Sausage Festival

Who has the best hot dogs in Portland?

In the pages of Portland Monthly or The Oregonian, you'll read it: The Year of the Hot Dog. Mostly this is the result of a Stray Dogs hot-dog pop-up (currently on hiatus) featuring foie gras on a sausage, and former Riffle chef Ken Norris' new Clutch sausagery featuring five-spice duck in tube form. But you know what? I call bunkum. There are as many places that stopped serving fancy dogs—Interurban, Bent Brick and Smallwares, to name a few—as there are new spots now serving them.

What I will posit instead is this: Hot dogs are forever. They never went away. Indeed, they are the very essence of American summer, one of our few truly national cuisines, only nominally borrowed from Germany or Poland or wherever.

To find the best in town, I verified my medical insurance and then ate at just about every hot dog and sausage shop in Portland that serves stuffed meat on a bun and cares about the results. As guiding lights, I used the following criteria: The bun is there to showcase the meat, not vice versa. Sausage is sausage, and I don't care if you're frankfurter-style or not; if you're on a bun, you're assessed the same way as a classic dog, whether humble wiener or arrogant, preening kielbasa. But while purism is for schmucks, a classic hot dog done well is considered inherently beautiful. And toppings need to balance the low, savory notes of the meat against the brightness of spice, mustard seed or other acidity—the real reason why ketchup is often considered taboo on a dog.

The dogs, ranked best to worst:

1. Olympia Provisions frankfurter ($8)

Olympia Provisions, 1632 NW Thurman St., 894-8136; 107 SE Washington St., 954-3663, 

Score: 95

The meat: A smoked all-pork frankfurter made in-house, including casing.

In part, I set out on this journey to find a better hot dog than Olympia's (née Olympic) lunchtime offering. I failed. This is the best goddamn hot dog I've ever had, distinctly classic in form and almost naked to the world on its Franz bun. It is even better than salumist Elias Cairo's former mentors at Otto's. The dog is topped simply—just a bit of mustard, a bit of onion, a bit of house relish and (horrors to the purists!) ketchup—because the flavor wells up from the impossibly smoky, lightly charred meat itself. It is like a European sandwich: simple and pure, meat and bread perfected. I made noises.

2. Double Dragon kimchi dog ($7)

Double Dragon, 1235 SE Division St., 230-8340.

Score: 94

The meat: Kobe beef hot dog.

This is the dog that almost unseated Olympia, on grounds of unlikely but transcendent harmony. The toppings on the rich Kobe beef dog are maybe unimprovable—a festooned drum-line parade of texture and flavor—with a beautiful point-counterpoint of fat and acid from light aioli and kimchi, brightened by cucumber and the herbal lilt of cilantro. This mess of toppings and thick dog positively erupt from a bun so toasted it has the texture of garlic bread, and yet none of it feels like excess. It feels instead like poise—a fat Russian circus bear pirouetting gracefully atop a balance beam.

3. Dog Town Rocky Balboa ($5.95)

Dog Town, Southeast 28th Place and Division Street, 971-232-1232.

Score: 92

The meat: Zenner's hot dog.

Dog Town's best item—a Lamborghini lamb sausage with pickled onions and sweet chili sauce on naan bread, which is terrific—goes too far afield to even be called a dog anymore, but the Rocky Balboa still ranked near the top. Dog Town packs hometown-favorite Zenner's dogs and bake their own damn bread solely for the purpose, then top their dogs as Frankenweenie concoctions—one meat stacked atop another. This has perils, of course, but the Balboa, a chopped, Philly-style cheesesteak atop the dog, marries two textures of meat with gooey cheese for an addictive result—like a salchichas torta with carne asada.

4. Otto's hot dog ($4)

Otto's Sausage Kitchen, 4138 SE Woodstock Blvd., 771-6714.

Score: 90

The meat: House-smoked, house-stuffed beef and pork stuffed in thin, snappy sheep's casing, smoked on alder.

This is almost unfair. This third-generation sausage shop is the flavor of my childhood. Which is to say, Otto's is the place I learned that hot dogs could transcend the grim world of Hebrew National and Costco parking lots and become something greater: The platonic ideal of sausage, smoke and healthy snap and meat free of filler, served up on Franz rolls toasted on an outdoor grill every day of the week to the hungry people of Woodstock (as well as the occasional cosmopolitan Southeast suburbanite). That said, the classic frank came in at No. 4. My childhood is in shambles. Get the old-fashioned wiener, not even the pork brat, and try Otto's newfangled jalapeño mustard with some kraut. Wonderful.

