Thursday, March 25, 2010

Capital Region Style Hot Dog Sauce. Mr. Dave's Recipe.

This is a topic that I am quite sure is going to cause a little controversy, people take our local mini-dogs, and all their accoutrement, very seriously. I discussed the Capital District Hot Dog Micro-region some time ago, and it has been a de rigueur topic on the local internets lately. If you are not familiar, the hot dog style we are discussing consists of a small hot dog sausage, on a correspondingly short bun, "meat sauce", mustard, and chopped (raw)onion. The 3 major Capital Region purveyors of this heavenly item that I believe best exemplify it are; Gus's Hotdogs in Watervliet, Famous Lunch in Troy, and Hot Dog Charlie's (various locations). For reference, here is a half dozen Hot Dog Charlie's bad boys that I recently purchased (read about this adventure across the river here).

In this post we will discuss the "meat sauce" or "chili sauce" which I believe to be the seminal item in this combination of flavors. The three establishments I mentioned above have variations on pretty much the same theme, they are all very different, but share some crucial similarities. The recipe I will share with you after the following short discussion is probably more akin to the Hot Dog Charlie's type sauce, but is not an attempt at imitation. It is simply my take on the recipe. A homage if you will.

The first thing I would do in attempting to understand hot dog "meat sauce" is to get the notion of "chili" out of your mind, even though the product may be referred to as "chili sauce". The stuff shares some superficial similarities to what most Americans will think of as "chili," it may contain chili powder, but it is in fact a very different animal. The most important of these differences is that there is no tomato product utilized. I repeat, no tomato. But you are thinking, "it is red, there must be tomato." No, no there isn't. The color comes from the spices. In flavor, the sauce should be primarily bitter and meaty, not sweet or sour. Spicy, but not overly so. There should not be a heavy "Mexican" type flavor.

OK, now here we go. Before we start, this may not be the exact way any of the restaurants actually make their meat sauces. This is how I do it, looking through the lens of what I think a meat sauce should be. I don't want to hear that I am doing something "wrong," save it for when you make your own version.

I guess the most important ingredient is probably the meat. I have seen a lot of "hot dog chili" recipes that call for lean meat. I don't think this is necessarily the right way to go. I think calling for lean meat comes from the tradition of some early sauces utilizing beef hearts, a lean item for sure (consult some recipes for Michigan Sauce). I believe a fattier cut of meat should be used, especially to produce the red grease common in the Hot Dog Charlie's version, that lends to the, ahem, laxative type effects of the dogs. I am using brisket this time.

I purchase a whole brisket early in cookout season because I use it as a component for my ground beef for burgers mix. I cut it into sections and freeze. I am using a little over a pound for my meat sauce.

Chunk it up a little. Look at that beautiful fat.

Now I do have a meat grinder, but I don't use it for this recipe. Texture is a very important part of the meat sauce. You don't want big pea-size chunks of beef going on, it should be smoother with a very fine texture. To achieve this I like to fairly obliterate the meat in a food processor. You end up with an almost emulsified blob of meat and fat.

The next step is to very finely chop a smallish onion. Set that to saute over fairly low heat in a small amount of vegetable oil. Throw in a teaspoon or so of garlic, I know it may sound weird, but I prefer the jarred, pre-chopped type stuff in this recipe. It adds a certain type of garlic punch that you won't necessarily get from fresh, don't ask me why I prefer this flavor.

You don't really want to caramelize or brown anything in this recipe, just saute until the onion and garlic are soft. At this point, add the beef. You want to keep almost constant going on here, chopping up the meat with a wooden spoon, until the meat is a fairly unappetizing grey color (not brown).

Now it is time for the spices.

Notice that I am not using anything fancy here. These are all cheap, normal, everyday items that any inexpensive restaurant would have on hand. Resist the urge to use fancy things. No exotic, dried chili peppers that you butt-smuggled across the border from Mexico should be used here. These hot dogs were meant to be sold for a nickel when these sauces were formulated, hence no frills.

To start we are going to go with (all these are estimates) a tablespoon of chili powder, a teaspoon of sweet paprika, a teaspoon of hot paprika, salt and pepper to taste (don't be stingy), and just the barest shake of cinnamon, maybe a 1/4 teaspoon. A couple notes, you could probably use standard "paprika" that you find in the spice aisle, but I like a little more heat in my version, so I include the hot. The addition of cinnamon might seem strange to you, but I think it is very necessary. It speaks to the Greek origin of some of our local hot dog pioneers (Strates Fentekes, I'm looking at you).

