The best hot dogs are more than slabs of meat tucked into a bun. Just ask Oklahoma-resident Tom Lohr. For the past few months the retired navy missile repairman has been on a self-funded mission: to taste and compare the hot dogs at every one of Major League Baseball's 30 parks—as well as all the minor league parks he can manage—within one season. To formalize his research, Lohr spoke with staff at the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council to develop a five-part rating system for each frank he eats, ranking such qualities as the bun, meat, toppings and price, each on a five-point scale for a best overall score of 30. He’s been publishing his findings—along with another 30-point rating scale for each ballpark—on Blog About a Dog. Which is the best? It all depends on what you're looking for.
Take Boston's Fenway Frank, an iconic dog that left Lohr mostly unimpressed. “It's served in what's called a New England style bun,” says Lohr, “which basically looks like a slice of Wonder Bread with a frank in it. The meat was good, but the toppings were almost non-existent.” However, because of what Lohr calls the 'it' factor as well as the dog's affordable price (“crucial when you're taking a family of four to a game,” he says), the Fenway Frank still scored a 24.5. “Despite its shortcomings the Fenway Frank is famous,” Lohr writes. “Famous gets people to eat you and earns you points.”
To keep costs low and the playing field even, Lohr always orders the run-of-the-mill dog at ballparks, “the kind where when you walk up to a concession stand and say, 'Give me a hot dog,' it's what you get,” he says. So far Lohr's favorite Major League dogs include the one at Kansas City Royals' Kaufmann Stadium, which featured a soft, fresh-steamed bun, Farmland frank, and a large selection of toppings—all served in a portable foil sleeve for $5 and the hot dog at the Great American Ball Park (home of the Cincinnati Reds), served in an easy-to-hold paper wrapper with toppings that include grilled kraut and both yellow and brown mustard. Although Lohr wasn't a huge fan of the sausage itself, he acknowledged the Kahn's brand frank is Ohio-made and therefore tastes like the locals expect—earning the overall dog a 4.5 out of 5 for taste. Every once in a while he'll also spurge on a specialty dog. Two of his favorites: the Sonoran Dog—a grilled hot dog wrapped in mesquite-smoked bacon and topped with pico de gallo, ranch-style beans, and mayonnaise—at Arizona's Chase Field; and the crab mac-n-cheese dog at Camden Yards, cut down the middle and topped with both macaroni and cheese and fresh lump crab meat, and then lightly seasoned with Old Bay—a locally produced blend of herbs and spices.
While Lohr admits there are many factors that go in to creating the perfect frank, he believes the bun is the most important. “You have to have a decent bun or it's all downhill from there,” he says. For Lohr, the bun should be soft but with an actual crust. Then there's the frank itself. Lohr prefers one that's plump and salty. Of course, how the dog is cooked makes a big difference, too. Boiling, which Lohr says you get in a lot of the smaller ballparks, is his least preferred method. Other parks use either a roller grill or Lohr's favorite: a flat iron grill. “I was talking with Josh Distenfeld, the executive chef at Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and he was explaining to me the difference between a roller grill and flat iron,” says Lohr. “With the flat iron you end up sort of overcooking it in a couple of spots, which gives it a little more texture and flavor.”
Although he is pretty traditional when it comes to toppings (“I'm a mustard and relish guy,” he says) Lohr doesn't shy away from offerings like onions, kraut, and jalapenos. There are then the minute details, such as grilled onions over raw and brown mustard before yellow. The most unusual topping he's come across? The Oriole Dog at Pickles Pub, just outside of Camden Yards. “It has peanut butter, jelly and cream cheese on it,” he says adding, “I did NOT try one.” Then there is the question of what to drink with your dog. Lohr prefers beer, though since he typically starts his journey to the next ballpark as soon as a game is through he mostly sticks with water. He also knows that alcohol can sway his ratings. “Five beers will make any dog taste good,” he says, laughing.
Despite his penchant for eating hot dogs in ballparks, Lohr does have a few recommendations for outstanding dogs unassociated with baseball. These include the red chili-topped hot dog at the Dog House Drive-In in Albuquerque, NM, and the Bill Cosby—a quarter-pound “half-smoke” topped with chili, mustard and onions—at Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington D.C.
But while every hot dog is not created equal, Lohr believes they all have one thing in common: they simply taste better in ballparks. “It's the same reason that a glass of wine tastes better when you're enjoying it beside a fire and surrounded by friends,” he says. “It's that ambiance. [For baseball this includes] the roar of the crowd. The sun in your face. Jumping out of your seat to cheer on a home-run. All this sensory input goes a long way.”