5. Kim Jong Grillin' kimchi dog ($6)

Kim Jong Grillin', Southeast Division Street and 46th Avenue, 929-0522.

Score: 88

The meat: A Sabrett hot dog, the unofficial New York meat mascot and maker of almost every streetside dog in Manhattan.

This is, to my knowledge, Portland's original kimchi dog—there are now three kimchi dogs along 30 blocks of Division Street—and it's a damn good one, with a toasted baguette from Binh Minh Bakery delivering one mighty foot of meaty Sabrett snap, pickled mango sweetness and daikon kimchi spice. It's that rare thing: A truly happy three-way marriage in which every ingredient gets its full say.

6. Aviary slaw dog ($6)

Aviary, 1733 NE Alberta St., 287-2400.

Score: 83

The meat: A Sabrett hot dog that has then been smoked in-house.

An open-house secret, the $6 Aviary happy-hour hot dog, available only from 5 to 7 pm weekdays, can be had for $5 on Mondays with a free Old German. Do yourself a favor of taking advantage. This hot dog is an example of the little things mattering a lot: Not content merely with using a standard Sabrett, king of New York hot dogs, Aviary smokes it in-house to unleash beautiful, meaty richness. And the bread? It's dainty, so thin as to almost not be a bun— more like a soft handle for meat and slaw. If the mustard seed was a little easier on my sinuses, it'd be just about perfect.

7. The Fried Onion's New York dog ($4.50)

The Fried Onion, Southeast 3rd Avenue and Alder Street, 961-2534.

Score: 82

The meat: A Thumann's hot dog straight out of Jersey. "All muscle," says owner John McGrath.

The Fried Onion will throw on bacon, "spicy Russian" sauce that's essentially Thousand Island with heat, or a generous pile of New York deli pastrami, but fuhgeddaboudit. My favorite dog here is the simplest: A little fried slaw, a little fried onion, a Thumann's dog and a spot of mustard on a poppy-seed onion roll. And a grill seasoned to deep familiarity. Owners John and Marcy McGrath are old-school New Yorkers of the Greatest Generation variety, and this is a no-frills production that essentially does one thing and does it right: They grill burgers and dogs.

8. Beez Neez reindeer dog ($6)

Beez Neez, 440 SW 3rd Ave., 547-7213.

Score: 78

The meat: Reindeer! From a supplier in Anchorage, Alaska, and packed into pork casings.

Cart owner Bryan Veal comes from Alaska, where reindeer is just another word for meat. "I didn't realize reindeer wasn't eaten here; some people find it disturbing," he says. Well, let it be said Donner and Blitzen were assholes anyway, and reindeer sausage—like its cousins in deer and elk sausage—tastes fantastic, especially on house rolls that make liberal use of potato, topped with Veal's escabeche, among a ridiculously extensive array of mostly housemade toppings.

9. Steve's Dawg House Michigan dog ($4.75)

Steve's Dawg House, Rose City Food Park, Northeast 52nd Avenue and Sandy Boulevard, 319-9405.

Score: 75

The meat: Sabrett hot dog.

This is my new favorite Coney-style dog in town. The "Michigan sauce" comes, of course, from upstate New York, an invention of cart owner Stephen Francisco's father in 1951. Francisco says he's still searching for a supplier to get the top-secret perfect bun out of New York—he's using Franz now—but the dog's already in damn fine shape, not smothered but rather accented with chili-spiced, slightly sweet, no-bean meat sauce. Who knew the secret to a good Coney would be restraint?

10. Kenny & Zuke's Reuben dog ($9.75)

Kenny & Zuke's, 1038 SW Stark St., 222-3354.

Score: 72

The meat: The dog is from SP Provisions, a local wholesaler of beef products. The pastrami is from the deli.

