As I bite into the Chicago-style dog at James Coney Island, the natural casing on the all-beef frank squeaks and pops, the sport pepper bursts, releasing a dose of spicy vinegar, and the briny dill spear crunches. Three separate flavor explosions -- and that's just the first bite. This is the best hot dog I've had in Houston.
When I first moved here a little over two years ago, I went to the Meyerland JCI location and ordered a cheese coney, the chain's signature hot dog. It's a squishy wiener on a white-bread bun topped with mild chili gravy, chopped onions and cheese. There's something about the JCI cheese coney that reminds me of an old-fashioned cheese enchilada. The flabby wiener, bland chili gravy, gooey cheese and too-soft Mrs Baird's all melt together in a nostalgic mush.
But while I was slurping my cheese coney, I was shocked to notice a Vienna Beef logo on the menu board. Certainly the wiener in my cheese coney wasn't made by Vienna Beef. Vienna Beef manufactures natural-casing franks in Chicago; in fact, it makes the Chicago hot dog. The cashier explained that along with cheese coneys, James Coney Island also sells Chicago-style dogs. I vowed to return and eat one soon. I've been back innumerable times since, and I've even brought some visitors.
Although I spent a lot of time on the East Coast eating Nathan's Coney Island dogs and Sabrett's street vendor specials, I have always acknowledged the superiority of Chicago when it comes to hot dogs. You just can't beat the wild combination of all-beef, natural-casing franks, steamed poppy-seed rolls and the salad bar of condiments.
In 1999, I flew up to Chicago to do a story about hot dogs for an airline magazine. I had imagined writing about quirky Chicago dog stands and the differences in flavor at each one. Only there weren't any differences. Everywhere I went, the hot dogs tasted exactly the same. Every detail, from the bun to the mustard, was identical. That was when I first learned about the role of Vienna Beef in the Chicago hot dog business.
Vienna Beef began outfitting street vendors at the turn of the century. They leased out carts complete with dogs, buns and condiments. The franks were kosher and so were the pickles, as Vienna Beef was a kosher meat packer. Eventually the Vienna Beef-issued wieners, buns and condiments became the standard for the whole city.
"Adding tomatoes, pickles, onions and all to a hot dog, we call that 'dragging it through the garden,' " said Bob Schwartz, Vienna Beef's vice president of sales, when I visited company headquarters in Chicago. "It goes back to the depression era. In those days, street vendors sold hot dogs for five cents. Customers who were trying to stretch their five cents into a full meal wanted every topping available. Pickle spears, tomatoes and the rest were standard on the hot dog carts of the 1930s, so they became a part of the formula."
The company that dictated the architectural plans of the Chicago hot dog continues to sell all the building supplies. Of the 2,000 or so hot dog stands in Chicago today, more than 80 percent display the bright yellow and red Vienna Beef logo on their signs. This means that Vienna Beef supplies not just their wieners but all of their condiments as well. The same is true for James Coney Island in Houston. The tomatoes and onions are bought fresh, but the mustard, the Astroturf-green relish, the kosher pickle spear, the sport peppers and even the celery salt sprinkled over the top all come from bottles and jars that bear the Vienna Beef name. The poppy-seed bun is distributed by Vienna Beef and custom-made by Chicago's Mary Ann Bakery.
"I'm from Chicago, and I'm picky about my hot dogs," a friend sniffed when I asked him if he had been to James Coney Island lately. He didn't know that the Chicago-style hot dogs at JCI are identical to the ones served at the best hot dog stands in the Windy City. Even after I explained the Vienna Beef connection, he still docked JCI several style points for ambiance.
Chicagoans love quirky hot dog havens like Wiener's Circle, where the guy taking your order spouts obscenities if you take too long, or the Superdawg Drive-In, whose roof is adorned with a hot dog superhero with red light-bulb eyes. Granted, the Windy City joints have it all over the James Coney Island locations when it comes to character. It's not that there's anything wrong with JCI's atmosphere; the chain has done a reasonable job of interior decoration, with shiny tiles and neon signs. But while the newspaper clippings hanging on the walls give you a sense of the Houston hot dog chain's colorful history, they also make you acutely aware of what's missing.
According to the stories and photos, James Coney Island's famous Walker Street location was known for a fast-paced comedy routine performed by a bunch of funnymen in black ties and white paper hats. And founder Jimmy Papadakis was the king of cracking wise in the old days. Once upon a time, Houston's James Coney Island was every bit as quirky as Chicago's Wiener's Circle, but the personality has evaporated. Try to engage the guy behind the counter at James Coney Island's flagship Westheimer location in a little snappy dialogue, and all you'll get is a blank stare.
Since 1957, July has been National Hot Dog Month. But per-capita consumption of hot dogs has fallen since then. Hot dogs aren't as common in restaurants as they used to be. And while you still find them in ballparks, you find sushi, sandwiches and burgers there, too.
I asked Vienna Beef's Schwartz about hot dog sales trends. "We're eating a tad less nationally than we used to, but the quality is improving," he says. "It's just like ice cream. I don't eat as much ice cream as I used to, but when I do, I buy a pint of the good stuff, like Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia. It's the same with hot dogs. The category is flat nationwide, but Vienna Beef is doing well."
Vienna Beef franks, the Ben & Jerry's of hot dogs, were first added to the menu at James Coney Island in November 1995. You can choose between a regular and jumbo dog, a Polish sausage and a jumbo jalapeño dog (known in Chicago as a Firedog). JCI's original coney, the only hot dog on the menu during the chain's first 71 years, is custom-manufactured for James Coney Island by Kent Foods. JCI also carries a Healthy Choice low-fat hot dog made by ConAgra.
In an unscientific blind tasting, my daughter Julia preferred the Healthy Choice hot dog to the original coney, both of which were served on a bun with mustard and onions. She said the low-fat dog tasted juicier, but she quickly added that neither was as good as the Vienna Beef dog.
We also sampled the Vienna Beef jumbo, Polish and jalapeño dogs -- all Chicago-style. The higher meat-to- condiment ratio balanced out the sandwich better in these jumbo versions, but none of them had quite as satisfying a natural-casing explosion as the regular-size Vienna Beef hot dogs -- which we tried Chicago-, New York- and Texas-style. The New York-style dog came with mustard and sauerkraut. Though my daughter and I both worship sauerkraut, there was too much of a good thing in this case; you could barely find the hot dog. Likewise, the Texas-style dog was lost in the chili, cheese and onions. Both tasted good. But neither was any competition for the Chicago dog crowned with tomatoes, pickles, peppers and onions.
If you grew up on cheese coneys at James Coney Island, the Chicago-style hot dog looks a little weird, no doubt. But if you've never had one, you owe it to yourself to try this American classic -- especially now that you don't have to fly to O'Hare to get one.
But don't be tempted to alter the recipe. When they ask you what you want on it, just remember what the Zen Buddhist said to the hot dog vendor: "Make me one with everything."
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.