Cheap Eats: the hot dog that came from New York | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Cheap Eats: the hot dog that came from New York

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In Brooklyn's halcyon days, when Coney Island was America's answer to Karlsbad and Marienbad, the high point of many of my summer evenings was a bone-racking, brain-numbing ride on the Cyclone followed by a Nathan's hot dog with all the trimmings. Once safely back on terra firma, of course--to reverse the order was to court disaster.

Nathan's, which opened in 1916, was already an institution when I first became acquainted with it in the 50s. Park Avenue matrons in mink coats--de rigeur in those less socially conscious days--regularly stood in line with the rest of the hoi polloi, stalwart hunks and bobby-soxers, along with a rabble of local characters, carny operators, and couples with wailing, runny-nosed children in tow. There was plenty of other food available--chow mein sandwiches (did we really eat those?), hamburgers, and the like--but no trip to beach and boardwalk was complete without one of Nathan's Famous, the affectionately breezy sobriquet applied to them by Sophie Tucker. (That Ms. Tucker's affection for the red hots, and the considerable number she tucked away, earned her the title "the last of the red hot mamas" is, however, mere persiflage.)

According to information supplied by the Nathan's Famous organization, 73 years ago founder Nathan Handwerker found himself possessed of $300--his life's savings. A singing waiter by the name of Eddie Cantor and an obscure piano player called Jimmy Durante persuaded the young man to put his money where a great many mouths seemed to be congregating, on Coney Island's boardwalk. "They figured what Coney Island needed was a good five-cent hot dog--and they figured right," said Handwerker. The history of America is littered with such serendipities.

The story of Nathan's Famous reads like a segment on Robin Leach's Lifestyles. Another Leach, this one named Archie, a stilt walker for George Tilyou's Steeplechase Park (the east-coast analogue of Riverview), dropped into Nathan's regularly to eat lunch and air his cinematic ambitions. Despite Handwerker's admonition to "forget Hollywood and keep your job here," Archie wended his way westward to tinsel town, where he abandoned his stilts and metamorphosed into Cary Grant. One Clara Botinelli, who eventually became Clara Bow, did a brief part-time stint at Nathan's. Closer to our own time, no less a luminary than Nelson Rockefeller announced, "No man can hope to get elected in New York State without being photographed eating hot dogs at Nathan's Famous." Political pundits are no doubt still pondering the precise impact of the hot-dog vote on New York City's recent mayoral election.

Now Chicagoans can sink their teeth into what Muscovites have been chewing on for a couple of months (the Moscow branch of Nathan's opened last November): a genuine, all-beef frank made from a "secret" recipe handed down from generation to generation. (Nathan's grandson, Bill Handwerker, is currently in charge of "recipe development.") A somewhat untidy do-it-yourself condiment bar provides the trimmings. Hot sauerkraut (definitely an improvement on the cold variety), mustard (another secret recipe), dill pickles, sliced tomatoes (alas, the Chicago kind--mealy and tasteless), pickle relish, and ketchup. The last is presumably for the other offerings: burgers, sandwiches, and the like. No person worth his or her celery salt puts ketchup on a hot dog.

There are those who call Nathan's hot dogs "skinny," but such people don't know from skinny. There's certainly nothing skinny about the flavor; $1.59 buys a robust, beefy, smoky-spicy, nicely balanced wiener with just the right degree of snap and, surprisingly, not an overabundance of salt. Its baked-on-the-premises bun offers an adequate, if somewhat gummy, base, to which mustard and sauerkraut add a dimension of piquancy and crunch. Crinkle-cut french fries ($1.45), crisp on the outside with a soft and earthy center, make a satisfying accompaniment.

As for the rest of the menu items, we suggest you skip them, or be prepared for disappointment. Of those we sampled, Manhattan clam chowder ($1.65) turned out to be a gloppy, gooey mess of potato, tomato, and salt with faintly fishy overtones. A pastrami sandwich commanded a whopping $5.49 for a very skimpy portion of scraggly, stringy, salty, metallic-tasting meat strands lurking between two slices of bread. The potato knish ($1.39), said to be imported from Brooklyn no less, should have been diverted to Love Canal. Brooklyn's finest is plump and savory, a chewy potato dumpling that borders on bliss. This knish was thin, tough, and flavorless, a Play-Doh travesty.

Among the desserts, we can recommend rugelach ($7.50 a pound), flaky pastries rolled around nuts and raisins. "Orange blossom" cupcakes, however, might more accurately be labeled "Orange Kool Aid." The corn muffins have the right texture but too much sweetening. Without having sampled more than this, I'd hazard a guess that the cakes and cookies run to sweet and heavy.

As for ambience, potted plants and a two-story atrium do their best, but, as my grandmother might say, "Atrium, shmatrium. The upstairs looks like the inside of a Burger King." The downstairs also looks like the inside of a Burger King, but with signs saying Nathan's. These signs, done in green, orange, and yellow stained glass, carry stylized scenes from the Coney Island of legend and memory--a hot-air balloon, a roller coaster, and a couple being pushed in a three-wheeled chair, Brooklyn's version of the ricksha. We recommend eating upstairs, despite its unfinished state, so you won't have to watch the young men and women behind the counter scratching their heads as they dish out the food. They seemed to be in training on the day of our visit and perhaps hadn't gotten to the hygiene section of the manual yet.

For the record, we counted three mink coats among the customers, which goes to show something, though I'm not sure what.

Nathan's Famous, 1045 N. Rush Street, is open Sunday through Thursday, 10 AM to midnight, Friday and Saturday to 2 AM. For further information call 642-6162.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Art Wise.

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