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Which Hot Dog Reigns Supreme: Top Dog Hot Dogs

top-dog-hot-dogs-27I have been saying for years that I’d do it. I swore up and down that one day, I’d most certainly do it. And finally, on October 7th, I did it.
I went to Top Dog and ordered every hot dog on the menu.

EVERY HOT DOG.

OK, technically — I ordered 10/11 hot dogs. The eleventh would have been “The Wienie,” –a veggie dog, and while it’s not like I have something against veggie dogs of any kind, it wasn’t like I’d be lacking for food after order ten hot dogs and ultimately, in the majority of cases (or all, perhaps), anyone who would choose to eat a veggie dog at Top Dog is going to get the veggie dog regardless of what I think of it. Maybe it would have the best thing on the menu–but I feel relatively secure in saying that I fervently and most absolutely doubt it.

top-dog-hot-dogs-6
11:25 AM on a Wednesday morning was as calm as I had ever seen it to be at Top Dog.

So, this review will be about ten hot dogs, all containing real meat, and all on the menu at Top Dog.

[pullquote] Shut up and order, get your food, put on your condiments and GET OUT. [/pullquote]Top Dog is a tiny little hot dog shop bordering on the size of a large food truck. For all intents and purposes, you should really consider it to be an immobilized food truck with a roof and no wheels. The place doesn’t have a single seat available for customers and the objective is to speed their customers out. Who could blame them when there’s almost always a line quite literally out the door at all times of day or night?

top-dog-hot-dogsOver the years, my experience at Top Dog with staff has been fun. Again, they’re super busy and chatting with you or customizing anything for you here is out of the question; I’d never ask for this at a hot dog shop, but if you’re the type to ask, then forget about trying here.

Shut up and order, get your food, put on your condiments and GET OUT.

Best Hot Dog at Top Dog
The busy grill at Top Dog

No joke. But in general, the folks here are friendly and some of them are lots of fun during your 5 minutes of interaction time here while you wait at the counter. And ordering 10 hot dogs like I did doesn’t appear to faze them all at or increase your wait time by much, because no matter how many you order, they’re getting thrown on the grill at the same time.

Top Dog Hot Dog Buns
They yummalicious buns at Top Dog

But before the actual meat, let’s talk about this bread. I don’t know whether this bread is made in-house or purchased, but half of what makes Top Dog hot dogs so great is this bread. Now, depending on the hot dog, because the bun is always the same, it can often throw the meat to bread ratio off. For example, the Top Dog is quite thin and ridiculously long, so almost half your dog is sticking out either end and the middle becomes too thick for the dog. But some of the other sausage fit into this bread perfectly. It’s always slightly toasted on the grill before they put your hot dog in the bun and it’s a truly perfect blend of crunch, soft and chewiness all at the same time. It’s a sesame seeded bun, with an even so slight tang to it, but not enough that I’d think it’s sourdough. Hmm…a sourdough option would be just about fantastic.

Top Dog Hot Dog
Sauerkraut, sauerkraut, sauerkraut!

The sauerkraut at Top Dog is really good. It’s not that it’s better than others, but good sauerkraut brings your dog to life, and it adds a spectacular zing to each bite. The photo above shows only a little, because I wanted to show the meat, but normally, I will pile it high in the bun and on top of the dog to cover everything. Then, the combination of one bite of bread, one bite of sausage and a huge gulp of sauerkraut makes for something spectacular.

top-dog-hot-dogs-3Also — let me note here that with very few exceptions, I don’t believe in ketchup. Ketchup on anything covers the taste of everything between the sugar, tomato flavors and tartness. EVERYTHING. It ruins all food as far as I’m concerned!

top dog hot dog
Bread to meat when it’s perfect.

But at the Top Dog condiment station, while they do offer ketchup and relish, the only three things I recommend you put on are the onions, sauerkraut and a Russian spicy mustard they have, which is quite delightful on its own. If you really must use ketchup, buy two hot dogs and ruin your other one–but definitely try one dog without desecrating it! Mr. K was once a fan of ketchup, but now, I am so proud that he prefers food without ketchup. The right oil, salt or vinegar will enliven your food; ketchup will ruin everything. (/rant) 

The Taste of the Individual Top Dog Hot Dogs

The reason I wanted to do this review of all the Top Dog hot dogs was because I have stuck to my regular order religiously since my first visit to Top Dog. About five years ago, a friend of mine who had attended UC-Berkeley told me about a late-night hot dog place, and I remember we headed out on a Friday night to just to hang out in Oakland so we could get 1 A.M. hot dogs to gorge ourselves with on the street. Another friend opened the hatch of his car and we all sat in the trunk, oohing and aaahing while we chewed our food. Hot dogs — past midnight, and good ones, to boot!

Since then, I visit Top Dog regularly. Frankly, anytime I am within short distance of Berkeley, I head to Top Dog and I always, always, always order one Top Dog frankfurter and one Hot Links hot dog.  Yes, I eat two hot dogs in one sitting. And yes–I could probably eat one more, I have always thought, though the one time I did order three, I gave one to another friend who had only ordered one. (I mean…) But during my one visit, I can’t risk ordering something I won’t like or I will lose sleep over not having had one or the other, but looking at the menu, I’ve always been so curious. “One day,” I said, “I will come back to try every single hot dog on the menu.”

It took me five years, but I finally did it. Given that all the prices are cheap (college town and all), it was no burden on the wallet and I’d finally know which of the dog were the tastiest at Top Dog. Some of the ones I dislike are probably other people’s favorites; taste is subjective, so I hope nobody gets worked up about it. I’m simply reporting on what I loved, liked, disliked or could not eat at all.

