Chicagoans load them with relish, onions and tomatoes. Southerners crave creamy coleslaw. Texans heat things up with chili and jalapenos. No matter how you top them, hot dogs are an American tradition. But like most things Americans love, there are a myriad of ways to prepare a hot dog, and every city has its own rendition of the summertime classic, each unique version with plenty of dogged fans.
So it’s no surprise that in Syracuse, one hot dog style rises above the rest. According to the experts, Central New Yorkers are all about the basics: the meat, the bun and the perfect condiment. In fact, our preferences are so unique that some even buck national trends.
Since July marks the climax of hot dog season, otherwise known as the three months between Memorial and Labor days, The New Times set out to uncover our favorite hot dogs—and learned that Syracuse’s top dog is much simpler than you might think.
Most conversations about hot dogs in Central New York start with Hofmann Sausage. The family-owned business has been making sausage, deli meats and burgers since 1879. “There’s a lot of history here,” says president Rusty Flook. And despite the company’s extensive product line, Hofmann is best-known for its signature German franks and Snappys, upstate’s take on the coney. (Depending on your Salt City upbringing, it’s either annoyingly or lovingly pronounced “cooney” by some Syracusans).
Liverpool landmark: Visiting the neon-enhanced Heid’s for a hot dog “is just a Syracuse tradition in the summer,” according to owner John Parker.
But unlike big-name competitors Oscar Meyer and Ball Park, not exactly locally produced, Hofmann’s top sellers are dogs with casing, or “skin,” which creates that signature snap on the first bite. “We’ve been the leaders in natural casing all these years,” says Flook, who adds that nationally, skinless hot dogs are much more popular than their cased cousins. But, he says, “People in this area really prefer that natural casing.”
Still, it’s what inside the casing that counts. Hofmann’s German franks are made with a trio of flavorful meats. Beef, pork and a small amount of veal give the franks their signature smoky flavor. Snappys, which are lighter in color and have a spicier taste, are made with veal, pork and a zesty blend of spices.
Both hot dogs are 100 percent preservative-
free, which limits shelf life, but helps give the product a cleaner, truer flavor. “You need to have just the right combination of meats and spices to create the right flavor,” says Flook.
That just-right flavor is exactly why Flook tops his hot dogs with a small amount of spicy mustard. “Once you start loading up relish and onions and all that stuff, you start masking the taste of the actual hot dog,” he says. “You miss the true flavor of the meat.”
Chuck Madonna, owner of homemade meat manufacturer Liehs & Steigerwald: “I don’t know why some people split hot dogs lengthwise before grilling. You lose the natural juices and flavor.”
Another family business has been satisfying hot dog lovers in Syracuse for decades. Opened in 1936, Liehs & Steigerwald specializes in homemade meats and old-fashioned service. The company’s products can be purchased only from its two locations: 1857 Grant Blvd., and 4130 Route 31, Clay.
“It’s a small-town, old-fashioned mentality,” says owner Chuck Madonna, who explains that Lieh’s German franks, a combination of beef, veal and pork, and coneys, a veal and pork blend, are top-sellers.
The rich flavor of the franks comes from long, slow cooking over hickory sawdust, while a blend of salt, garlic, pepper and mace adds a spicy kick. The coneys, which are not smoked, have a milder taste, thanks to salt, pepper, mace and cardamom. Both varieties, says Madonna, are made from fine cuts of meat. “I use trimmings from hamburger, steaks, all meats that you’d recognize,” he says. “Not just whatever is left over.”
The best way to cook up a Liehs & Steigerwald hot dog? The grill rules, says Madonna, who recommends about 10 minutes over a low flame. But, he warns, don’t split the dog lengthwise before grilling. “I don’t know why some people do that,” he notes. “You lose the natural juices and flavor.” Instead, be sure to watch your dog as it heats up, and remove it from the grill just as the heat causes it to split on its own. “That’s when they’re best.”
And when it comes to toppings, Madonna is also a minimalist. “I don’t think anything belongs on a hot dog but a little brown mustard,” he says. “Use ketchup, and you’re ruining it!”
