice on one side, three tomato slices on the other, bright-green neon relish, and sprinkle a few onions on top, and finally you add the special secret seasoning,” explains Domek, who grew up on the north side eating Chicago dogs and Italian beef sandwiches.
Watching Lonnie, one of the Uncle Franky’s chefs, cooking dogs on the grill is a treat enjoyed by anyone who stops into the joint. The subtle flicks of the wrist and the ease of everything make you realize that, like any art, hot dogs adhere to the “10,000 hour rule.” Once you make a few thousand Chicago dogs, you develop a seamless feel for the subtlety of the craft; those tiny differences between ingredients where condiments become second nature.
The Japanese Twist
From its very beginnings on Coney Island, the American hot dog has been a cultural mashup. As American culture has transcended borders, the classic hot dog evolved into an international delicacy. You can find lots of examples scattered on menus throughout the metro area—notably the bacon-wrapped “hot dogos,” aka Mexican street dogs, at Hamburguesas el Gordo in south Minneapolis.
For me, the most impressive local wiener mashup sits on the bottom of the menu at Kyatchi, the Japanese restaurant on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis, and at its newer Lowertown St. Paul location. That’s where executive chef Hide Tozawa and his team create subtle hot dog masterpieces that arrive plated like artwork alongside creamy Japanese potato salad.
“This restaurant has a baseball theme, so we wanted to have some sort of stadium food, which is hot dogs,” explained Tozawa, who grew up in Japan rooting for the Hanshin Tigers of the NPB. “But we decided to put like a Japanese twist on it.”
Kyatchi typically has four choices on the menu, and they change from month to month as Tozawa gives his cooks a challenge: design a delicious hot dog following specific rules that bring out the complex tensions inherent in a frankfurter.
“When I let the cooks create some new hot dogs, I give them rules: You can only use up to three ingredients, and you can’t double up the protein, because it feels unhealthy,” Tozawa says.
As a result, Kyatchi’s hot dogs are never lathered with bacon or ground beef, and instead display a variety and elegance usually reserved for sushi rolls. They use oversized buns from French Meadow Bakery that offer an ample canvas for elaborate toppings like soba noodles, egg salad, avocado, or shishito peppers.
I loved the Yakisoba dog (their most popular), where savory flavor oozed from soba noodles surrounding a crisped Limousin beef wiener from Peterson’s, a butcher out by Osceola. On the other hand, the avocado and egg dog had a wildly different flavor and texture, where the sausage was almost lost in the creaminess.
“It looks so simple, but if you keep making it you realize it’s so hard to change it every week,” admitted Tozawa, who curates the menus at both Kyatchi locations.
The Ever-Changing Dog Menu
If you want to throw the rules out the window, the metro’s wildest display of hot dog creativity is in Tilt Pinball Bar in Minneapolis’ Whittier neighborhood. Here, wiener ideas erupt from the back kitchen like mustard from a squeeze bottle.
There are a dozen different dogs on the ever-changing menu, and bellying up to the bar at the back of the dark, deafening room, one can easily get lost in the flavor combinations.
“The pinball concept came first,” says Carrie McCabe-Johnston, who co-owns Tilt (along with Nightingale, Dusty’s, and Mortimer’s, which together form a bar-food empire down the spine of Minneapolis). “Hot dogs seem to fit the bill in terms of ease and accessibility. And they’re a blank canvas. For the consumer, it’s a really easy thing to grab and eat. But you’re there focusing on the game.”
I should point out that Tilt is also crammed full of pinball machines, flashing and blinking in the dim light like an alien invasion. The sounds of a thousand bleeps and bells, and the constant mechanical slapping of pinball paddles as a dozen folks of all ages and backgrounds try to keep the balls alive, form the background for the creativity of the hot dog menu, where McCabe-Johnston and chef Ben Westerberg keep gamers guessing about what’s coming down the pipe.
“There are the hot dog classics, but it’s mostly inspiration, coming up with dishes and daydreaming on things,” said McCabe-Johnston.
Not only is the hot dog menu gigantic, adventurous, and (with the build-your-own feature) customizable, but it’s often in a state of flux. Last October, there was a rotating hot dog special based on famous monsters, and November featured hot dogs inspired by soups. (Picture the beer cheese soup dog or the veggie curry dog.)
Personally, I was not that into the Boss Lady, a dog topped with kraut, caraway mustard, and beacon mushrooms; the vinegar sweetness of the mushrooms and kraut overwhelmed everything else on the bun. My favorite was the OGB (stands for onion, gruyere, and bacon), which, between the melted cheese and the crunchy bacon bits, nailed a balance of texture and flavor.
“It’s been working well,” McCabe-Johnston told me. “People have found their favorites and keep coming back. It’s far from being too high-end. It’s a hot dog. [I] never wanted to use the term ‘gourmet’ with it; we’re not reinventing the wheel or doing anything extraordinary. Just making delicious food.”
New Dog City
Sure, the Twin Cities are not proper hot dog cities, where hot dogs have taken on a mythological quality and people make pilgrimages to wiener meccas like Gray’s Papaya in New York, Lafayette Coney in Detroit, or the Wiener’s Circle in Chicago. Here, the hot dog will likely always take a backseat to the Juicy Lucy. Maybe even the cream cheese wonton.
But the hot dog underground remains, where people have mastered the subtleties of the grill and keep their buns fresh. You can find it at stalwart diners like the Wienery on Cedar Avenue, Chicago's Taste Authority on East 42nd Street, and Cecil’s Deli in St. Paul’s Highland Park—joints that have kept traditions alive for decades. Our lack of vernacular staples might be a blessing in disguise, because hot dog chefs aren’t wedded to stifling tradition.
We’ve got permission to experiment with new ideas, to toss some tater tots or kimchi in there and see if it sticks. Do it right, balance the simplicity and complexity of the perfect hot dog, and the Twin Cities might take its place in the pantheon of hot dog geography. Here’s hoping.