Don't cry for Oscar Mayer. The king of wieners, who died peacefully earlier this month, will today be toasted at barbecues and ballparks far and wide as our neighbours to the south celebrate National Hot Dog Day.
And somewhere up in hot dog heaven, he must surely be spinning around in a bright orange Wienermobile and smiling down on the sizzle.
Why? Because the humble frankfurter is hotter than ever: Once considered déclassé, hot dogs have gone haute. Across North America, celebrity chefs, artisanal butchers and innovative sidewalk vendors are reinventing the standard tube steak with grass-fed beef, organic buns and a lip-smacking array of exotic toppings that include everything from garlic scape pesto to miso mayo.
"This is the summer of the hot dog," says Jim Leiken, executive chef at DBGB, Daniel Boulud's new hipster tavern in New York's Bowery district, which proudly touts the gourmet DBGB Dog- a finely emulsified all-beef wiener slathered with sautéed onions in a beer-batter bun -among its selection of 13 house-made sausages.
Mr. Leiken is not just barking up his own kitchen. Elsewhere in New York, the über-cool cocktail lounge PDT (Please Don't Tell) recently held a hot-dog derby for which six top toques were asked to create designer dogs in their own image. The new menu now offers David Chang's bacon-wrapped and kimchi-covered wiener alongside a rarefied deep-fried frank with breaded mayo cubes, tomato molasses and freeze-dried onions from WD-50's molecular wizard Wylie Dufresne.
Meanwhile in Toronto, the Healthy Butcher's all-beef, certified organic, dairy-free "teenie weenies" in natural lamb casings are flying off the shelves. And in Vancouver, you can routinely find street-side lineups for Japadog's Kurobuta Terimayo, a succulent Berkshire pork sausage loaded with fried onions, teriyaki sauce, Japanese mayo and nori shreds.
"Hot dogs are fun, casual snacks (or meals) that are showing up on restaurant menus across the country," says Sarah Tenaglia, senior food editor for Bon Appétit magazine. "Chefs are going well beyond the basic concept to create inspired versions of the classic hot dog made with all kinds of meats," she adds via e-mail.
She's not the only food editor who has noticed: New York magazine, Real Simple and the online Serious Eats have all hit haute hot dogs this summer.
Some say the hot dog's ascent is a natural succession to sliders and gourmet hamburgers. "The hot dog has always been seen as the ugly, redheaded stepchild of fast food, but it was just a matter of time before it came into its own," says Andrew Hunter, co-owner of Buddha Dog.
A purveyor of "holistic" hot dogs - dainty, four-inch wieners made with 100-per-cent aged beef, soft white buns, thin strips of cheese and seasonal garnishes such as wild leek aioli, all sourced from small suppliers in Prince Edward County, Ont. - Mr. Hunter and his partner found themselves slightly ahead of the curve when they opened a second shop in Toronto two years ago.
"People seemed to get it in Picton," Mr. Hunter says of his successful first store in Prince Edward County. "In Toronto, they were quicker to criticize."
"Our handmade gourmet hot dogs only cost $2.50. But for three bucks, people can go down to the corner and get a sausage that's twice as big."
Still, no matter how gussied up they get, hot dogs are still fairly budget-friendly. And in these tight times, the affordability factor seems to making this ultimate comfort food all the more enticing.
At $10, the DBGB Dog is far more accessible than Mr. Boulud's $35 foie gras-stuffed db Burger ($165 if you add 20 grams of freshly shaved black truffles), the original luxury burger that launched a thousand imitators.
"Fewer people are blowing out all the stops with a fancy four-star dinner," says Mr. Leiken. During the week, they're looking for a simple sausage or a burger with a nice beer."
Mind you, it's not all that easy to make a silky purse of quality meat out of the mechanically recovered slurry of byproducts.
Determined to create an organic hot dog that tastes "as good or better than the conventional garbage that is out there," Mario Fiorucci, the owner of Toronto's Healthy Butcher, began experimenting three years ago.
"We make about 70 types of sausages, all by hand, all from scratch, and definitely the hot dogs are the hardest to make without using artificial agents," he says.
To get the smooth, creamy texture of a hot dog, The Healthy Butcher emulsifies its lean beef and chicken with Dijon mustard (rather than milk) and tightly packs the mix into skinny lamb's casings for a juicy snap. Because the fresh hot dogs aren't intended for a long shelf life, they're not pre-cooked and thus don't contain any nitrates.
"There's almost a rubbery manufacturedness to a standard hot dog," says head butcher Dave Meli. "The texture is too synthetic. It's too perfect. A hot dog should have imperfections. That's what makes it beautiful."
Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated the price of the foie gras-stuffed db Burger. This version has been corrected.