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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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.
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
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
*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!)