As spring advances, hot dogs get increasingly delicious. They evoke street vendors, ball games, and grill-outs, and, as the temperature starts its creeping climb toward "habitable," the idea of sinking your teeth into a frankfurter gets a lot more appealing.
Accompanied by a friend and fellow dog aficionado, I headed out to five of the area's most dog-oriented eateries, four of which are in Minneapolis: Chris and Rob's Chicago Taste Authority (3101 E. 42nd St.), the Wienery (414 Cedar Ave. S.), Bulldog Northeast (401 E. Hennepin Ave.), Franks a Million (330 Second Ave. S., #218), and the new Plymouth location of Uncle Franky's (55 & Revere, 10160 Sixth Ave. N.).
Although most places offer a variety of dogs, we settled on Chicago dogs as an apples-to-apples way to size up the field. With its pickle, mustard, tomato, relish, onion, spicy sport peppers, and celery salt, the Chicago dog represents a challenge for a would-be hot dogger. Unlike a chili dog (wherein chili overwhelms the bun and dog), a good Chicago dog requires a pitch-perfect balance between a variety of fresh toppings, the bun, and the dog itself. Cheap dog? The best toppings in the world can't save your overall package. Too big a bun? You lose flavor impact. Weak sport peppers? Bland experience. Nasty relish? Nasty aftertaste.
The first adjective that jumps to mind after trying the Wienery's Chicago dog ($2.50) is "fresh," a word that's out of line with the humble joint's smudged-up mirrors and rummage-sale decor. The bun-to-pickle-to-dog ratio was spot-on, and the onions, tomato, and relish tasted bright and lively.
If the Wienery's dog embodies the holy trinity of bun, dog, and toppings, the Chicago dog at Franks a Million ($3) is the anti-Christ. Sickly sweet relish, a low-grade, lightweight dog, and a soggy bun—a soggy damn bun!—parked the Franks a Million version at the bottom of the pile.
The Chicago dog at Chris and Rob's Chicago Taste Authority ($2.59) is markedly better than Franks a Million, but not as good as you would hope from a place with "authority" featured so prominently in its title. A huge piece of pickle meant that the experience was like eating a pickle dog with a frankfurter on the side, and the blizzard of celery salt on top was lip-smackingly overwhelming. It's a basically good dog, but it needs fine-tuning.
The Chicago dog at Bulldog NE ($5) could use a little tweaking, too. It's a massive pile of toppings on a small but excellent frank. The dog gets a little lost, but it's not as though anything's wanting for quality. The Bulldog promises and delivers high-quality stuff, and charges accordingly.
Saving one of the two best for last: Uncle Franky's delivers a fat, almost sweet Vienna Beef dog ($3.25) with an appropriately plush bun, a great topping-to-dog ratio, spicy peppers, surprisingly tasty fluorescent green relish, and an overall harmony that should be the envy of anyone in the business. Apparently word travels fast—on a Friday afternoon in March, business was riotous. It's not quite crocuses, but it's close enough.