Roll models: Out-of-towner Nick (left) shows how Texans eat their hot dogs during a Syracuse Chiefs home game, as his family members Emma, Hannah and Sheila look on
Heid’s and Seek
You can’t talk about hot dogs in Syracuse without talking about Heid’s of Liverpool. Since 1886 the hot dog hot spot has been serving up tasty dogs (the Hofmann brand during most of those years, of course, save for an ill-fated switchover to a Buffalo wiener factory in the mid-1990s), when it was a small meat market in the same location. In 1916, the market evolved into a hot dog stand, and remains one of the most popular eateries in the area, especially during the summer months. “It’s just a Syracuse tradition in the summer,” says Heid’s owner John Parker.
Predictably, German franks are the top seller at Heid’s, with Snappys coming in a close second. As for toppings, “We keep things simple here,” says Parker, who explains that most customers top their hot dogs with a simple squeeze of Heid’s own German-style mustard, a family recipe that’s been passed down for generations. Prepared at Nelson Farms in Cazenovia, the tangy condiment contains coarse, stone-ground mustard seed, making it spicier than other varieties. “It’s our most popular topping, hands down,” he notes.
Grillmaster Aaron Gross, working the wienies at Alliance Bank Stadium for 16 years: “Baseball is the great American pastime,” says James Emm, the general manager of Centerplate, the stadium’s food service provider. “And part of going to the ballpark is getting a hot dog. It’s a tradition.”
Another spicy specialty on the menu is Heid’s Texas Hot, a traditional Snappy topped with a fiery blend of ground beef and tomato-based chili sauce, then sprinkled with chopped onions. “It has that Southwest blend of spices, so there’s a little kick to it,” says Parker.
At Heid’s, the hot dogs are cooked on a flat top grill, a method that crisps the casing but keeps in the natural flavor, says Parker. “That’s the way we’ve always cooked our hot dogs, and we’d never do anything different.”
Toppings aside, there’s no doubt that hot dogs taste best with a side of baseball. At Alliance Bank Stadium, hot dogs and Syracuse Chiefs baseball make the perfect pair. The stadium’s concession stands sell nearly 500 hot dogs per game, says James Emm, the general manager of Centerplate, the stadium’s food service provider. “Baseball is the great American pastime, and part of going to the ballpark is getting a hot dog,” he says. “It’s a tradition.”
And predictably, the hot dogs served at the stadium are a Syracuse tradition: Hofmann. “I don’t think you can have a summer event in Syracuse without Hofmann’s hot dogs,” says Emm, who adds that the ballpark has been serving Hofmann’s dogs since opening in 1997.
Along with Hofmann’s German franks and Snappys, a selection of relish, ketchup, yellow and spicy mustard are offered to hungry baseball fans. The dogs are cooked on a flat top grill and served on a New England roll, which, says Emm, can make or break a ballpark dog.
“You’ve got to have a good bun,” he says. The fresh, top-cut buns are softer than traditional buns, because there is bread, rather than crust, on both sides. “They’re just way better than your standard hot dog bun,” Emm insists.
So perhaps the Syracuse-style dog isn’t too complicated. We don’t need Chicago’s relish or Kentucky’s coleslaw. Just quality meat, a fresh bun, and a dash of locally made mustard add up to the summertime treat that we love the most. And like all traditions, this one is simple—and delicious enough to stand the test of time.
The flavor, too, depends largely on the cooking method, and Flook prefers the taste and texture of a grilled Hofmann’s hot dog. “Grilling browns up the casing nicely and gives it that eye appeal,” he says. Although Hofmann’s dogs are fully cooked, Flook says three to four minutes on the grill enhances the meat’s flavor.
The craziest way Hofmann lovers cook up their franks and Snappys? In the deep fryer. Although tasty, deep-fried dogs aren’t as visually appealing as their grilled counterparts. “The natural casing gets a little wrinkly,” says Flook. “But some people like that.”
If you’re hankering for Hofmann’s but don’t feel like firing up the grill, head to a Hofmann’s Hot Haus. With two locations, 6758 Manlius Center Road, East Syracuse, and 401 Northern Lights Plaza, North Syracuse, the traditional hot dog stands have been selling Hofmann’s franks and Snappys since 1993.
