Best Bites with Robin Goldstein: Gone to hot dog heaven

  • The writer and his nephew Azai, 7, on the trail of the classic frankfurter. FOR THE GAZETTE/ROBIN GOLDSTEIN

  • Robin Goldstein and his nephew Azai, 7, sampled the hot dogs at four spots throughout the region for this report. FOR THE GAZETTE/ROBIN GOLDSTEIN

  • Robin Goldstein’s nephew Azai, 7, favors an unadorned dog. Robin Goldstein

Published: 5/20/2022 5:54:13 PM

If there’s anything more American than the hot dog, it’s Little League baseball. My 7-year-old nephew Azai just started playing Little League, as I did around his age.

He’s still learning the fundamentals, but it’s already easy to tell that Azai (unlike me) has got a rocket for a bat and a laser for an arm. This year he’s in the “coach-pitch” division, but when he moves up to the kid-pitch level, the rest of the league — even the swashbuckling sluggers of Tandem Bagel — had better watch out for his high heat. This is my unbiased opinion. 

 

Little League Snack Shack

Azai plays ball for the Peak Performance Roofing team in Pavilion 3 of Easthampton’s Nonotuck Park. About 25 feet from his baseball field, there’s a snack bar that must have the youngest clientele of any food service establishment in the Pioneer Valley.

It’s a counter-service pavilion called the Little League Snack Shack at the Hub, run by the Easthampton Little League, where friendly adults graciously volunteer their time to serve treats to kids — and anyone else who comes by. It’s open Monday to Friday from 5:15 to 7:30 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., from April 30 to June 18, and then sporadically after that for tournaments.

You won’t find these hours, or any other trace of the Snack Shack, on Google Local, so this is some solid-gold intel right here.

At the Little League Snack Shack, throngs of Little Leaguers, after their hard-fought battles on the diamond, line up for post-game treats — mostly ice cream, candy and popcorn, but also hot dogs. The average customer is a first to third grader in a ball cap or batting helmet and team T-shirt in blazing red or blue, with a bunch of quarters or a couple of dollar bills in their hand.

In my last column, I talked about high prices at restaurants. The Little League Snack Shack, for a few moments, will make you forget about inflation. For a good fresh cup of hot coffee with milk, they charge $1 (cash only). The most expensive and most popular item on the Little League Snack Shack menu is a big, satisfying bag of classic popcorn ($3). The hot dog ($2.50) is second-most expensive, but Azai and I agree that it’s the most delicious.

The Little League Snack Shack dog is made with a beef-pork blend from Kayem, steamed in an old-fashioned steamer. The white-bread bun is straightforward and uncooked. Packets of mustard, relish and ketchup are available at a plastic table next to the ordering counter.

This may be the most traditional ready-to-eat hot dog you can find in Massachusetts outside of Fenway Park. It’s on the small side, but I dare you to find a more satisfying lunch for $5 for two of them.

For kids with smaller allowances, the Little League Snack Shack thoughtfully includes some cheaper alternatives to the high-ticket items. Azai told me that one go-to for him and his teammates is the ring pop (50 cents). Until Azai and I began our hot-dog hunting expedition here, he hadn’t even tried the dog. But when he did, he was all in. He loved it. So did I.

A note on hot dog history. Every region of Germany and Austria has its own trademark sausages. The U.S. hot dog’s closest European relatives come from Frankfurt (Frankfurter wurst, created in the 1400s) and Vienna (Wiener wurst). Immigrants from these places reportedly started selling hot dogs in New York in the 1860s. The buns were originally an innovation to prevent the hand from burning. For obvious reasons, given their Germanic origins, these sausages in buns were soon nicknamed “hot dogs” after Dachshunds.

Hot dogs didn’t really take off in America until 1915, when Nathan Handwerker, a Polish Jew, started hawking them at a Coney Island stand that quickly got famous. The opening price for Nathan’s hot dogs was 5 cents ($1.42 in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars — more than a buck cheaper than the Little League Snack Shack — now only Costco competes at $1.50, while Nathan’s charges $6).

In 1939, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt served grilled hot dogs to King George VI of England, and the King asked for seconds. In more recent years, Chicago has emerged as hot-dog heaven. My favorite place for hot dogs in Chicago is the wonderfully named Weiner’s Circle, but Chicago’s great Steve Ziliak, Roosevelt University economic historian extraordinare, favors Superdawg, Devil Dogs, and the Lincoln Park Zoo.

The Chicago-style hot dog is a breed of its own. The classic toppings are a long pickle spear, tomato wedges, sport peppers (mild chiles), chopped raw onions, bright yellow mustard, radioactive-green relish, and celery salt. Professor Ziliak adds that an authentic Chicago hot dog must be made from kosher Vienna beef that’s charred to an outer crunch (but not burned) on a pan or grill, and must be served on a slightly warmed poppy seed bun.

