For a handheld lunch, a hot dog is a surprisingly filling thing. Maybe it's the bun, which you can feel swelling as it galoomphs down your esophagus. Maybe it's the dense, tight grind of the meat or the hidden caloric load of the condiments. One noontime hot dog seems to keep a gut humming until dinnertime.
But sustenance no longer seems the point of the hot dog. Now it has to overwhelm the senses with red-state excess or a blue-state urbanity. Given the effect the recession has had on sandwiches, pizzas, and tacos, it's not surprising that hot dog stands and carts are spreading all over San Francisco, nor that chefs who would barely have deigned to serve housemade sausages a few years back are riffing on the frank. The wienie is being upscaled, reconfigured, smothered, redeemed, and pimped out.
A guide to some of the city's extreme hot dogs:
Chicago-style dog ($4)
Da Beef, 300 Seventh St. (at Folsom),www.dabeef.com
With more vegetables than a burrito and more toppings than a banana split, the Chicago-style dog is a legendary American foodstuff. San Francisco's finest can be found at Da Beef, a food cart that opens on a street corner for lunch Tuesday through Thursday and late night Friday and Saturday. Starting with a poppyseed bun and a Vienna all-beef dog, cart owners Yvonne Lona and Natalie McMahon heap on mustard, chopped white onions, pickled "sport" peppers (bullet-sized peperoncini), one slim pickle spear, a few tomatoes for color, and the thing that makes it official: sweet-tart "neon green" relish, which is indeed the color of lime Gummi Worms. It's a James Cameron movie dog, a Super Bowl halftime spectacle dog — you don't analyze this hot dog, you stuff it in your face and gasp at the flavor explosions.
The Furtive Find
Bacon-wrapped hot dog ($3)
A guy standing on Mission somewhere between 20th and 24th streets, some weekend nights
Someday, someone will eat one of these street dogs completely sober. Tell me if you do. Illegal bacon-wrapped hot dogs bought from a street vendor at midnight are almost as satisfying an après-binge snack as a Bob's glazed doughnut fresh out of the oil at 2 a.m. As much as legal hot dog vendors may imitate the bacon-wrapped Mexican dog, they can't replicate the way an aluminum sheet pan set over a propane stove caramelizes onions and peppers. Deep brown, silky, almost more of a spread than a vegetable, they're just the right complement to the crispy-shelled dog.
The Cute Overload Fail
Little Skillet, 360 Ritch (at Townsend), 777-2777, www.littleskillet.com
How adorable is a bun-shaped waffle with a hot dog nested inside? OMG, no, really? How dry and dense can this waffle be? Why are Let's Be Frank grass-fed organic beef dogs so mealy? Why am I eating more than two bites of this? Can I just skip the waffledog and buy a quart of the turmeric-yellow, sweet-sharp pickled chow-chow on top?
The Immaculate Concept
Vegan dog ($3.99)
Underdog, 1634 Irving (at 18th Ave.), 665-8881, www.myspace.com/underdogorganic
For a devout omnivore, the vegan organic hot dog at this closet-sized Sunset shop is so close — but not close enough — to your everyday, commercially produced frank that it teeters on the edge of repellent. There's no skin on the plump tofu-gluten "link," no pop when you bite through it, no juice. Yet the flavor profile is 95 percent hot dog. That said, the vrank became 100 percent edible when tasted as a whole sandwich: encased in a whole-wheat bun; striped with organic Dijon mustard; smothered in Underdog's tart, crisp housemade kraut; and spotted with its smoky dried-chile hot sauce.
The Promise That Doesn't Quite Deliver
Kobe beef dogs
Jody Maroni's Sausage Kingdom, San Francisco Centre food court, 845 Market (at Fifth St.), 546-0464, www.jodymaroni.com;
Absinthe, 398 Hayes (at Gough), 551-1590, www.absinthe.com
The rationale behind the Kobe beef hot dog always strikes me as cynical brand-whoring. (Yes, foodies, we all know it's really "Kobe-style beef from American Wagyu-cross cattle"; save that righteous indignation for American "cheese" or Arby's "roast" beef.) Why take beautifully marbled beef, which sears up into the most buttery steaks you've ever tasted, and then whip and spice it beyond recognition? Can you even tell that kosher all-beefs come from the same animal that produces a New York strip? Not surprisingly, the Kobe dog ($6.49) at Jody Maroni's food-court stand is simply a thicker, pricier version of the chain's standard frank.
The Absinthe bar dog (available after 8 p.m. in the bar), which is famous almost as much for its price ($12) as for chef Jamie Lauren's blend of Kobe beef, pork shoulder, and bacon, is more problematic. Yes, it's fat and flavorful, and yes, it comes with housemade kraut and mellow Guinness wholegrain mustard. But the chef's attempt to season the sausage just like (but not quite close enough to) a basic Nathan's Famous edges it into the realm of the imperfect simulacrum, the same territory occupied by green-tea cola and Egg Beaters.
The One You Order on a Dare and Then Fall in Love With
Pickled hot link ($6.50)
Showdogs, 1020 Market (at Golden Gate), 558-9560, www.showdogssf.com
Too many links were disqualified from this roundup — Rosamunde Mission's knockwurst covered with chili, Magnolia's oyster-and-pork sausage — because they weren't proper frankfurters. But this one I had to mention. I had to confirm with the guy working the counter at Show Dogs that it was, indeed, pickled in a cider-vinegar brine. For two weeks. Fending off childhood memories of jars of pallid pig toes suspended in milky liquid, which always looked like they belonged in Dr. Frankenstein's specimen case instead of on the shelves of my neighborhood Kroger, I ordered a pickled dog with a pint of Trumer and a venison sausage (sadly, also disqualified) as backup. With its loud snap, low-glow smolder, and acidic twinge, which intensified the flavors rather than overtaking them, the grilled sausage turned out to be one of my favorites.
Zilla-style golden dog ($9)
4505 Meats stand, Ferry Plaza farmers' market (Market and Embarcadero), Tuesday and Saturday, www.4505meats.com
At 4505 Meats' market stalls, you can order Ryan Farr's housemade hot dogs by themselves or "zilla style," spritzed with $$$ teriyaki-esque sauce, covered over in scallions and kimchi made by its stand-neighbor Namu, and finished off with crunchy curls of chicharrones. But the dogzilla's cool comes across as forced, a little too preposterous to eat. The problem, I decided, was the pork rinds, the culinary equivalent of lime-green sunglasses. Once I picked off the chicharrones as an appetizer — no chore, that — the dog turned out to be subtly spiced and smoked. On first bite, the creamy texture of the stuffing (chicken, pork, and beef) initially came off as a flaw, but on second bite it turned out to be the distinctive element that made me stop comparing the reworked dog to a Vienna Beef. It achieved the rare feat of tasting simultaneously like a real frankfurter and real meat. And call me a hipster, but kimchi makes everything better.
Other notable dogs: A rare foot-long sighting at the Dogfather, which is otherwise a pretty standard dog-and-sausage shop (532 Green at Jasper, 834-5277). A double-link chili-cheese dog — nice chili, too — that covers a plate and requires a fork to eat, from Moishe's Pippic (425 Hayes at Gough, 431-2440). A meat-on-meat pastrami dog (a sausage with a bright pop but lousy pastrami) at What's Up Dog (four S.F. locations, www.whatsupdog.com). And the budae jjigae, a Korean War–era "camp stew" with hot dogs, Spam, and ramen, at Toyose (3814 Noriega at 45th Ave., 731-0232).