Anyone of a certain age born and bred in New York City knows right away exactly what this is.

"Only now were the delegates, whom we the press outnumber by at least five to one, arriving in New York, and there was time to kill. Why not call a fearless gourmet to advise hungry conventioneers? Someone like Gersh Kuntzman, who once staved my appetite for days reviewing a Chinese restaurant I used to like. (“In between the shell and the unnoticeable meat center is a peritoneal layer of slime which keeps the meat slidin’ away.”)

"Gersh, I said, tell me: What do you recommend for folks in a hurry? The dirty water dogs sold from those carts with the cheery umbrellas? “Well,” he said, “the dirty water dog is certainly a nutritious treat and readily available in all major Manhattan gridlock centers. But my vote goes to the knish. Eat a potatoe (sic) knish and it will last nearly the entire convention. Stays in your stomach for three days.”

- Wall Street Journal, July 16, 1992, p. 6                                                      

They're just New York-style boiled hot dogs, served with mustard, sauerkraut, minced onions in tomato sauce, or relish. The water's not really dirty; it's just cloudy because of all the hot dogs cooked in it.

All over New York City one can see pushcarts with brightly colored (most commonly blue and yellow striped) umbrellas, very large wire wheels in the back (with skinny tires) and smaller, dolly-style wheels that swiveled in front. Fancier pushcarts were made entirely of shiny stainless steel with the familiar 4" x 3" diamond-tuft pattern rolled into the metal (that seems to signify "food is served here") the same way one sees the diamond-pattern stainless steel on food-service trucks that bring sandwiches and coffee to construction sites, or the wall behind the cooking area of a genuine old-fashioned diner.

Larger, independent pushcarts are often pulled by automobile to their daily location.  Traditional pushcarts are typically garaged in groups, and each morning the owners (or renters) of the carts must physically push them to their intended destination.

Pushcart operators must be licensed as street vendors by the New York City Department of Consumer Protection.  A food service license is also necessary.  These licenses must be prominently displayed on the pushcart.

The hot dog cart regularly appears on film and in television programs.  Most typically, two detectives order hot dogs and sodas from a steaming cart, and discuss the case at hand.  Outside of courthouses, defense and prosecution alike partake of New York's favorite food-on-the-fly during a brief recess.

Although dimensions differ, a dirty water hot dog cart is sure to be equipped with the following:

  • A water tank heated by a propane burner.  There are two doors to this compartment with a half-depth metal partition in the center.  Fresh dogs go into one side of the partition, and are transferred to the other side when sufficiently cooked and ready to serve.
  • A compartment on top of the warm surface with a clear plastic door, for keeping buns fresh.
  • A round mustard dispenser.  When the top is lifted, it reveals a long, rounded piece of metal to which adheres just enough mustard for a hot dog.  Placing the metal alongside the hot dog in the bun, and giving a little "twist" of the wrist leaves behind the perfect amount.
  • A compartment immersed in the hot water which accommodates a quart or two of  sauerkraut.  There's a little hole in the access door for this compartment out of which sticks the handle of the large, two-tined sauerkraut fork.
  • Another compartment immersed in the hot water which accomodates a quart or two of minced onions in tomato sauce.
  • A compartment insulated from the hot portion which contains ice and cans of soda.
  • A napkin dispenser (built-in)
  • A dispenser for the waxed-paper squares the hot dogs are served in.
  • Finally, the ubiquitous brightly-colored umbrella.

It's all in the ingredients

The Sabrett company may not be the largest manufacturer of hot dogs, but it's the most famous, and the most familiar to New Yorkers.  Many New Yorkers insist that if it's not a Sabrett hot dog, it's not authentic.  Nathan's Famous* (from Coney Island) and Hebrew National kosher dogs are really the only substitutes.

The ideal dirty-water hot dog should be a natural casing frank.  This means that the outside is made from pig's intestines.  One bite of one of these dogs and you'll experience the toothsome snap! prior to the lovely, slightly garlickey taste of the all-beef filling inside.  A hot dog vendor who serves "skinless" franks is merely cutting corners for economy's sake.  Should a hot dog vendor display the familiar yellow and blue Sabrett umbrella, but sell smaller, skinless hot dogs, it's akin to a bar-owner drinking a bottle of single-malt Scotch, replacing the contents with a cheap blend, and serving it to his customers.

The mustard is bright-yellow "deli" style mustard; no vinegary/sugary turmeric-overload here (read "French's"), just really good mustard.  The sauerkraut is pure; unadulterated with bacon bits, caraway seeds, or dill seeds.  This is not a charcuterie Alsacienne.  The onions in sauce are minced to a perfect 1/8" x 1/16" size.  The sauce is a brownish-red color, and tastes both sweet and savory at the same time, with a little spicy bite on the finish. Infrequently another container holds prepared chili, without beans, for which an extra charge is levied should you like a "chili dog."

On top of the cart is usually a jar of relish, and sometimes a bottle of hot sauce (usually a Tabasco competitor, as Tabasco is too costly).  Occasionally seen will be a shaker full of hot-pepper flakes, or salt and pepper shakers.

Ketchup is only present on hot dog carts that locate themselves near heavy tourist traffic.  Anyone sputtering ketchup on one's dirty water hot dog will probably elicit chuckles from the vendor, and from any native New Yorkers who happen to be around.

If your vendor is truly authentic, among the soda offerings, beside cola and lemon-lime, will be ginger ale, good root beer and Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray Tonic. It's celery soda, a phenomenon that's purely New York.

The neat thing about Sabrett is that it sells all of the supplies necessary to conduct a hot dog stand, but for the sodas (and the stand itself).  This makes it easy on vendors who typically work long hours, out in the cold or the heat, and don't have the time to order from multiple suppliers.

Additional Items

Also kept warm in many New York hot dog carts are potato knishes.  A knish is basically mashed potatoes wrapped in a flour and egg crust that's been baked.  About four inches square and two inches in depth, they're occasionally split open and served with mustard inside.  Eating a knish is kinda like eating a lead weight.  But it's tasty and cheap. "Gabila's" is the brand that's the benchmark for good taste and texture.

Large, soft pretzels covered with large salt granules may also be kept warm inside the hot-dog cart.  A few will be displayed on a stick atop the cart so as to alert customers of their availability.

There are a few hot dog vendors who also have a small, flat gas-fired griddle upon which are fried hamburgers, and fried fresh minced onions to accompany.

The Dirty Water Hot Dog's place in world cuisine.

London has fish and chips. Brussels has paper cones filled with shoestring French fries accompanied by mustard mayonnaise. Barcelona has tapas served with wine. Paris has espresso and croissants taken at an outdoor cafe. Tokyo has sushi. Hong Kong has dim sum. New York has dirty water hot dogs.

*Nathan's, a Brooklyn, New York tradition, has opened nearly four hundred fast-food locations worldwide. Nathans' are not really "dirty water" hot dogs, as they're grilled. But they're to dirty water hot dog afficionadoes as Methadone is to the heroin addict; a distant second.  However, novices not located in New York may find Nathan's dogs to their liking, in a pinch. (Off-topic:  Nathan's crinkle-cut french fries are absolutely delectable!)

SOURCES:

  • http://www.sabrett.com/
  • http://www.foodsofnewyork.com/
  • http://www.nathansfamous.com/nathans/inside/htmls/corporate_profile.php
  • http://www.cateringtruck.com/hot_dog_carts.htm
  • http://www.800buycart.com/minicart.html
  • http://www.barrypopik.com/article/293/dirty-water-dog

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