The scene: If summer is the height of America’s grilling fascination, then the July Fourth weekend is its Mount Everest. Typically more than 150 million hot dogs are consumed in this country over the holiday weekend, and while it is harder to pin down burgers, which aren’t sold individually, it’s fair to guess that the number is at least as high – in the week leading up to the holiday, nearly a billion pounds of chicken, beef and pork will be sold.
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Still, just under half the population will cook out at some point over the long weekend, which leaves nearly 200 million Americans – even more on the days off from cooking – in search of a hot dog or burger made by somebody else. Since this column has been searching out the very best burgers and dogs in America for about four years – a presidential term – it’s time to take a look back at the best of the best.
The food: It would be foolish to start this gastronomic journey anyplace other than the original Nathan’s in New York’s Coney Island, famously the site of the annual Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, the Super Bowl of gluttony. Fans believe the dogs taste better at this location, which also serves one-off oddities like frog legs and lobster rolls, so this column visited. The dogs actually taste pretty much the same as at the other 250-plus outlets, but you can’t beat the beachfront boardwalk atmosphere or history: Franklin Roosevelt brought the King and Queen of England here to eat in 1939. The dogs are also sold in supermarkets in every state, so you are never far from the better-than-average but not-quite-great taste of Nathan’s, which sells well over 425 million hot dogs annually. That makes them the hands-down winner for Best Big Chain, Hot Dogs. Nathansfamous.Com.
Small dogs, no chain: If you think smaller is better, head to New York State’s capital region of Albany and Troy, where miniature hot dogs have been a popular micro-regional cuisine for nearly a century. The best of the area’s bunch is at Gus’s Hot Dogs in Watervliet, established in 1954. The two-bite franks are just slightly charred with a nice snappiness to them, and have the region’s best “sauce,” a thin, smooth take on Texas beef chili.
Capital franks: Folks inside the Beltway swear by Ben’s Chili Bowl, with more than six decades of rich history in a music-centric neighborhood once known locally as the “Black Broadway.” Ben’s has served talented visitors like Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole, along with countless presidents and politicians. Ben’s has dogs, but is most famous for its legendary half-smokes, plain or topped with chili. The half-smoke is a slightly spicy pork and beef sausage unique to Washington, D.C., And is generally considered the city’s signature dish. It’s sort of a cross between a Polish sausage and hot dog, and Ben’s is the best place on earth to try it. Benschilibowl.Com.
James Beard dogs: How do wieners win a prestigious culinary award? One way is to keep everything from the food to décor frozen in time since the place opened in 1946. That’s the case at legendary Olneyville N.Y. System in Providence, R.I., Where the “hot wieners” are still custom-made to the house recipe. House rules dictate you never, ever call them hot dogs, and the hot (not spicy) wieners are small but not tiny, about three-quarters normal size, an already smoked blend of veal and pork, all meat with no filler, on a New England-style hot dog bun (slit rather than hinged). Buns are steamed and a wiener “all the way” comes with celery salt, mustard, chopped onions and wiener sauce (chili). When you order, the counter man lines up buns on his forearm, places wieners in them with tongs, and tops them. Longtime staffers can do up to fifty — five stacked rows of ten — on one arm before returning to the counter to dispense them. It’s spectacle crossed with tradition but they also taste great – especially at peak post-bar time, like 2 a.M. Olneyvillenewyorksystem.Com.
Proto-burger: For burgers we start at the historic source, Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Conn., Which makes a pretty good claim to having invented the hamburger itself more than a century ago (the Library of Congress concurs). Little has changed, and it is still a standalone shack with a perennial line, and serves nothing but a burger or cheeseburger, with choice of raw onion, tomato and nothing else (do not ask for ketchup!), Save bagged chips on the side. When the burger debuted, there was no such thing as a hamburger roll, so the patties are served on toasted white bread. Order the cheeseburger and the bread is smeared with something resembling WisPride cheese spread. History, not taste, is the sole reason to eat here. Louislunch.Com.
Best large burger chain: Sorry fanatic West Coasters (you know what I mean), this one goes to Five Guys in a landslide. The burgers are cooked to order and taste that way, juicy, with good fries and consistently dependable hit-the-spot satisfaction.
