The foot-long hot dog is more than a meal. It’s a mystery. ¶ “I think they use Wardynski’s,” whispered Yvonne Kunselman, savoring a foot-long at Louie’s Foot-Long Hot Dogs. ¶ Kim Andrew, a customer at Ted’s Charcoal Broiled Hot Dogs, praised the Ted’s version, confiding: “I think it’s the casings.” ¶ We learned much on an afternoon fact-finding trip. That Louie’s actually uses Sahlen’s, but it’s a variety made just for them. And that at Ted’s, where they also use Sahlen’s – a brand that, by the way, dates to 1869 – they get the dogs hot in advance so they can char them better. ¶ But as the saying goes, who really wants to know how the sausages are made? It’s not as if we are going to try this at home. ¶ You stalk the wild foot-long hot dog in its native habitat: Sheridan Drive in Tonawanda. ¶ It was at Louie’s, on the corner of Sheridan and Grand Island Boulevard, that this delicacy was introduced to Buffalo. Louis Turco, who bought this seasonal hot dog stand in 1951 from a previous owner, needed something to help him hold his own against Ted’s, his mentor and rival. Buffalo embraced it, as we always embrace supersized items. Foot-longs quickly became a Buffalo thing.
As you approach Louie’s, pause to appreciate the history around you. Sheridan Drive, Route 324, was in pre-expressway days a main route to Niagara Falls. Hence the vintage motels, one of which is across the street from Louie’s. Sheridan Park Golf Course, adjacent to Louie’s, dates to the 1930s. Overhead looms the iconic Town of Tonawanda water tower.
The charcoal aroma is sweet with nostalgia. I once got to interview Louie, who died in 2013. We talked in a back room beneath a Pepsi clock and Louie told me he sensed the presence of employees long gone.
“Many times, I feel them right behind me, touching my back, encouraging me,” he said.
Now, Louie’s son Ang was working the grill alongside his sister Debbie and other staff. They all wore T-shirts reading “Toast Your Buns At Louie’s.” The work area was hot, crowded, primitive, Paleo. Flames leapt. Ancient machinery whirred. The grill sizzled with hot dogs, buns, burgers and another Louie’s specialty, bologna steaks.
“We sell a lot of those,” said Debbie.
The line forms at Louie’s in a narrow walled-in area by the grill and often stretches outside. Bob Noe, on his lunch break from his job for People Inc., said he was pressed into service as he was ordering.
“Ang said, ‘Do me a favor. Open the door so I can find out what they want.’ ”
Surely the answer was: a foot-long. Who can resist? The charred crispness of the dog. The slather of ketchup and the rich, secret chili sauce. The crunchy bun. And the homemade onion rings, fat as doughnuts. Onion rings? Whose idea was that? And whose idea was the loganberry iced tea? I’m afraid I’ve developed a taste for loganberry, a previous feature on our 100 Things tour.
Wisely, two of us split a foot-long. We had to save room. Every hot dog odyssey needs a stop at Ted’s, which after all was indirectly responsible for foot-longs coming to Buffalo.
At Ted’s Sheridan Drive branch, that intoxicating charcoal aroma hit us before we even walked in. Again we basked in the heat and passion – the bustle, the leaping flames, the matching T-shirts, the sense that Western New York is just one big room. When I couldn’t tell the server what drink our photographer had ordered, the gal behind me in line spoke up. “She ordered a diet Pepsi.”
It takes a while to eat a foot-long. As we ate blissfully, we pondered the former Red Barn next door. We appreciated the greatness of our food. Charcoal-grilled hot dogs aren’t greasy. And the fries, too – no slicks of grease. Fries? Whose idea was that?
At least we resisted Paula’s Donuts which, conveniently, is now right across the street.
But only because that is another 100 Things adventure, for another day.