 

Tom’s FamousLong Hot Dogs

Tom’s Long Hot Dogs, barely a mile over the Whately border if you’re driving up Route 5 from North Hatfield, is the only place I know of for miles in any direction that attempts a Chicago dog. By anyone’s standards but Ziliak’s, it’s a mostly faithful version of the recipe, and it’s eminently devourable.

Tom’s has been around since 1954, and as advertised, their hot dog is 10 inches long — at least 50% longer, albeit a bit thinner, than any other hot dog in the area except maybe the Deck. It’s a steamed pork-and-beef dog from Grote & Weigel. The most popular order is one with the works: mustard, relish and chopped onions.

Since COVID started, Tom’s has been routinely burying the toppings between dog and bun, rather than piling them on top. This interesting innovation may withstand the test of time, particularly when you’re getting wrapped-up takeout or eating with kids, because the toppings (or, really, bottomings) are nestled in there and can’t fall out. But if you prefer, you can ask at the Tom’s counter to get the toppings on top. The choice is yours.

My favorite thing at Tom’s is the chili and cheese dog, which you can get with or without bacon. I don’t know if they eat this way in Chicago, and I don’t care. It’s a whole lot of flavor for less than $5: the melted American cheese and vintage 1950s-style beef-and-bean chili meld together into an indulgent Tex-Mex spread on the toasted white bun. May this classic American flavor live forever.

Tom’s also serves up a wide variety of classic burgers, shakes and fries; hosts classic-car shows with DJs every Friday early evening; and has a fantastic photo-op set-up where Azai could get behind a big, colorfully painted board and pose as a dancing hot dog.

Azai enjoyed the length and overall flavor of the Tom’s dog, which he sampled plain, as always. He rated it “pretty good.” But he didn’t try the Chicago dog.

Se7ens

Azai and I stopped in downtown Easthampton at Se7ens, a sports bar that caters to anyone and everyone, with the most loving waitstaff in town. There are two no-frills rooms centered on a bar that serves both sides. There are people having fun night and day.

Walk in there and you’re immediate family. I wish there were more vibes like this still around. Bloody Marys are right on the money, they make a mean burger, and it’s a fun and lively spot to take in any major sporting event.

To my taste, the hot dogs at Se7ens are as good as any in the Pioneer Valley. The buns are buttered and griddled to a golden brown. The dogs are butterflied (split) for even cooking and charred on the outside in a way that Professor Ziliak would deeply admire.

The result is an ideal matchup of crispy and juicy textures. They’re also served in an adorable red-and-white checkered basket and a classic accompaniment: Lay’s potato chips.

Azai gave a solid thumbs-up to the hot dog, loved the bun, and ravaged the chips.

 

Local Burger

Our last of four stops was Local Burger, a bustling counter-service nerve center done up in an all-out white-and-black-checkered theme on the corner of Main Street and Strong Avenue in downtown Northampton. Local Burger is one of the participants (along with Homestead, Eastside, Particulars, Tunnel Bar and Progression Brewing) in the Summer on Strong outdoor dining block and one of the latest-night dining options in town.

It’s a place best known for its juicy, locally sourced beef burgers. But we were here to try hot dogs.

At Local Burger, Azai and I had our most in-depth discussion of the similarities and differences between our tastes in hot-dog style. When it comes to hot dogs, Azai is a purist, a 19th-century man. He eats his dogs without any condiments. He sometimes prefers them with a bun, sometimes without, but either way he enjoys the dog without frills or distractions.

I, on the other hand, like tricked-out dogs covered with all sorts of crunchy, moist, spicy and sour stuff that drowns out the underlying beef and/or pork flavor and turns the meat into a mere platform for a pompous parade of toppings.

For our controlled experiment, Azai and I tried the Local Burger hot dog plain. We first agreed that the bun was just OK, nicely toasted but unbuttered and ungriddled. But the flavor of the crispily griddled International Hebrew Dog beef was divisive.

It was smoky — as smoky as a Texas BBQ sausage, which I love, but which Azai doesn’t even think of as a hot dog. With his belly already full of three other half hot dogs, he shrugged and still got through it, but with a lot of willing help from me.

As I swooned over the smokiness of the Local Burger dog, Azai wistfully longed for the traditional dog at the Little League Snack Shack. He declared that after a long afternoon of tasting, that one was still his favorite.

Azai’s got nothing to prove with his food opinions, no pretense, no interest in showing off sophisticated tastes. He faithfully observes and reports on the signals from his belly to his brain. I try, and too often fail, to eat like this too, to remember that the taste’s the thing, to remember how great it is when some of the cheapest foods of all are also the best.

Robin Goldstein is the author of “The Menu: Restaurant Guide to Northampton, Amherst, and the Five-College Area.” He serves remotely on the agricultural economics faculty of the University of California, Davis. He can be reached at rgoldstein@ucdavis.edu.
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