Girl Bites Dog
a Cal student who spent many a late night at Top Dog, a Berkeley institution located auspiciously close to my Unit 2 dorm. Since, I’ve tasted a Chicago dog from a stand outside of Wrigley Field, one of New York’s finest from Katz’s on Houston, and the somewhat suspicious looking hot dogs found out in front of the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Hot dog, frankfurter, sausage, wiener – I love them all. And although I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m, ahem, a connoisseur of wieners, loving both the Costco dog and the Ikea dog equally to its more pedigree versions, I’m damn appreciative. And, I like mustard.
Despite the knowledge that San Francisco will never be considered a legit hot dog town, I was down to find the city’s best within its many options. This meant trying a spicy, handmade (and uncured) 4505 Meats wiener at the Ferry Building; a healthy veggie version on a whole-wheat bun from Underdog in the Sunset; a deep-fried Zog's dog in the Financial District; a juicy Gorilla Pete's before a show at the Independent; and a Home Run dog as big as a catcher’s mitt at AT&T Park. And, of course, I can’t forget that frankfurter smothered in kraut at Schroeder's that I ate while surrounded by manic footie fans watching the U.S. lose to Ghana.
With my head swimming in dogs – so many to eat and so little time – I began to consider what I loved about these sausages of joy, and which of the franks I’d experienced in the seven by seven that were actually worthy of doggy fandom. The following are the wieners in my hot dog hall of fame.
It’s a Saturday and I head through Hayes Valley toward the Civic Center in the hopes of sitting on a patch of lawn with a bunch of Spanish-speaking soccer fanatics. On my way, I wander past fancy clothing shops and briefly stand in front of The African Outlet with a few elderly men from the neighborhood, watching the World Cup via a small flat-screen TV mounted to a storefront window.
Pregame, I’m meeting a friend for a classic hot dog from Moishe's Pippic. Moishe's pays homage to Chicago-style Jewish delis with Formica tables, the omnipresent scent of kraut, baseball memorabilia, and pickle relish the color of soylent green. Though not native Chicagoans, or even temporary residents, the owners of Moishe's are working within a theme – Moishe's is your average, everyman Chicago-style deli. In Hayes Valley. Yes, in California and clearly nowhere near the Great Lakes.
I pony up to the counter and order mine with the works – a steamed Vienna frank with mustard, onions, peppers, sliced tomatoes, and relish. The bun is soft and has a light dusting of poppy seeds. Although fully loaded, it’s as portable as a dog was always meant to be.
Though not a big fan of the pale tomatoes, the peppers (!) and the dog itself are definitely worthwhile; the first bite makes for a burst of beefy flavor all over my mouth. Mu-wah! And with this I order a bottle of root beer and wander out into the sun toward Van Ness. My hot dog is gone before I’m standing beneath the shade of a tree, watching Spain make its winning goal over Paraguay.
It’s true – Rosamunde Sausage Grill now has fancy new digs in the Mission. But I’m partial to the original location in the Lower Haight and to the experience of ordering a sausage and eating it amidst almost four dozen beers next door at Toronado.
The options are somewhat endless – Rosamunde has sausages made with duck and figs, chicken and habanero, and wild boar. It has Bratwurst, knockwurst, Italian sausage, merguez (spicy beef and lamb), vegan dogs, and so on. When I ask, I’m not surprised to discover the beer sausage is the most popular dog on the menu. And these critters are made even more special with toppings of your choice: grilled onions, house-made beef chili, sauerkraut, and an assortment of tasty peppers.
For this quest, I’m trying to stick close to the classic dog, so I avoid my tendency to go spicy. After a brief consultation with the man at the grill (sporting long metal locks and a T-shirt with tour dates from the ’90s), I order the knockwurst with onions and peppers.
Back at the table, as my cohorts begin chowing down on sausages and wursts, there’s a flurry of discussion over the merits of each dog. My veggie pal is very happy that she has options – a spicy Italian or regular vegan dog – and a couple other friends are occupied with a tasting of three different sausages, refusing to comment on which dog they like best until they’ve finished eating all three.
