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The Wurst of Buffalo

An appreciation of the humble hot dog

The hot dog is, arguably, the quintessential American summer food. Before moving to Buffalo, I ate them seldom, and at summer cookouts was more likely to choose a hamburger. But they’re different out here—almost a food group unto themselves.

The Western New York hot dog scene, as it were, is very nearly an embarrassment of riches. Where I grew up, there was not even one single hot dog stand. I would have to go to a convenience store equipped with a weenie roller if I wanted a hot dog I didn’t boil on the stove myself. Around here, you can not only decide you want to go out for dogs, but you can decide what kind of hot-dog-related experience you would prefer to have.

Charcoal-grilling to order at numerous locations (including one in Tempe, Arizona), Ted’s is a standout for its onion rings: homemade, hand-cut onion rings, different from any you’d find elsewhere. The charcoal grilling gives their dogs a nice, distinctive flavor I can’t get at home on my gas grill, and their efficient assembly-line setup is fun to watch. They’ve got other menu items, mostly featuring things that can be prepared on a charcoal grill. Their “everything” includes a tomato-based hot sauce, pickles, mustard, and onions—no Greek sauce, but they will put chili and cheese on a dog for you. I admit I frequent their Sheridan Avenue location not only for its comfortable patio but also for its proximity to Anderson’s original location—the other staple of the summer diet in Buffalo being ice cream. Not that Ted’s doesn’t offer competent milkshakes of its own, of course, but that’s a different story. Summer eating isn’t all about one-stop shopping.

Another charcoal-grilled-to-order joint, Louie’s Original Footlong’s claim to fame is inventing the footlong. The titular Louie himself came up with the idea of the longer hot dog and had to present it to several different meat-packers before he found one who would work with him. Now everyone offers them, but the restaurant’s signage indicates they’re proud of having been the first. Overall, the setup is similar to Ted’s, but with different offerings from the deep-fryer: a choice of straight or curly-cut fries, or sweet potatoes, or potato “buttons.” The menu is enormous, covering a sizable wall at their charmingly rickety Sheridan Avenue location—burgers, all-beef dogs, all-pork dogs, grilled chicken offerings, and interestingly, a fairly wide assortment of vegetarian offerings. Louie’s falls loosely into the “Greek” category, in that “everything” on their dogs includes the Greek-style meat sauce. Their version is only a little bit spicy, with more of a sweet flavor to it.

Not to be confused with the above is the other Louie’s—Louie’s Texas Red Hots. This one is an all-night joint, more of a diner than a hot dog stand. Alone among the offerings listed here, you can either get takeout or sit at the counter and get waitress service; the others all put your food on a tray, and you take it to a table yourself if you’re dining in. Like the other Louie’s, this joint’s “everything” includes a meat sauce—a nice, spirited, spicy one, which they’ll put onto French fries, if you like. Unlike the other Louie’s, however, they grill their dogs on a standard diner griddle setup, resulting in a less crunchy product and a less smoky environment. These are classic Greek diner hot dogs, and the all-night setting—and, in my case, the place’s location between downtown and my house—makes it the perfect destination after a night out.

University Hots occupies a similar niche, offering food at a variety of hours in a neighborhood adjacent to the nightlife. University Hots is, as far as I can tell, a pretty direct homage to Rochester’s famous Nick Tahou’s, offering “college plates” that consist of the same principle as the Rochesterian “garbage plates.” For the uninitiated, the “college plate” consists of a generous bed of side dishes, usually macaroni salad and home fries or French fries, with a couple of hot dogs or hamburger patties laid atop the pile, topped with mustard, Greek meat sauce, onions, and, less traditionally, ketchup. The innovative University Hots has come up with the idea of adding chicken fingers, too. This may not sound very appealing, but consider it again the next time you are good and drunk, and you may get a better idea of the appeal. It is the perfect thing to soak up about a dozen cheap beers. You also can get just a hot dog, which is why I include the place in this round-up.

Sometimes it is just a gorgeous day and you want to go somewhere pretty, take a nice walk, enjoy the weather, and eat a hot dog. And that is when you must go to Old Man River. Across the road from Niawanda Park, Old Man River was the joint that inspired my musings on hot dogs. They do not simply serve hot dogs, they serve different hot dog experiences. You can get a hot dog Chicago-style—an all-beef jumbo on a poppy seed bun with specialty relish in a violent shade of teal, topped with celery seeds. You can get a “Dog In Heat,” featuring pickled jalapenos. Every time we go to Old Man River we wind up sitting out front, admiring the scenery and kicking around a mad idea to take a road trip across the country and write a book about all the different kinds of hot dogs you can get. Well, except the times we go in the evenings, when, it’s worth mentioning, the seafood shack in back is open: Unlike any of the other joints mentioned in this article, Old Man River’s seafood shack has a liquor license, and serves beer. A hot dog and a beer and the scenery—could you ask for a better summer evening? To complete the experience, you can go for a walk along the park’s riverfront path, and then climb back up across the street and hit Mississippi Mudd’s for a sundae. Mudd’s sells food as well, quite competently, and Old Man River sells ice cream, but as I said before, it’s far more fun to prolong the experience. It’s a good excuse to linger by the gorgeous view, do some people-watching, count the boats, watch the sunset. Buffalo has beautiful summers. What better way to enjoy them than with well-prepared fast food, eaten at leisure?

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