Buffalo, NY is known across the country for its eponymous spicy wings. But while the rest of America has spent the past several decades gobbling down the Buffalo wings that put the city on the culinary map, locals have been quietly munching on great hot dogs.
There is no iconic “Buffalo hot dog” – no specific combination of ingredients that define the frankfurters from this city, such as Arizona’s bacon-wrapped Sonoran hot dog or Chicago’s poppy-seed bunned and condiment-laden dogs; rather, Buffalo simply has an abundance of great franks. There are two distinct styles – grilled and flat-top griddled – and each have their devoted following. What appears to be universal in western New York, however, is the actual sausage that goes into the bun.
Buffalo dog houses use a pork/beef combo that are now almost universally locally sourced from Sahlen’s Packing Co, a fifth-generation family-run company still based in Buffalo. “Although we distribute a variety of hot dogs (including all beef) to 20 states, here in Buffalo mostly everyone uses the pork/beef combination,” says Jeff Vance of Sahlen’s. There are two versions of the pork/beef hot dog: natural casing and skinless. The method of cooking determines the version used.
“Hot dogs that are grilled should have a natural casing, which is designed for the high heat of an open flame grill. The hot dog splits as it cooks, allowing the inside to heat and provides that signature bubbly browned exterior,” Vance says. “When steaming, boiling or using a flat-top [griddle], skinless is the way to go. A natural casing frank would simply get tough and rubbery if cooked that way…skinless franks are wasted on a charcoal grill – they don’t split and just turn black.”
Buffalo’s love affair with the hot dog is largely credited to Theodore “Ted” Liaros, a Greek immigrant who began his food service career in 1913 selling snacks (including hot dogs) from a horse-drawn wagon. In 1927, Ted opened his first stationary location after purchasing a shack that had been used as a tool shed under the newly constructed Peace Bridge, which was built to connect the United States and Canada. After a $100 real estate transaction, Ted’s Hot Dogs was born.
Today, Ted’s is a Buffalo institution, operating nine locations throughout the area, plus one in Arizona (for snowbirds seeking a taste of home). Toppings range widely, from bacon and onion rings to mac and cheese to peppers and onions, but the signature topping has always been “Ted’s Hot Sauce” which, according to current president (and Ted’s granddaughter) Thecly Ortolani, is “a sweet-spicy ketchup-based red relish that also has a bunch of secret spices.”
Ted’s hot sauce might be famous, but it’s the charcoal grilling that really gives the hot dogs their signature flavor. Although the original Ted’s location griddle-cooked its dogs (due to its location under a bridge, according to Ortolani), the second location began using charcoal sometime in the early 1950s. “After we opened our Sheridan Drive store in 1948, my father noted that some nearby hot dog stands were using charcoal, so he persuaded my grandfather to add a wing out back to house charcoal grills,”Ortolani says. “We still grill all our hot dogs over hardwood lump charcoal today.”
Meanwhile, while Ted’s still thrives, those stands that spurred the switch to charcoal are no longer in business. Ted’s original stand was torn down in 1969 during renovations to the Peace Bridge; Ted Liaros died a month later.
But charcoal grilling is not unique to Ted’s – several independent hot dog stands and mini-chains feature this method of cooking. Louie Turco has been charcoal-grilling his franks at Louie’s Hot Dogs since opening about three miles west of Ted’s in 1951. However, Turco sought his own innovation to lure the growing numbers of hot dog fans in Buffalo.
“After he started the business, my father wanted a signature item to draw people to his end of Sheridan Drive,” says Angelo, Louie’s son. “His claim to fame is that he invented the foot-long hot dog. He approached the local Hygrade’s meat-packing plant and asked them to help him develop it.”
According to Turco, at some point, Louie’s switched over to Sahlen’s when the Hygrade’s plant closed, but the accompanying roll was a bit slower in coming. “For the first 25 years that we offered the foot-long hot dog it was served on the original roll, with meat sticking out at either end,” Angelo says. “Even though we now have a foot-long roll, we still have old-timers that come in and request their foot-long hot dog on a short roll.”
Louie’s, which operates two locations, also serves a red relish-based proprietary topping known as “Piccadilly hot sauce.” According to Angelo, “Our sauce is part of ‘The Works,’ a combo popular throughout Buffalo that also includes mustard, raw onions and a pickle.”
But Buffalo doesn’t stop at one signature style; there is a second camp with an equally devoted following that prefers “Texas Hots” style dogs, which are cooked on a flat-top griddle and covered with a meat sauce. No one really knows where the term came from; there doesn’t appear to be any connection to the Lone Star State. But somehow the term stuck, and there are “tons of independent stands that serve Texas Hots, along with most of the Greek restaurants in town,” Vance says. “The folks that make Texas Hots use a skinless version of our pork/beef hot dog.”
Perhaps the most well-known of the Texas Hots variety is another Louie: Louie Galanes, who in 1967 opened the first hot dog stand in his empire, called Louie’s Texas Red Hots (which today has seven locations). Here, the motto is, “It’s All About The Sauce.”
In order to showcase the sauce, Louie’s cooks its skinless dogs on a flat-top griddle and covers them in a Texas hot sauce, which branch manager Amy Karczewski describes as a “meat sauce with a kick.”
No matter how you slice it, Buffalo is a hot dog town that’s ready for prime time. From smoky char-grilled dogs that are reminiscent of family cookouts, to sublime griddled Texas Hots, Buffalonians know how to roll.