Ultimately, I know hot dog purists may turn their noses up at Rosamunde's sausages – they’re pretty fancy and maybe even precious in comparison with the all-American wiener, but I see no reason to complain. These are big, plump – maybe somewhat righteous – dogs on soft, warm, lightly toasted French rolls; they go along almost too perfectly washed down with local brew.
On a Friday night, I head to the Homestead for a beverage with friends. Of course, I completely forget to have dinner.
Too perfect, since this means I’m a cheap drunk and my stomach is soon aching for a late night snack. After an appetizer of toasty peanuts, a Tom Collins, and two glasses of pinot, I find myself talking to people I haven’t seen since Bill Clinton was in office. The only thing that can make me feel better is a bacon-wrapped hot dog from a cart at the corner of Mission and 19 th . And no doubt one of the best settings for the perfect hot dog is standing on a curbside, surrounded by drunken revelry.
When I’m a block away from the cart, I can already smell the bacon. On closer inspection, I see the setup – multiple vendors, each with rows of links cooking on large cookie sheets set over some version of an electric burner. It’s pretty janky. And special. The onions are grilling, the dogs blistering, and some girl is throwing up nearby and screaming at her friend to hold her purse.
Maybe it’s me, but this sort of grungy weirdness is magic. And sort of indicative of late nightlife in San Francisco. I order one bacon dog, slightly charred and juicy, and partake in all the toppings, including mayo and hot sauce. After two bites, I flag down a cab and it becomes a taxi dog, each nibble an indulgent late night delight as I mull over the oddities of life, and how good they can taste.
Sam's is situated at Broadway near Columbus – an odd, sort of forlorn throwback to North Beach’s past. It opened in 1966, and it looks like it – a tiny hole-in-the-wall dive with a counter, a char grill, and a few scattered seats in considerably close quarters. With hours from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m., it’s a hot spot for drunken diners and tends to get busier as the nearby bars close.
Maybe not so oddly, there’s no Sam at Sam's. Instead, there’s a Mike. A “Big Mike” (though he’s really not all that big). He’s owned the place since 1970 and he doesn’t seem to be one for getting rid of much of anything – a meat grinder has been sitting behind the counter since Sam’s opened, and decades of San Francisco memorabilia decorate the walls, including a fascinating collection of bumper stickers depicting every incarnation of Live 105.
My friend Courtney (who discovered Sam's while trying to track down a late night corn dog) and I are here for the jumbo hot dog, so we order a few with a couple icy bottles of MGD and a side of crispy fries. Delivered on old-school paper plates, our dogs are sliced down the middle and laid flat, and – with a request of everything – include shredded lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard, mayo, and ketchup.
As we talk, Mike punctuates every sentence by calling me “honey,” like he actually knows me (or maybe he can’t remember my name). I’m immediately charmed and mesmerized. And when I taste Sam's hot dog – which really resembles a torta of some sort – I’m won over by how fresh, warm, and tasty it is.
Yes, Mike could call me “honey” all he liked. The hot dog bun was toasty and the casing had a juicy pop. This is definitely not the sort of dog you’ll find at a ballpark. But I’m not looking for something that can be found somewhere else – I want something unique and San Franciscan. And this is it.
It’s still a tad early in the evening, and while we finished our meal, watching the last remnants of college basketball on TV, we talk to Mike and his cousin. A French family rambles in, orders a slice of pizza, a burger, and a hot dog – dazzled by the classic Americana of Sam's. I suddenly feel like a tourist, too – my beer tastes crisper, each bite of my hot dog a sacred souvenir.
Later, Mike’s cousin tells us that he spends a ton of time at Sam's, and we ask if he likes the food. “Sure,” he says. “But it’s not about the food here. It’s about the place. It’s about Mike.”
But isn’t a hot dog but a hot dog? Whether at a bonfire at Ocean Beach, or in my own backyard, it’s really the comfort, the familiarity, and sometimes, it’s really just the hilarity. A hot dog is a dare, and a memory, and sometimes not so much about the actual wiener, than about the where, how, when, and with who.
Take a frank from Sam's, Rosamunde, Moishe's Pippic, or a nifty bacon-wrapped one from a cart in the Mission, and go sit somewhere pretty. The best place to have a hot dog is right about here.