By GARY MARX
The Kansas City Star
My teeth sliced through the bun and punctured the tender thin skin, and warm juices streamed into my mouth with bits of onion and the sweet tang of mustard. I almost lost consciousness.
I was a kid, and that was my first experience with a Chicago-style hot dog. My brother gave me an elbow and handed me a napkin.
“Here,” he said. “You’re drooling.”
One bite. And I knew why God gave us appetites.
Nowadays I make it to Chicago about once a year — the last time for the Royals opener against the White Sox — and when I’m within 100 miles of the ballpark, I start getting hungry. It’s uncanny. My truck knows the way. I don’t even have to steer; I just check the glove box for napkins and work the brake.
Chicago is the capital of the Wiener Republic, and you really can’t get a bad dog in the city. That’s because there are standards. There’s an unwritten law that governs how hot dogs are served. Actually, it IS written, and you can find it on countless menus, Web sites and subway walls. Here it is:
Chicago hot dogs are all-beef wieners served on a steamed poppy-seed bun and dressed with yellow mustard, neon green relish, chopped onion, two small wedges of tomato, a pickle spear, one or two sport peppers and a dash of celery salt.
Simple and delicious, simply delicious.
There are variations — plain buns are permissible, for instance — but there is one constant: You never put ketchup on a hot dog. Don’t even try. As a matter of fact, there has been a book written about it. It’s called, get this, “Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog.” It was written by Bob Schwartz, the vice president of Vienna Beef Co., which makes the best wieners on the planet.
Anyway, while I was in Chicago immersed in baseball and hot dogs, I started wondering if I could find a Chicago-style hot dog somewhere back home in KC.
So I asked around, consulted Mr. Google and drove down streets looking for the familiar yellow Vienna all-beef hot dog signs.
And I came to this conclusion: Kansas City is not a hot dog town. We may have the best barbecue in North America, but when it comes to hot dogs, we don’t pass mustard.
There used to be a place called Relish in Westport, and a little walk-up window on 39th Street, Zahm’s in Merriam and some joint on Santa Fe in Overland Park. But they’re all gone. Kaput. If there’s a Chicago-style hot dog stand in the metro, it must be hiding pretty well.
Undaunted, however, I decided to do some sampling around town. I hit a few grills and pubs, and I’m here to tell you that there are plenty of tasty dogs in Cowtown, including one that comes close to Chicago style. And I discovered that this town has put its own stamp on the hot dog.
I came across something called the Kansas City-style hot dog (which comes with sauerkraut and melted cheese, which is why I didn’t try it), but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about homegrown wieners, a style of serving them and reasonable prices. And the best thing: You don’t have to drive to Chicago to get one.
Here are my recommendations:
1624 W. 39th St.
Oh, this place comes close to Chicago style! It serves Best’s kosher hot dog, which is a Vienna competitor, juicy and plump. This place was the only restaurant I found to stock sport peppers, hot little numbers about 2 inches long. Extra points for that, boys. But there weren’t any tomatoes, and the guy behind the counter almost made a grievous mistake. I caught him about to squeeze ketchup on my dog. “Stop!” I shouted, and spared him bodily harm. Jeesh.
Price: $2.20, includes tax.
Westport Flea Market Bar & Grill
817 Westport Road
I figured the place that purportedly has the best hamburger in Kansas City might also have a quality dog. I love this joint. The menu touts Fritz’s smoked hot dog, and it really was tasty. But it was also weird. It was sliced lengthwise and splayed open like a butterfly. What’s with that? Anyway, it came on a soft hoagie bun with or without kraut (no thank you). Grace Potter was singing through the speakers, “Somebody fix me, fix me head to toe …,” which seemed appropriate as I waited for my order at the condiment stand.
Coach’s Bar & Grill
414 W. 103rd St.
The menu offers a dog “for the purist.” “Nothing reminds you of the game like this classic,” the menu says about the Dawg. I ordered tomatoes, onion and pickles, and they came all diced up like chow-chow in the basket of fries. Strange. And the hot dog, check this out, was again splayed open like a butterfly. Was this a trend? The dog, though, was delish. It was a knockwurst from Fritz’s Superior Meat Co. out of Leawood, I was told. Fritz’s, hmm…
Price: $7.49 (includes fries).
250 N. 18th St.
Kansas City, Kan.
There was a Fritz’s smoked dog at the Westport Flea Market and a Fritz’s knockwurst at Coach’s. … I was oddly drawn to this joint. Turns out it’s not related to Fritz’s Superior Meat Co. The dog was OK and came to my table via a miniature railroad overhead. Cute, for the kids, I mean. There are several dogs on the menu known for hamburgers, some of which come on inappropriately round buns, others on hoagies. I got the hoagie one. It came sliced in half and, again, splayed open like a butterfly. It IS a trend! And I gotta say I don’t like it. The hot dog experience, you see, is about form AND function. So not only does it have to taste like a hot dog, it has to look like one.
Fritz’s Superior Meat Co.
10326 State Line Road,
All right, I finally took it to the source. These guys make about 15 different sausages, owner Rob Reeves said, and they supply restaurants and grocery stores all over the metro. At lunch time, though, they serve smoked sausage sandwiches over the counter. You can get a knockwurst or an all-beef wiener for $2.50, and there are daily specials, too. The condiments are slim, but if all you want is mustard, you’re in business. For some reason, they’ve also set out a big jar of kraut.
And no ketchup. Got that right.
Price: Two dogs, $4, Wednesday special.
The quality of the hot dog experience is relative to the setting. It’s about the smells, the sounds, the taste. And it’s hard to beat a hot dog at the old ballpark.
The Royals open a weeklong home stand tonight, and the T-Bones’ home opener is Friday. So, get your tickets and get your dogs, people. It’s time to play ball.
Gary Marx, who hasn’t abandoned his search for the perfect hot dog, can be reached at 816-234-4793 or firstname.lastname@example.org.