Chow down! America's best hot dogs

M. Spencer Green / Today
An employee at Hot Doug's in Chicago prepares an order May 7, 2014, at the gourmet hot dog diner.

Crunchy. Spicy. Topped with chicharrones and kimchi. The latest Spanish-Asian fusion dish? Nope — it’s a hot dog. At least, that’s how they make ’em at 4505 Meats in San Francisco.

The Zilla Dog is a far cry from the traditional franks that competitive eaters choke down each year at Coney Island’s famous July 4th contest. Indeed, this quintessentially American snack is having a renaissance, swept up in the nouveau gourmet enterprises of today’s innovative culinary talent. But just because chefs are teaching old dogs new tricks doesn’t mean the traditional tube steak has disappeared. In our quest for America’s top dogs, we found reasons to love both old-style and newfangled.

Related: Crazy hot dog recipes you need to try

The basic concept hasn’t changed much since 1874. That’s when Charles Feltman, a German immigrant who had moved to Brooklyn, started serving beef sausages — what he called frankfurters — in a revolutionary way: sandwich style. While Feltman has been relegated to trivia fodder, one of his employees became legendary for his own hot-dog stand: Nathan Handwerker, founder of Nathan’s Famous (though this Coney Island landmark is now more of a curiosity for tourists than a magnet for gourmands).

Slideshow: America's best hot dogs

What lives on, however, is Feltman’s style: a grilled, all-beef specimen in natural casing that became synonymous with New York. Today, you’ll find the best-tasting examples at Gray’s Papaya, which since the 1970s has been serving a taut, almost rippling link in a just-warmed, fluffy bun. You’ll barely notice the no-frills, counter-service operation.

Meanwhile, Chicago developed its own style (and an inevitable hot-dog rivalry with the Big Apple). Also a cow-only affair, its dog is steamed, as opposed to grilled, and given hits of yellow mustard; chopped, raw, white onion; neon green relish; tomato wedges; kosher dill pickle; whole (medium-hot) sport peppers; and celery salt. Hot Doug’s still serves this classic (just ask for The Dog) while also evolving people’s tastes with new flavors like spicy Thai chicken or curry lamb sausage.

Hot dog hysteria: Inside the body of a speed eater

Celebrity chefs are pushing the envelope as well — and taking the humble hot dog to new levels. Chris Cosentino, of San Francisco’s Incanto restaurant and Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, was a co-founder of Boccalone, which serves what it proudly calls “Tasty Salted Pig Parts.” But this is no traditional dog; it’s made of mortadella.

So next time you find yourself in a hot-dog hotbed, don’t settle for the nearest street cart; seek out one of these puppies instead. Unadorned or heavily garnished, they’re worth a detour. 

Related content from Travel + Leisure