Best Bites with Robin Goldstein: In Hot Dog Heaven

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, like I did at his age.

He’s still learning the basics, but it’s already easy to tell that Azai (unlike me) has 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 sword-sluggers of Tandem Bagel — better be wary of his high heat. This is my unbiased opinion.

Little League Snack Bar

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

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 pass. It is open Monday to Friday from 5:15 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., from April 30 to June 18, then sporadically thereafter for tournaments.

You won’t find these hours, or any other trace of the Snack Shack, on Google Local, so that’s solid gold information here.

At the Little League Snack Shack, crowds of Little Leaguers, after their fierce battles over the diamond, line up for post-game treats – mostly ice cream, candies and popcorn, but also hot -dogs. The average customer is a first through third grader wearing a batting cap or helmet and a flamboyant red or blue team t-shirt, with a pile of coins or a few dollar bills at the hand.

In my last column, I talked about high prices in restaurants. The Little League Snack Shack will take your mind off inflation for a few moments. For a nice hot cup of coffee with milk they charge $1 (cash only). The priciest and most popular item on the Little League Snack Shack menu is a satisfying large bag of Classic Popcorn ($3). The hot dog ($2.50) is the second most expensive, but Azai and I agree that it’s the most delicious.

The Little League Dog Snack Shack is made with Kayem beef-pork mix, steamed in an old-fashioned steamer. The white bread bun is simple and unbaked. Packets of mustard, relish, and ketchup are available on a plastic table next to the order counter.

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

For kids with smaller allowances, the Little League Snack Shack wisely offers cheaper alternatives to big-ticket items. Azai told me a go-to for him and his teammates is ring pop (50 cents). Until Azai and I started our hot dog hunting expedition here, he hadn’t even tried the dog. But when he did, he was all in. He loved it. Me too.

A note on the history of hot dogs. Each region of Germany and Austria has its own brand of sausages. The American hot dog’s closest European relatives come from Frankfurt (Frankfurter wurst, established in the 1400s) and Vienna (Wiener wurst). Immigrants from these places are said to have started selling hot dogs in New York City in the 1860s. The buns were originally an innovation to keep the hand from burning. For obvious reasons, given their Germanic origins, these sausage 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 selling them at a Coney Island stand that quickly became famous. The opening price of Nathan’s hot dogs was 5 cents ($1.42 in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars – more than a dollar 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 recent years, Chicago has become hot dog heaven. My favorite hot dog spot in Chicago is the wonderfully named Weiner’s Circle, but Chicago’s great Steve Ziliak, economic historian extraordinaire from Roosevelt University, prefers Superdawg, Devil Dogs, and the Lincoln Park Zoo.

The Chicago-style hot dog is a breed in its own right. Classic toppings are a long pickle spear, tomato wedges, sport peppers (sweet peppers), chopped raw onions, bright yellow mustard, radioactive green relish, and celery salt. Professor Ziliak adds that an authentic Chicago hot dog should be made from kosher Viennese beef that is charred to an exterior crisp (but not seared) on a skillet or grill, and should be served on a bun with slightly warmed poppy seeds.

Tom’s Famous Long Hot Dogs

Tom’s Long Hot Dogs, just a mile over the Whately border if you’re taking Route 5 from North Hatfield, is the only place I know for miles in any direction that tempts a Chicago dog . By anyone’s standards except Ziliak’s, it’s an almost 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 little thinner, than any other hot dog in the area, except maybe- be from the Deck. This is a steamed pork and beef dog from Grote & Weigel. The most popular order is one with the works: mustard, relish and chopped onions.

Since the onset of COVID, Tom’s has regularly buried the toppings between the dog and the bun, rather than piling them on top. This cool innovation can stand the test of time, especially when you’re getting packaged takeout or eating out with kids, because the toppings (or, really, the bottoms) are tucked in there and can’t fall. But if you prefer, you can ask the Tom’s counter to have the toppings on top. The choice is yours.

My favorite thing about Tom’s is the chili and cheese dog, which you can get with or without bacon. I don’t know if they eat that way in Chicago, and I don’t care. That’s a lot of flavor for under $5: melted American cheese and vintage 1950s beef and bean chili melt together in a delicious Tex-Mex spread on the toasted white bun. May this classic American flavor live forever.

Tom’s also serves a wide variety of classic burgers, shakes and fries; hosts classic car shows with DJs every Friday in the early evening; and has a fantastic photo setup where Azai could get behind a large, brightly painted picture and pose as a dancing hot dog.

Azai enjoyed the length and overall flavor of Tom’s dog, which he tasted 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 everyone, with the most loving servers in town. There are two no-frills rooms centered on a bar that services both sides. There are people having fun day and night.

Walk in and you’re immediate family. I wish there were more moods like this. Bloody Marys is right for the money, they do a mean burger, and it’s a fun and lively place to attend any major sporting event.

For my taste, the hot dogs at Se7ens are as good as the ones in Pioneer Valley. The buns are buttered and toasted until golden brown. The dogs are buttered (divided) for even cooking and charred on the outside in a way Professor Ziliak would deeply admire.

The result is an ideal combination of crispy and juicy textures. They’re also served in an adorable red and white checkered basket and a classic side dish: Lay’s crisps.

Azai gave the hot dog a solid thumbs up, loved the bun, and ripped through the fries.

local burger

Our last of four stops was Local Burger, a bustling counter-service hub done up in a white and black checkered theme on the corner of King 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 newest dining options in town.

This is a place best known for its juicy, local beef burgers. But we were here to try hot dogs.

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

I, on the other hand, love trick dogs covered in 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 simple platter. shape for a pompous parade of trimmings.

For our controlled experiment, Azai and I tried the Local Burger hot dog plain. We initially agreed that the bun was just ok, nicely toasted but not buttered and not toasted. But the crispy beef flavor of the International Hebrew Dog was divisive.

It was smoky – as smoky as a Texas BBQ sausage, which I love, but Azai doesn’t even consider a hot dog. With his belly already full of three more hot dog halves, he shrugged and got through it anyway, but with a lot of willing help from me.

As I passed out over the smoke of the Local Burger Dog, Azai longed longingly for the traditional Little League Snack Shack dog. He said that after a long afternoon of tasting, this was still his favorite.

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

Robin Goldstein is the author of “The Menu: A Restaurant Guide to Northampton, Amherst and the Five Colleges Area”. He sits remotely on the faculty of agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis. He can be contacted at [email protected]