Cook the spice a little with the meat, you start to see the deep color that is indicative of a good meat sauce.

I use good old fashioned water as my cooking liquid, I guess you could use broth or stock. I don't think it is necessary. Barely cover the meat mixture and put in a 250 degree oven for 2-3 hours covered. You could simmer on the stove top, but I find it comes out better from the oven. At the end of this time you should be left with a murky and deeply colored sauce. Taste it and correct the seasoning.

I like to throw the lot into the fridge overnight and then skim off the thick, red, congealed layer of grease that forms on the top. The sauce thickens and the flavor deepens after a good nights chilling. There you have it, Mr. Dave's version of Capital Region style hot dog meat sauce.

I am not saying this is the right way to make the stuff, or the most "authentic," but I find that this comes out pretty close to how it should. I know that the Hot Dog Charlie's bottled stuff is like 5 bucks, so go ahead and impress your friends by making your own. To reiterate, it should be served on a good quality sausage (Rolf's and Hembold's are good examples), with some yellow mustard, and chopped raw onion. Delicious. Thoughts or tricks regarding your own version of meat sauce are welcomed


  1. Decent looking hotdog sauce, sir.

    Also, if you didn't live three hours northwest of me I'd swear we shopped at the same stores. I have the exact same brands of seasonings in my cupboard.

  2. I've lived up here six years now and I've yet to try any of these mini dogs.

    I can't decide if I need to rectify that or not.

    1. They R great I started eating them when they were a nickle and love them just as much today

  3. Sexybeast is duly impressed w/ yr usage of brisket, his eyes glazed over at the sight of the meaty goodness

  4. Miller High Life the Champagne of Spices.

    I still have yet to have a mini dog in Albany, I've only been to Teo's in Pittsfield.

  5. So when should I come over? I'll bring more high life.

    I love the no-gruff version of the recipe. I think I'll be heading over to Famous Lunch this weekend.

  6. It's probably a bad idea to butt-smuggle a chili pepper. I would imagine the results could be described as "Rectal Fireworks."

  7. I love the open bottle of high life behind the spices. I can imagine that your fridge door is held together by duct tape.

    Me, I'm a Sam Adams man myself, the high life is too "low flavor" for me.

    Keep up the great posts Mr. Dave, love the blog.

  8. Love it! I had never had it until my ex showed up one night with the fixings and red? hot dogs from Canada. I kind of looked at him confused but tried it! Wow that was great food.

  9. Jennifer - I am SO glad to hear that! I lived in Albany on and off from 1989 until I got married in 1997 and never heard of these before.

  10. I was looking up Stollen's on Google and found your site because you talked about the one at Aldi. I stayed and looked around. Here in Ohio we have Skyline Chili, they also have the small hot dogs with "chili",a very similar product to many. They also put their chili on top of spaghetti and you have the option of adding beans and/or onion and then covered with a generous amount of sharp cheddar cheese. If you are a true fan, you douse it with liberal amounts of Tabasco sauce. Your comment about the cinnamon is dead on, if you make your own, use it. It is a integral part of the flavor profile.

  11. I made some Charlie's Red Hot Sauce this AM and since I hadn't made it in years decided to do an internet search. I grew up in Burlington,VT when the original Charlie's was in existence. One important thing forgotten by most of the recipes that is essential is to toast the roll on the grill that the dogs have been cooked on also. The dog is split, grilled, put in the roll that has been grilled on two sides until light brown...then add fresh, chopped onion and yellow mustard and meat sauce on top of the dog. It seems to be very different from the Michigans originated in upstate NY.

  12. I'm from east greenbush but now live out side los angeles. It was about 2 years ago when I was living in florida I gave the recipe a try cause I needed my charlies was a train wreck! It was so bad I tossed the whole batch down he potty.I'm pretty sure it was for the most part my fault.this weekend I'm going to give it the entire a second chance.cross your fingers cause I need my fix

  13. Well I'm from upstate and about 2 years ago needed my charlies fix when I was living in florida.that afternoon I went to the store to get the stuff from the recipe above and made a pot of porage so bad I dumped it down the potty! I'm now living outside of los angeles and this weekend I'm going to try a little harder at it and hopefully I'll be scarffing down my charlies. I'll post my results on Saturday!

  14. I need to add a fourth purveyor, slightly outside the Capitol District: Tegeo's of Gloversville, New York. Been decades since I moved to Fairbanks, Alaska and last tasted their meat sauce; but it was every bit as good as Troy's Famous Lunch.


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