The Hot Dog Scale

This article is about an important topic in “real” baseball. As many of you know, with baseball being both my hobby and my job, I manage to maintain my fandom by compartmentalizing fantasy analysis and the real game, and working hard to keep them separate. That means, for the past 31 years, whenever I set foot into a ballpark, it is as a fan.

As a baseball fan, all that matters to me are taking in the sun, rooting for the home team, beer and hot dogs (yes, rooting for beer and hot dogs is correct). It’s how I grew up, in the $1.30 upper deck seats at Shea Stadium, and how I feed my fandom now.

I enjoy seeing different parks. My report card is nothing special compared to some people, but I have been to 19 current major league parks, six MLB parks no longer in existence, and probably about 20 minor league parks from Triple-A down to the Appalachian League. However, no matter where I am, it all comes down to the four core pleasures: sun, rooting, beer and dogs.

With the sun, it’s either there or it isn’t; I have no control over that. Rooting takes on many different forms, depending upon who is playing; I can root for a team, or specific players, or I can just root for a good game. Beer is beer, I’m afraid. I know what I like, and hopefully there is enough variety for me to find something cold on a hot day.

But when it comes to hot dogs, I hate to admit that I’ve become a bit of a snob. There are ways to prepare and dress the perfect frankfurter, and there are ways not to do it. Frankly (ha!), a single dog can make or break the entire ballpark experience.

Now, I am not an extreme elitist. I know that there are gourmet dogs garnished with everything from jalapeno cream cheese to corn chutney to poutine. I love those in the appropriate venue. But we’re talking about ballpark dogs, after all. These are our culture’s blue collar brats. Still, there are certain standards that must be maintained. Every concessionaire that exceeds the standards earns points in my book. It’s really not that hard.

In fact, I have developed a scoring system. (You’re not surprised, right?)

The Bun

The foundation starts here. The best bun I ever had was at a small standalone shack in Railroad Square, Nashua NH (sadly, no longer there – the shack, Nashua still exists). It was made with egg-enriched dough and freshly baked on the premises. Yes, it was not at a ballpark, but there is no reason an innovative concessionaire could not upgrade to a similar level. So let’s score it out this way:

+5        Doughy fresh like it was baked this morning
+3        Fresh, but nobody seems to know when it was baked (ask!)
+1        Was probably fresh once.
-5        If there is even one stale spot, we’re done

Dog Composition

This mostly comes down to taste. The beefier the better, but the taste of some dogs is clearly dulled down with fillers. I can’t describe it any other way but I know it when I taste it.

+5        Big, bold and beefy (it’s “big” if the sign says “Jumbo”)
+4        Beefy, of more average heft (but size isn’t everything)
0         Any sized bland brat (cheap meat)
-5        Odd color, odd taste, you have no idea what toxic sludge it’s been soaking in

Dog Preparation

This is actually more important than the dog composition because even the best-constructed frankfurter will be left lifeless if it’s cooked improperly.

+10      Split-and fire-grilled (sliced length-wise and cooked over an open flame)
+8       Fire-grilled
+7       Split-grilled (sliced length-wise and cooked face down on a grill)

Why are the above prep methods so great? The char covers a greater square footage and adds immense flavor. Sadly, these are all tough to find.

+5       Grilled (pretty much standard in most parks)
+1       Boiled (+1 only because the dog is served hot. Otherwise, ugh.)

-2       if the dog is served pre-wrapped.
Pre-wrapping the dog is an insidious practice intended to conceal the all-important prep. Was the dog cooked this morning, or last Tuesday? If a concessionaire stockpiles wrapped dogs in a warmer to keep up with demand, that just means he needs a bigger grill or more workers. This is not rocket science, people.

Toppings

This is where we separate the men from the boys. In the end, the toppings make the dog. The more offerings, the better, but there are some that are just…. yum. Admittedly, I have my own personal preferences, so feel free to adjust these scores to your own palate.

+1 each          Standard toppings: yellow mustard, sauerkraut, onions, relish
+2 each            Premium toppings: brown deli mustard, hot peppers, hot sauce, chili, cheese
+3 each            Mega-premium toppings: braised onions, cole slaw, local and ethnic toppings

+0                   Faux dog toppings: ketchup, barbecue sauce
Ketchup is a hamburger condiment and has no business being anywhere near a frankfurter. Similarly, barbecue sauce is terrific on chicken and pulled pork. Just because you walk past by the dispensers with a hot dog in your hand doesn’t mean you should sully your sausage with an unsuitable sauce.

