It’s the dog days of summer in Maine.
Hot dogs, that is.
Hot dog carts are sprouting up around Portland like August sunflowers. And some of them – the Baja Dogs cart in Monument Square comes to mind – offer a different twist on an old favorite.
There are some hi-falutin’ franks popping up on menus as well, as Maine chefs get inspired by local ingredients and get creative for the summer.
In Portland, the bar menu at Grace now features a lobster-and-shrimp hot dog made in-house and served with Maine kelp and farmers’ market fennel slaw. The dogs are served on house-made, miniature hot dog buns and come with potato chips that have been tossed in malt vinegar powder.
All of the ingredients are sourced locally, and $1 from every hot dog is being donated to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.
There’s also been lots of buzz about the duck hot dogs Chef Brian Hill has been making at his new place in Rockport, Shepherd’s Pie. The grilled dogs, which are so big you have to use a knife and fork, have just the right amount of heat to them. They’re nestled in grilled buns, smothered in caramelized onions and topped with a zigzag of mustard.
But what if you prefer something simpler – the kind of hot dog you bite into on the beach, or the dogs you pick up for a spur of-the-moment picnic?
We asked readers to name their favorite hot dog stands, and the places they swore their allegiance to are the classic hot dog joints. Some have been around for generations. These are the places that have the celery salt right next to the salt and pepper shakers and the napkin holders.
The ingredients at these stands don’t stray too far from the expected – “loaded” usually means mustard, onions and relish – and they are far, far away from making the pages of Bon Appetit or Saveur. But you know you can always rely on them, like an old friend.
99 Chestnut St., Lewiston
Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Open Saturdays Labor Day to Memorial Day, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Most popular hot dog: Loaded with mustard, relish, onion and celery salt, $1.75 ($1.50 on Wednesdays)
Sure, Simones’ World Famous Hot Dogs is a magnet for Maine politicians looking for votes.
But did you know that Jerry Mathers – the Beav! – has eaten here too? Photos of him hang above the booth where he sat and, presumably, downed a hot dog. (JFK Jr. was another famous customer, but there’s no photographic evidence of his visit.)
When Simones’ opened its doors in 1908, it was located just across the street from its present location. Back then, hot dogs cost 5 cents each, or six for a quarter.
Now, 102 years later, a hot dog costs $1.75. Every Wednesday, “Hot Dog Day,” the price drops to $1.50.
Simones’ is best known for steamed dogs served on steamed buns, although you can order yours grilled if you like.
It’s the only place we visited that served a red hot “red snapper” – a bright-red Jordan’s frankfurter with a natural casing and a really nice snap. (This hot dog, along with the one at Flo’s, had the best snap of all the dogs we tried.)
The most popular dog here is loaded – mustard, onion, relish and celery salt – followed closely by the chili-cheese dog. Kraut is also available as a topping.
Simones’ also serves all-beef brown dogs, “but by far the trademark is the red frank,” said Jim Simones, who started working here in 1973.
George Simones, Jim’s son and a member of the fourth generation, likes to show tourists the brown dogs in the freezer, then pull the red ones out of the steamer. He tells them the hot dogs turn red when they are cooked, just like lobster.
Hot dog humor.
2 North Main St., Rockland
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. (In winter, it closes at 5 p.m.) Sundays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Most popular hot dog: Loaded with mustard, relish and grilled onions, $2.25
Keith Wasse bought his hot dog stand in Rockland in 1972, after working there for a year and deciding he’d rather stay in the hot dog business than go on to college.
It’s worked out so well for him that he now has a second stand on Park Street that is only open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. A third stand is in Belfast, located in the Reny’s parking lot on the corner of Routes 1 and 3. All three stands are open year ’round, and are favorite haunts of the locals.
What’s made Wasses so successful? Keith Wasse thinks it’s two things.
“People know that when they come to my stand, they’re going to be waited on quickly,” he said. “The average customer, when they get to the window and place their order, waits about a minute.”
And then there’s the hot dogs. They are natural casing dogs with a decent snap, cooked in peanut oil on a custom-made grill. The dogs are grilled right alongside diced onions, and then served on a lightly steamed bun.
