Some foods convey a sense of place. Bhelpuri will always be a symbol of Mumbai. You can eat bhel in nearly every city of the world where there is a Gujarati community, but it will never fail to remind you of its Mumbai origins.
So it is with the hot dog. Few foods epitomize America as much as the hot dog does. The other iconic America dishes—the hamburger and the pizza for instance—have now been so franchised all over the world that there’s nothing particularly American about them any longer. The Big Mac you eat in Seoul will not be very different from the one they sell in San Francisco and as for pizza, millions of diners at global Pizza Huts are not even sure if what they are eating is American or Italian.
The hot dog, on the other hand, remains uniquely American. Buy one (for $2—around Rs95—or so) on the streets of Manhattan and even though you know you shouldn’t like it (the bun will be so cheap that the chewed-up bread will stick to the roof of your mouth; the sausage will be made from the sweepings of abattoirs; the mustard will be entirely chemical etc.), the damn thing will taste terrific. Eat the same hot dog outside of America and its weaknesses will become painfully apparent.
Perhaps that’s why the great global fast food chains have steered clear of the hot dog even as they have franchised the hamburger or the donut. A cheap hot dog works on the streets of New York. But for a good hot dog, you need a good sausage. And that costs money.
Even so, the American Hot Dog Factory does not seem to be doing too badly. It already has four outlets in Delhi and more appear to be on the way. The American Hot Dog Factory’s style is simple. It aims to replicate the experience of buying a hot dog on the street in the US and its outlets offer no seating, just hot dogs freshly cooked in front of you and packed in cardboard so you can take them away.
The chain seems to specialize in mall outlets presumably on the grounds that shoppers may prefer to buy a hot dog and keep walking rather than queue up at a food court. The outlet I went to, however, was in Khan Market, in the midst of Delhi’s most overpriced real estate.
Not really American: A Chicago hot dog at the American Diner. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Khan Market is not such a bad location for a hot dog place, actually. For years and years, people have hung around such stalls as Khan Chacha, waiting for freshly cooked rolls (though Khan Chacha now has a restaurant of his own—and very successful it is too). So why shouldn’t they wait for genuine American hot dogs?
Fair enough. Except that these aren’t genuine American hot dogs. In the US, hot dog sausages are made either from beef or pork (or a mixture of both). I can understand the reluctance to serve beef in India but the American Hot Dog Factory also seems embarrassed about serving pork. So, most of its hot dogs are made from chicken sausages which are not only inauthentic, they are also tasteless.
I had the basic hot dog (Original American Hot Dog, Rs99) and it was pretty bad. The sausage tasted of nothing and they had overdone the mustard in an effort to add some flavour. I also tried the Spanish chorizo hot dog, much to the consternation of the order-taker who leaned forward conspiratorially to warn “It is made with pork”. It was nice enough, with slices of chorizo (a spicy European sausage) and sautéed onions and though this was clearly lowest-common-denomination chorizo sausage (at Rs159, what do you expect?), it got the spicy message across. My problem with the dish was that it was not a hot dog in the traditional sense (a whole chorizo sausage may have worked. Sliced chorizo is not quite the same thing). If I want a chorizo sandwich, then I need better bread and better quality chorizo.
Still, I guess the franchisees know what they are doing. Perhaps the Punjabi obsession with chicken is such that a pork frankfurter will not work in Delhi. And so, while I will not be ordering their hot dogs again, I don’t think they care too much given the rate at which they are expanding.
The basic hot dog at the All American Diner at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre is more expensive than the fast food version but you do get to sit down, are offered a choice of chicken or pork sausage (I took pork in case you are still wondering) and eat a better-than-average hot dog.
I went when the Diner had its annual hot dog festival (on till 31 July) and though I had concerns about the service, the food was very good. I had a chili dog, misleadingly described as a Hot Weiner Dog (Rs265) but the sausage (made for the Diner locally) was good and I liked the chili con carne (“spicy meat sauce” on the menu) topping on the frank.
The best value however was a sampler (Rs425) of four medium-sized hot dogs, with fries. This included a Chicago Dog (with a nice honey-mustard sauce, onions, tomatoes and lettuce in a wholewheat bun); an Alabama Dog (a blue cheese bun with balsamic mayo); a Texas Dog (mushrooms and barbecue sauce) and a Honey Mustard BBQ Dog (honey-mustard sauce plus barbecue sauce).
I’m too much of a purist to approve of Cointreau buns and blue cheese buns for hot dogs (though you do find them in the US) but I have to say that all of the hot dogs were made to a certain minimum standard and represented great value for this part of Delhi. Small wonder then that the Diner is always packed.
I went at 6.30pm—a good time to judge a restaurant because the manager has not usually come on—and the service was inept. My waiter did not ask me whether I wanted a pork or a chicken sausage. Later when I questioned him about it, he said he assumed I wanted chicken. One guy cheerfully took my order for Diet Coke, another said they had none (it turned out they had Diet Pepsi). After 25 minutes without food, the manager arrived and the entire experience was transformed.
If you do like hot dogs (and I can live on the damn things) then the Diner is your best bet. Avoid the fast food version, steer clear of hotel coffee shop dogs or best of all (given that as a Lounge reader, you are probably a well-heeled fat cat), eat your dogs on the streets of New York.
Sometimes, you just have to be there.
Vir Sanghvi is editorial director, Hindustan Times.
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