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The Anatomy of a Hot Dog

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A favorite childhood pastime consisted of playing hooky from school and hitting the gas station with my late father, where we’d grab two messy hot dogs each and devour them in his red Ford pickup truck, on the way to Wal-Mart. A no-frills hot dog topped with chili, onions, mustard and slaw, wrapped in thin paper, tossed in a white paper bag—perfectly smashed and not-too-soggy by consumption time—is my ideal.

A little backstory on the hot dog.

Hot dogs were brought to the U.S. by way of a German butcher immigrant who opened a hot dog stand on Coney Island in New York in 1871. By the time 1893 rolled around, hot dogs became a mainstream culinary staple at baseball games, as they pair very well with cold beer. 

Sometimes referred to as a “frank” or a “wiener,” named after its German heritage, the hot dog has become a true American delicacy. While New York and Chicago remain top geographical areas for hot dog consumption, the Triangle has its own hot dog scene.

Here’s where (and how) to eat them all summer long:

The Roast Grill

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Around since the 1940s, The Roast Grill remains a Raleigh institution and is best-known for its “burnt” hot dogs and strict ketchup ban. If ketchup is part of your personal condiment ammo, mini glass bottles of Heinz are available for purchase for $17.95. “Only four people have ever stormed out of here because of no ketchup,” says owner Hot Dog George Poniros. In fact, Poniros’ late Grandmother was set on tasting the flavor of the hot dog, so ketchup aside, don’t expect to find relish, kraut, cheese, fries or chips in the vicinity.  

I proceeded to order three hot dogs, all the way, one at a time, and Hot Dog George will remember my face forever. The ambiance alone is enough to draw in customers.  

Char-Grill

Char-Grill strictly uses bright red hot dogs from Carolina Packers, which draw in specific hot clientele. “I back Carolina Packers Brightleaf Hot Dogs over traditional dogs because they’re a bit spicier than normal hot dogs,” says Andrew Baker, a Raleigh resident and hot dog connoisseur. 

Baker grew up serving Brightleaf hot dogs in his parent’s restaurant, where his father often told customers that with enough mustard and chili on top, one won’t be able to tell the difference anyway. “Carolina Packers also make Red Hots, which are a stubbier, spicier version of regular Brightleafs—and I am not ashamed to admit I have eaten cold out of my refrigerator for a midnight snack.” Don’t skimp on the Cheerwine at Char-Grill, however, as it makes the experience that much more enjoyable. 

Cardinal Bar

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A newer staple to my personal hot dog trail is Cardinal Bar. When I learned Jason Howard was boiling hot dogs in beer and slathering Duke’s mayo in lieu of butter on buns for grilling purposes, I hightailed it to the spot, posted up at the bar and inhaled four hot dogs in one sitting. 

“Butter doesn’t caramelize on the bun, he notes. “A bun can make or break a hot dog,” he adds. “There is nothing worse than a soggy or over-steamed bun in my opinion.” As for the plausible bun, it’s a New England frankfurter bun (also referred to as a Lobster roll bun).  “How this bun hasn’t made it below the Mason Dixon line is beyond me—and up in New England they don’t toast it, which is equally beyond me.”

If you’re looking for a veggie dog, which is hard to come by (because what’s the point?), the Cardinal Bar’s version does taste like a real hot dog and it’s also boiled in beer. “Loma Linda, out of Nashville, North Carolina, is local and tenured,” says Howard. “These cats have been making plant-based foods since the 1890s and they come in a can soaking in a brine. That could be scary to some but they are by far the tastiest, with the best texture.”

Snoopy’s Hot Dogs

Snoopy’s has remained loyal to its true Eastern North Carolina style hot dog, consisting of mustard, onions and chili atop a steamed bun, while Cloos’ Coney Island features a true Chicago-style hot dog and their famous Coney dog, which to be honest is basically Eastern style. 

Sup Dogs

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If trying to please a group of different palates, Sup Dogs in Chapel Hill is the place to be. From classic chili and slaw dogs to more inventive versions ala Hawaii dog, with pineapple. Honey mustard and special Sup Dog sauce, there are no rules here. And ketchup is allowed at no extra charge. 

Back to the hot dog drawing board.

What constitutes a good hot dog? I suppose that depends on who you’re asking. Perhaps it’s the dive dog at Accordion Club after a few shots of whiskey. Or a basic, no frills ballpark dog at a Durham Bulls game. Or a late-night Cook Out drive-thru run for a tray with two hot dogs and slaw and a corn dog as sides—a bold move if you ask me. Many also tout Shorty’s, in Wake Forest, as “the best hot dog” in Wake County.

Often, it’s the little things that make a hot dog taste better. “That greasy and slightly damp wax paper that has further steamed the bun deep down inside the white paper bag with your order written on the side,” notes Casey Atwater, a banker and chef on the side. “A nondescript brand of bun. A pink hot dog—steamed, not burnt. Sweet slaw, runny chili, yellow mustard.” This is his perfect scenario and he’s not wrong. 

If we’re talking gourmet dogs, Jake Wood’s neighborhood dog at Plates, $5 after 8:30pm on the bar snacks menu, is a real treat, topped with pimento goat cheese, jalapeño and pickled onion. Across the way at Morgan Street Food Hall, a kimchi hot dog at Cow Bar exists. And if we get into brat territory, which I suppose is a version of a hot dog, chef Kevin Smith at 41Hundred crafts a delectable veal and lamb bratwurst.

But for Howard, a hot dog purist, it’s an all-beef hot dog with beef chili and cheddar cheese. For me, it’s a gas station hot dog with chili, mustard, slaw and onions—nothing less, nothing more.

You can find all of my Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill hot dog recommendations on my “Hot Dog Trail in the Triangle” CurEat list.