Over the years, Wasse has made no changes in the way the hot dogs are cooked, but he has added condiments such as kraut, bacon, cheese and chili.
Oh yes, and ketchup.
“The man who owned it before me, for 16 years he hid his ketchup underneath the counter,” Wasse said. “He had it, but he was not very generous with it.”
Wasse continued that tradition for the first 12 years he owned the stand, but now the ketchup flows freely.
1359 Route 1, Cape Neddick
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily except Wednesdays. Closed Wednesdays.
Most popular hot dog: Served with Flo’s famous relish and usually a little mayo, $2.50 cash only
Most people who make the pilgrimage to Flo’s, a red roadside shack on Route 1 where there are constant lines out the door, probably aren’t there just for the hot dog.
Flo’s is an experience. When you bite into one of their steamed dogs (we had ours with mayo, onions, celery salt and Flo’s relish), you are biting into a piece of Maine history. Flo’s has been there since 1959, and the low ceiling and tiny old diner stools in the decrepit building make you feel as if you’ve gone back in time.
If you’re lucky, when you approach Flo’s there will be no one standing on this side of the screen door. That means the line is short. Some people have compared their ordering experience at Flo’s to the “Soup Nazi” episode on Seinfeld, but that just comes from the uncomfortableness of not knowing what to do. The ladie(s) behind the counter are perfectly nice and friendly. They just have a weird ordering system. But it works for them because the line flows smoothly, if not terribly quickly.
First, you are asked “how many?” and you tell them how many hot dogs you want. The dogs go in, and then it’s time to tell the nice lady what you want on those dogs and whether or not you want chips or a drink. Then you pay for your order and wait.
There are lots of things to make you smile while you wait. Tourists from all over the country get to know each other while they’re patiently waiting their turn. On our visit, whenever someone ordered a can of Moxie, the counter lady proved she was nice by asking “Have you ever had Moxie before?” – a laugh-out-loud moment.
We were there on “a slow day,” and the wait was still 20 to 30 minutes. It might not have been as fun on a 90-plus degree day.
There are three picnic tables under some trees if you want to sit in the shade to eat. The hot dogs were very hot, had great snap (rivaling only Simones’) and were really juicy.
But is any hot dog worth waiting in line for a half hour – even an hour or more?
That’s something only you can decide.
96 College Ave., Waterville
Hours: 8 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Most popular dog: Loaded with mustard, relish and onions, $1.55. Add fried salt pork for 40 cents extra.
Zena McFadden started working at Bolley’s when she was 15. Her grandfather started the business in 1962, so she is the third generation to step behind the counter. Her daughter, Meaghan Williams, plans to do the same someday.
The Bolley’s hot dog is a Rice’s natural casing dog that’s cooked in peanut oil and served on a steamed bun. Lots of McFadden’s customers like adding the salt pork that she has cubed and fried until it’s good and crispy.
“It’s a French thing,” she said. “I’ve had people walk out because I had run out of salt pork.”
The salt pork adds some unexpected crunch, along with – well, saltiness. This is worth trying, but keep a bottle of water by your side for the next couple of hours, because it will make you thirsty.
Brunswick Mall, Maine Street, Brunswick
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from April through Thanksgiving weekend
Most popular dog: Loaded with mustard, relish and onion, $1.50
Danny McDonald worked at his grandparents’ bowling alley and hot dog stand for 15 years before launching a hot dog business of his own.
When he started Danny’s 28 years ago, a hot dog was 60 cents. Today, a dog at Danny’s will run you $1.50, and one of his sons, Sean or Jeffrey, will serve it to you. It’s a natural casing Kirschner dog, and it was one of the juiciest we tried.
Danny’s is known for its speed. You’ll have to wait a bit for a burger, but your steamed dog will be in your hand faster than you can say “make mine loaded.”
“I guess I was taught well,” Danny McDonald said. “It’s kind of like a pride thing. I don’t want you to ever come back and say ‘Oh, the hot dog was cold.’ “
Danny’s has developed a strong local following.
“We probably have 25 to 30 people who come there every single day of the week,” McDonald said.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]