This is a tasty dog, but for all the wrong reasons. Most of the flavor comes from Kenny & Zuke's excellent turkey pastrami—really the whole idea that this is fundamentally a hot dog is a scam. It's just an alternative delivery system for pastrami. Anyway, the pastrami is great, even when taken out of its natural rye environment. But sometimes, after sinking my teeth through all the bright, cured flavor of the pastrami, I was disappointed to find hot-dog meat waiting for me underneath.

11. Clutch hot smoked rib ($9)

Clutch Sausagery, 230 NW Lost Springs Terrace, No. 22, 746-6322.

Score: 70

The meat: Dry-rubbed pork baby-back ribs smoked with the bone in, low and slow, supplemented with backfat from Carlton pork, stuffed in natural pork casing. Then smoked again inside the casing.

This is easily the most ambitious sausage spot in Portland. Clutch sausages are like the gum that did in Violet Beauregarde in Willy Wonka—a whole meal smushed into tubular casing and packed into a brioche bun, whether buffalo wings or pad Thai. It's a gimmick that wears thin—maybe not all food wants to be sausage, and its resolute saltiness is distracting—but the best is probably the hot smoked rib (which isn't actually very spicy, despite the name). It's a richly savory meat confection, topped up with slaw, ground pork rind, and the slight bite of Marshall's Haute Sauce smoked habanero barbecue, which chef-owner Ken Norris says he's addicted to. It somehow doesn't add up to the sum of its parts, however—it's a little warmth, a lot of salt, and a $9 tab. It's good enough, but I didn't need ribs to have the texture of sausage.

12. The Rock House Grill's Bazooka Joe ($9)

Score: 70

The Rock House Grill, Cartlandia, 8145 SE 82nd Ave., 564-8548.

The Bazooka Joe at the Rock House Grill can only loosely be called a hot dog—it is instead 16 things at once, a monstrous Oktoberfest sausage served with bacon the thickness of Christmas ham, plus tomatoes, kraut, raw onions and about six other things, wrapped in a massive roll that still struggles to contain the sheer burden of its ingredients. It is the single largest hot dog in Portland. It's not balanced or delicate; it's just vast. It contains multitudes. It's the most genuinely American thing I ate all month, the great trash compactor of capitalism folding everything in the world into its maw. Anyway, I think it's a terrible idea, and I liked it.

13. Bad Ass Dawgs double-smoked sausage ($7)

Bad Ass Dawgs, Q19 food-cart pod, Northwest 19th Avenue and Quimby Street, 740-1187.

Score: 69

The meat: Red hot and smoked sausage made in-house.

Bad Ass Dawgs is a strange chimera of a cart, a taco joint grafted into a hot dog and schnitzel cart in side-by-side menus. A picture of a dog with a sombrero on its head serves as mascot. That said, the double-smoked sausage isn't half bad, a simple kraut-and-mustard dog with no frills and a surprising amount of spice and smoke—although it drowns in the bun a bit, and takes something like 20 minutes to receive.

14. Zach's Shack Zach's Favorite dog ($3.75)

Zach's Shack, 4611 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 233-4616.

Score: 65

The meat: The famed Chicago Red Hot (only slightly less famed than Chicago's famed Vienna Beef).

Zach's is an old-school Portland dive that doubles as a hot-dog shack, a DIY world of cream-cheese-chili dogs named for James Brown—charmingly weird, though culinarily more of a Pabst-fueled dare than a treat—and low-cost ingredients procured from Food Services of America wholesaling. The toppings on the Zach's Favorite are a melange roughly redolent of a classic Chicago dog, except with red relish and brown mustard. It's a mess, and you feel drunk eating it even if you're not.

15. Mojo Crepes peanut dog ($5)

Mojo Crepes, 8409 SE Division St., 208-3195.

Score: 65

The meat: Costco dog, served on a Costco bun.

Mojo Crepes is an interesting mess, a Vietnamese family serving up Japanese-style hot dogs with seaweed or wasabi aioli. But I've got all sorts of affection for this simple dog made with peanut sauce and scallions. It is a great notion, marred a bit by cheap meat. You bargain-hunter nostalgics of the '80s who love the Costco dog? You're wrong about life. Costco dogs aren't good, or even worth a mention. Neither is 7-Eleven coffee.

Roake's Long Coney Island dog ($3.90)

Roake's, 1760 NE Lombard Place, 289-3557.

Score: 60

The meat: Zenner's hot dog.