“We were mobbed when we first opened,” says co-owner Jerry Dellas. “And we’ve been lucky to have steady business ever since.” (The Fairmount Fair location was razed in 2008 to make way for Panera Bread.) The Hot Haus outlets also offer soups, salads, burgers and desserts, but, says Dellas, it’s the hot dogs that keep customers coming back. “People love hot dogs, but they don’t always want to take the time to make them at home,” he says. “So they can come here and get that experience.”
Rusty Flook, president of Hofmann Sausage and the Hofmann Hot Haus restaurants: “We’ve been the leaders in natural casing all these years. People in this area really prefer that natural casing.”
Still Top Dog
Bob Luongo, known by most locals as Bob Barkers, has a good story to go with every one of the thousands of hot dogs he has sold over the decades. “Mitch Miller told me, ‘Bob, if you were in New York City selling your hot dogs, Nathan’s would be in real trouble,” Luongo says with a smile. And that smile, along with top-notch customer service, has kept his fans lining up for Luongo’s franks and coneys, whether he’s at his various vendor locations or at his longtime Bob Barkers shop at 3712 New Court Road in Lyncourt.
Luongo says he got into the wienie biz “by accident,” and he’s not kidding: A 1982 auto mishap waylaid his career in the construction industry, where he claims to have helped create many of Central New York’s highways and buildings. So instead of pouring concrete, he poured $300 into building his first hot-dog cart and went in front of downtown’s former MONY skyscraper to serve up his sizzling tube steaks. “And the rest is history,” he remarks about his salad days as the happiest of hot-dog hustlers.
In 1984 Luongo had an indoor outlet on Park Street near the Regional Market, yet for the last 24 years he’s been at the Lyncourt location, which first opened in 1964 as a Henry’s hamburger franchise for a 10-year run. Luongo retained the chain’s red, white and green color scheme and simply switched the fast-food fare.
Aside from filling bakery rolls, some locals will also recognize Luongo as a hot dog on the dance floor. A 1957 jitterbug champ at a statewide competition, Luongo is still a talented hoofer who was a featured contestant during the Syracuse New Times’ Dancing With Our Stars hoedown.
Luongo continues to rely on fresh franks from Hofmann Sausage, but they are flavor-enhanced by his “special seasoning” that he has added to his cooking oil during the grilling process. He still pulls out the catering cart and takes his act on the road, notably during summertime car shows and his current weekend gig at the Gander Mountain outlet in Cicero. But it’s most fun to catch Luongo during his Lyncourt day job at Bob Barkers, as customers can’t help but notice the faded photographs of celebrities that the hot-dog king has met over the years.
While awaiting that well-done specialty, Luongo’s got a recollection for every historical figure, too, like the snapshot featuring a Salt City hizzoner. “Lee Alexander once told me, ‘Bob, I’d rather eat a burnt coney from you than the finest steak from a Central New York restaurant!’” Those stories go down easier than a mustard-laced frank on a dog-day afternoon.
Not a meat eater? You’re in luck. There are several vegetarian-friendly hot dog varieties that mimic the taste, texture and grill-ability of traditional hot dogs, sans meat.
Lightlife brand Smart Dogs and Tofu Pups are two top sellers at the Syracuse Real Food Co-op, says manager Brad Stone. Smart Dogs, which are made from veggies, soy and many of the same spices used in traditional meat hot dogs, are fat free and low-cal (45 calories a dog). “There are very few ingredients in the Smart Dogs, and people like that,” says Stone.
Tofu Pups are another favorite. Made from tofu and rich in protein, Pups pack all the same flavor of a hot dog without the fat. “You get the taste of a hot dog without all that oil,” says Stone. Another perk for carnivore converts: These vegetarian dogs can be boiled, grilled or fried, just like their meaty counterparts.
Both varieties are on sale at the Real Food Co-op, 618 Kensington Road, during July, at $2.79 for a pack of eight. Lightlife products are also available in the produce aisle at Price Chopper and the Nature’s Marketplace section at Wegmans.