-1 each             for each condiment that’s in a packet (that’s just unforgivable)

So, there you have it.

By means of setting a bar, here are the two best hot dogs I’ve had at any ballpark, and their scores:

CitiField, Flushing NY
Maybe I’m biased having grown up in New York, but they seem to do dogs right. The CitiField dog is average heft beef (+4) grilled (+5) on a fresh bun (+3) with all four standard toppings (+4) plus cheese (+2), brown deli mustard (+2) and braised onions (+3). Total score = 23. But wait…

Hunnicutt Field, Princeton WV
This was the oddest of places to find a great dog, but the Tampa Bay Rays affiliate in the Appalachian League takes great care with their franks (at least they did back in 2008 when I was last there). The Hunnicutt dog is (was?) average heft beef (+4) split-and-fire-grilled! (+10) on a doughy fresh bun (+5) with yellow mustard (+1), onions (+1), chili (+2) and cole slaw (+3). Total score = 26. Special kudos on the cole slaw as most establishments would not risk food borne illnesses by offering a mayonnaise-based topping on a hot summer day. Thankfully, this was a night game.

I recall thinking back then that sauerkraut and brown deli mustard would have made it a perfect experience. Yes, I remember this dog well as I wrote about it for BaseballHQ and was able to pull up that file from July 25, 2008. Yum.

In the end, the goal in hot dog scoring is 20 points. If an offering can’t reach or exceed 20, it’s just a dreary old dog, a workaday wiener, a bourgeois brat. Next month, I’ll be writing about a special ballpark tour I recently took (five parks in 46 hours) and grading the dogs, for your dining intelligence. In the meantime, I encourage you to score the dogs on your own ballpark visits, and sharing them below.

 

19 thoughts on “The Hot Dog Scale

  1. Al Nardi

    Ketchup on a dog ? NEVER EVER. (wonder if thats a New York thing 🙂 )

    1. Bret Adams

      Uh, no. Ketchup on a dog in NY is just as offensive as the rest of the country.

  2. david hinsdale

    Agreed, ban ketchup (or catsup) on all hot dogs.

  3. Randal Divinski

    Now we just need a system to project how good the dogs will be NEXT summer, as we plan our 2018 travel schedules…

  4. Patrick ONeill

    Thanks for sharing. I grew up going to Shea Stadium as well. Do you remember cutting the coupons off the back of milk cartons to get discount upper deck tickets? Even named one of my kids Shea.

    Pat

    1. shandler Post author

      I don’t recall those milk carton coupons specifically. But I never thought about those things. My buddies and I would cut out of the last few periods of class and walk to the park (it was about 2-3 miles) for many afternoon games. We’d pay our buck thirty, hang out in the nosebleed seats for a few innings, then sneak down to the box seats (which were, as I recall, about $5 back then).

      1. David Leonard

        I swear the reason I am lactose intolerant as an adult is because I intentionally drank so much milk (and cookies) one summer so the whole family could get the Borden milk tickets at Shea.

    2. mulberries-migraines

      I believe it was Bordens Milk and that was my entry to Shea during my youth.

  5. Angelo Abbate

    The best hot dog ever, Flos in Cape Neddick Maine. Opened in 1959. Get “The Loaded”

    1. shandler Post author

      Okay, I googled them, and the reviews are excellent. However… the “loaded” is just mustard, onions and relish (their own special recipe), and the dog is described as, “Steamed hot dogs with real casings that snap back at you when you bite into them!” (which denotes that it was boiled). It would not score well, unfortunately. I am, however, intrigued by their secret relish recipe.

  6. rickyv34

    Dang…now I’m hungry for a Miller Park bratwurst with lots of sauerkraut. I also agree on the ketchup ban.

  7. Joseph Carlucci

    5 guys split their dogs and face them down on the grill…not bad…

  8. Dave Dube

    I live mere minutes from Flo’s mentioned above, but have never experienced one of these dogs. It’s on the list! A favorite hot dog experience is Wasses in Rockland ME. Grilled in peanut oil gives the dog good flavor. The roll hasn’t made a big impact from memory and the toppings are standard. It may be a low 20-pointer. Check it out on your next Maine vacation.

    1. Gregory Pizzo

      I can vouch for Wasses in Rockland as a superior dog experience. The fries are good as well.

  9. Matthew Cederholm

    Some places are pretty uneven in their preparation. Good dogs and buns one day, but not the next. Seems like the scale needs a risk component…

  10. rickyv34

    If the scale needs a risk component then we also need to consider the unexpected…a bad dog putting you on the DL.

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