Like other humble foods, the hot dog is experiencing a renaissance. Chicago dogs? So 37 seconds ago. The rise of Sonoran dogs (topped with bacon, beans, salsa, etc.) has been followed by a sky's-the-limit approach to what can be piled on a dog. The website Serious Eats features a "Hot Dog of the Week" featuring extravagant toppings from across the country. My indifference to the hot dog ended when I read the description of the Seattle dog - griddled bun smeared with cream cheese, hot dog topped with grilled onions and a streak of Sriracha sauce. Since this isn't served anywhere locally, I made my own, subbing caramelized balsamic onions for the grilled.
The new food cart Mad City Fry Guy (at West Main Street and South Carroll in front of Anchor Bank most weekdays) serves dogs with the choice of up to three toppings ($3.50), from among 12 sauces, 11 garnishes and six seasonings. You can't order a facsimile of a Seattle dog there, but you can invent something yourself or take the Fry Guy's recommendation.
Thick curry sauce and a spicy giardiniera topped with feta was good, although so forward it nearly erased the flavor of the dog itself. I liked combining the Thai-inflected peanut sauce with bacon and banana peppers; the meat taste came through a little more. But ultimately, three toppings on a modest-size frank will present a problem; upsizing the dog itself might be the answer. Still, there's the wasabi ginger sauce to look forward to, paired with onions and jalapeÃos. There are milder options, too.
If you're in your own kitchen and looking to replicate a Seattle dog, or the Swedish dog (dressed with Bibb lettuce tossed in lemon vinaigrette, rock shrimp salad, fresh dill, fried potato sticks and caviar), or whatnot, the link should not be the weakest part of the food chain. If you think the wiener doesn't matter or that all hot dogs taste pretty much the same, I can assure you that I sampled a few odd ones while testing those sold at area butcher counters - too sweet, or too gristly, or too strongly spiced.
Locally, Jacobson Brothers sell a solid rendition of the natural casing wiener that they make themselves. It's smooth, salty, not too greasy, almost bologna-like, with not too much snap to the casing and a decent chew to the meat. Knoche's Food Center and Butcher Shop on Old Middleton Road sells a natural casing wiener made by Old Wisconsin that's similar to Jacobson's, but a little smokier and also with more grease. Knoche's has just introduced a black angus frank that's a very flavorful take on the all-beef dog.
Ken's Meats and Deli on Monona Drive also sells Old Wisconsin brand, but if you're looking for a larger size (1/4 pound), it features the Scott Petersen brand out of Chicago that will stand up well to your topping fantasies. Jenifer Street Market's hot dogs are made locally by the Bavarian Sausage Kitchen and are also a good choice for those who like flavor but not a very chewy casing.
If you can find them, try the "Froman" hot dog from Gilbert's Craft Sausages of Plymouth, Wis. These large, plump dogs have great flavor, almost like ring bologna, but with no discernible gristle. They're uncured (no nitrates or nitrites are used, but instead sea salt, celery juice and cherry powder) and made primarily from beef sirloin, with a collagen, rather than a natural, casing. Downside - there is a lot of packaging (each Froman is individually wrapped), but the company asserts that this method makes it possible to have long shelf life without using artificial preservatives. Mine didn't last long, because I used them up.
Sadly, another significant downside is that no stores carry them locally. (Gilbert's website states they're carried at the Sun Prairie Sentry and Costco, but they're not.) It's mail order or a road trip to Milwaukee right now for a Froman.