Roake's is the other Coney of Portland (and the suburbs), a place where the grease of many decades seems to linger as both memory and reality, and the window looks out on a bikini coffee shack. The dog's sauce is Detroit-style wet Coney, redolent with grease and just a little spice, and it pastes into a bun that dissolves to biscuity goo, atop thick-casing meat. It is gross, and wonderful, and gross, and is best eaten with a fork.

17. Nick's Famous Coney Island's Coney Island dog ($7.75)

Nick's Famous Coney Island Food, 3746 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 235-3008.

Score: 50

The meat: "The same hot dog they use at Mariner stadium." Which is to say, Cloverdale.

"People come from Vancouver, people come from all over the place," says Nick's owner Casey Hogrefe. "It's a very different dog from the usual Coney. It's not a handheld hot dog; it is knife and fork." Technically, you could eat a Nick's Coney dog with a spoon if you wanted. Nick's is a Portland stalwart, an 80-year institution with an equally old Coney sauce recipe—a thick, house-ground beef mud the texture of coffee grounds. But man, if they already added windows and raised the roof higher than pledges at a sorority party, I wonder if it's time to brighten the corners on that corn syrup-dextrose-red No. 5 Cloverdale? Like the Seattle Mariners themselves, it's a saddening amalgamation of meat, and the bun seemingly melts under the sauce.

18. Bardo's Grill's Mexican dog ($5)

Bardo's Grill, Cartlandia, 8145 SE 82nd Ave., 901-3353.

Score: 45

The meat: Hebrew National.

Bardo's is a weird world of bacon-wrapped corn dogs, big-burger monstrosities and a selection of cakes—a grab bag of only God knows. It's charming. But don't get the hot dog. Aldo Bardoino, the Bardo of Bardo's, grew up in Guadalajara eating these dogs, he says, bacon-wrapped with tomatoes, ungrilled onions, unpickled jalapeños and something he calls "Mexican cream," served up on a huge and doughy hoagie that falls completely apart upon the lightest touch of a pinkie. It's the sort of thing one should make while drunk, to eat over the sink at one's home in the wee hours.

19. Donnie Vegas banh mi dog ($5)

Donnie Vegas, 1203 NE Alberta St.

Score: 35

The meat: Commercial-style hot dog.

One of the worst things you can do if you're making hot dogs? Make the bun too big. Donnie Vegas has little, commercial-style franks, but buns so doughy and huge they're like a hallway for the hot dog. Needless to say, this does not flatter the hot dog. I've tried four different dogs here, from a harissa number to a curry-ketchup dog to a cream-cheesy dog (eww) with togarashi to this, a banh mi hoisin-pickle-cilantro dog that somehow manages to act as a black hole for flavor aside from a sudden, needling heat. They all made me sad. Especially the harissa dog, which had a single streak of lonely looking sauce on a lonely looking hot dog, lost deep in the yeasty cave of bread.

20. Koi Fusion kimchi dog ($8)

Koi Fusion, 3040 SE Division St., 889-0422.

Score: 20

The meat: Zenner's hot dog.

This is the worst thing I've put in my mouth all year. A purported exercise in generosity, it is a shitty meat salad on a doughy bun, wrapping a Zenner's sausage with bacon so sweet it cloys, topped with tame kimchi and finished with sweet-salty bulgogi (other meats are possible) that is coated further in a thick, sickly sweet Japanese mayo whose presentation had uncomfortable echoes of human sexual biology. It tasted like a Midwestern mom threw up after eating at Fubonn. I felt violated by this hot dog.

Honorable mention:

Interurban "Portland's finest hand-dipped corn dog" ($9)

Interurban, 4057 N Mississippi Ave., 284-6669.

Score: 90

The meat: Olympia Provisions frankfurter.

Somehow it feels wrong to rank it against open-bun dogs, but this corn dog lives up to its name. Interurban is smart enough to get its dog from Olympia Provisions, and the corn batter—flour, sugar, corn meal from Golden Pheasant—is lightly browned and light, with just the right amount of crispness and sweetness. It looks sort of like a lazy caterpillar on the plate—no machine-spun perfect cylinder here—but tastes like heaven. Interurban may have stopped its hot-dog-of-the-day habit, but the corn dog—served with pickled zucchini and a multitude of mustards—more than suffices.

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