Best regional burger chain:Whataburger rules in the South and Southwest, especially since it is one of the few chains open 24 hours. Founder Harmon Dobson imagined a big burger so good that when people ate it they would exclaim “What a burger!” They still serve larger-than-normal two-handers, cooked to order, and the patty melt is a standout. Whataburger makes its own sauces (ketchup, mustard, ranch and beloved creamy pepper), so popular fans buy them in bottles to use at home. Whataburger.Com.
Best original hamburger chain:White Castle is the oldest fast food burger chain in the country, and still awesome – if you like the small, squishy steamed burgers, a subject of deep divide. Mostly if you grew up with them, like I did, they cannot be beat, and are uniquely different from every other burger. If you come to them later in life, you probably should go to Five Guys. They just opened their westernmost store, on the Las Vegas Strip – and promptly ran out of burgers several times the first week due to overwhelming popularity. If you are part of the “Craver Nation” fan base, you can get them frozen in the supermarket, and because they are supposed to be steamy and moist, they are one of the few foods that does well in the microwave. Whitecastle.Com.
Best niche burger chain: Fast food brands have been trying to distance themselves from antibiotic- and drug-laden meats lately, but Elevation Burger started with nothing but real grass-fed, pastured beef and does it very well in a fast casual format. They don’t stop at beef: The fries are cooked in olive oil, the cheeseburgers topped with non-processed aged cheddar, and even the bacon and cheesecake are organic. In 10 mostly Eastern States; elevationburger.Com.
Greek style: Salt Lake City is awash in Greek-owned burger places specializing in burgers topped with juicy pastrami steeped in broth. It’s a bizarre but great combo and regional specialty that debuted at Crown Burgers almost four decades ago, and they still do it best (seven Salt Lake-area locations, crown-burgers.Com). But rival Apollo Burgers hits it out of the ballpark with its pastrami-free Athenian, one of the best specialty burgers I’ve ever had. It’s loaded with feta cheese, roasted red peppers and delicious house tzatziki sauce, and the salty feta goes perfectly with the sauce and roasted peppers, the flavors of each, and burger itself, singing on your taste buds. 12 locations in Utah and one in Tennessee; apolloburgers.Com.
Capital burgers: Few places take July Fourth more seriously than the nation’s capital, so eat in the footsteps of our burger-loving president. Obama and his VP ate at Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, Va., In 2009, and apparently the Commander in Chief was impressed, because the following year he took Russian president Dmitry Medvedev there — on an official state visit (it has since moved across the street). Ray’s success starts with big patties in two sizes, an impressive 5.3 ounces and a huge 10 ounces, then lets you choose one of four seasonings and a staggering choice of unique toppings, all included in the burger price, ranging from basics (lettuce, tomato, onion) to oddities like roasted garlic, charred jalapenos and cognac-and-sherry-sautéed mushrooms. There are nine types of cheeses, several dressing and hot sauce choices, and optional luxury topping upgrades like seared foie gras and roasted bone marrow. As if that wasn’t enough, Ray’s has great fries and killer shakes too. (Obama is also a repeat visitor to Ben’s Chili Bowl, above.) Rayshellburger.Com.
Destination-worthy burgers: There are lots of great burgers, but not that many worth a special trip. I’ve been to a lot of fantastic places in the last four years, but two stand out as those I can’t wait to return to. Matt’s Bar in Minneapolis is home of the original “Jucy Lucy,” a burger cooked on a flattop with the cheese inside. It’s really two patties sandwiching cheese then crimped around the edges, and it’s the ultimate comfort food. Matt’s is true institution of the neighborhood tavern, a dark frozen-in-time bunker, with great fries and cheap pitchers of beer on tap. Bravo! (By the way, more beer is sold July Fourth weekend than at any other holiday.) Mattsbar.Com.
The other pilgrimage is Santa Fe Bite (formerly Bobcat Bite), where the green chile cheeseburger rocked my world. It’s so good that it is the first time I ever felt bacon did not add to a burger, since there is so much flavor already. They also have fantastic shakes. New Mexico green chile is one of the most notable American regional foodstuffs and it has no higher calling. Previously in this column the eatery earned the highest possible rating, OMG!, And I described it thusly: “one mind-blowingly delicious burger” santafebite.Com.
Other faves: I don’t have room for every great burger and dog place but try these: The Sink (burgers; Boulder, Colo.); Danny’s Drive In (fried dogs; Stratford, Conn.); Lark Burger (Colorado); The Vortex (burgers, Atlanta); Park (Boston’s best burger).
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there’s a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an email at [email protected]. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.