Note that I took one bite of each hot dog while onsite, took my notes and then a few hours later, once we were home already, I pulled them all back out one more time to taste each one again. When you’re out in public tasting AND shooting photos, you always experience a sense of being rushed–or I do, anyway. So I wanted to double-check what I thought originally, in case I sped through something without fully appreciating its flavors.

Top Dog Frankfurter ($3.25)

Top Dog Hot Dog
Top Dog Frankfurter

Thin and long, this hot dog is all beef and is described as Kosher-style from Chicago. It’s packed with flavor and good seasoning, and while not big on moisture, it also doesn’t taste dry at all. Since my first visit, I’ve always ordered one of these, piled high with sauerkraut and a little sliver of mustard. The dog has a nice crunch to it — and while it’s not ideal meat to bread ratio, it still tastes good because it’s seasoned nicely. With the slight chewiness of the bread and sausage, I can’t help but always order one of these!

I believe frankfurters are originally all pork–but I could be wrong. In any case, this one’s a winner.

Now, the big question is, will it remain in my usual order after I try the rest?

Hot Link — Louisiana Style ($3.25)

Top Dog Spicy Hot Dog
Hot Link – Louisiana Style at Top Dog Hot Dogs

The other regular for my order is a Hot Link sausage. Now this one has the perfect bread to meat ratio and always has a nice char on the dog. This is a flavor bomb with every bite, so I always have this last, because having this first means you won’t taste your plain Top Dog Frankfurter. Like, at all. This one doesn’t need any mustard at all — and if Top Dog had mayonnaise, I’d give this a little dollop of mayo to offer some creaminess, but I simply pile on the sauerkraut on this one. Now to think of it, if I had sour cream, it would probably be heaven in my mouth. (Must take sour cream with me next time.) The Hot Link is plump and extremely juicy, and while I am rarely impressed with anything that claims to be spicy, this one is actually quite spicy. The burn is more on your lips from the oils than in your throat, but eventually, your tummy does feel quite warm after consuming this.

Even after this visit, the Hot Link remains as an absolute part of my order.

But now it’s time to review everything else I have never tasted at Top Dog. I’ve listed the prices here and keep in mind that this is inclusive of tax. There is a tip jar on the counter, but it’s optional. I usually leave a dollar for my order of two dogs, but this time, I left a $5 tip since I did order everything. It didn’t take more time, but it was a lot more sausages to cook at once.


 

Calabrese – Italian ($3.25)

Top Dog Hot Dog Calabrese
Calabrese — Italian Style

Looks-wise, I was impressed. It made me want to bite into it. The casing looks slightly bubbled and it’s just begging you to chomp. Bread to meat looked good and this was actually the first one I bit into during this taste test.

The sausage doesn’t pop like the Hot Link does; it actually has some give but then nicely lets your teeth bite into it. I will say that this was Mr. K’s new favorite, and the only one he did finish in its entirety, but personally — while the flavor was distinct and you could definitely get a whiff of fennel, but the spices in it were mild and something about it was grainy. Worse was that it tasted dry…which probably contributed to the grainy feel. On the upside, perhaps it has less oil that others–I wouldn’t know, but this was not at the top of my list, so I was grateful when Mr. K downed it later in the day.

Smoked Chicken Apple Sausage ($3.25)

Top Dog - Smoked Chicken Apple
Smoked Chicken Apple Sausage at Top Dog

Every time I post on social media that I’m at Top Dog, someone almost always asks if I tried the Chicken Apple hot dog. While I know the combination to be great when cooking, I wasn’t all too keen on having it combined in my sausage. I could see it might taste fine, but I prefer stronger flavors than this combo in a hot dog!

That said, the sausage was actually quite tasty. The flavor is distinctly not pork and not beef, and while chicken is believable, it was extremely mild, especially combined with some of the herby notes in this sausage. The herb fragrance bordered on being pungent. On the one hand, because chicken has such a mild, diluted flavor compared to pork and beef, perhaps the herbs help to give the sausage more flavor, in general. On the other hand, if I order a chicken sausage with apple, I expect sweet and mild meat flavor–not overpowering herbs. 

That said, this was a good dog. The sweetness of the apples and perhaps a tad of brown sugar or such was noticeable and made for a smooth-tasting sausage.

Spicy Chicken Mango ($3.50)

Top Dog Hot Dogs
Spicy Chicken Mango Sausage — Top Dog

I believe that when I was given this sausage, he said it was “Habanero Mango” — so I presume the spice in it is from Habanero. If so, the spice level on this Habanero was unimpressive; what should come in at about a 200,000 Scoville range was barely noticeable! I could taste the essence of mango but it was mild, and the Hot Link is no less than ten times spicier. The Hot Link is also oilier, whereas this one was dry. (It looks moist, doesn’t it? I truly expected moist…but I was wrong.) It’s also possible he said something else, but since it’s busy at Top Dog, it wasn’t like I could really put him aside and have him walk me through the virtues of all ten hot dogs.

Overall, I didn’t like this one and wouldn’t put it on the top half of my list. That said, since we were unable to finish anything while onsite, I did notice that when we came home and took more bites as a snack later, this one had improved significantly in flavor when it was cold. It just wasn’t any good when just off the grill.

Bratwurst – German ($3.25)

Hot dog top dog
The Bratwurst Sausage (next to Top Dog Frankfurter on the right)
Bratwurst Top Dog Berkeley
Bratwurst closeup

When I decided to this taste test, I was most excisted about trying the Brat- and Bockwurst. While it didn’t interest me enough to order them previously, I had always been curious.

Well, the Bratwurst was my second least favorite on the Top Dog menu. This one is all pork.

Even as I write this, I fully acknowledge that this may float someone else’s boat more than any other sausage at Top Dog–and I respect that–but for me, it was just a no-go. It wasn’t bad enough to make me want to spit it out, but majoram (herb) is not my cup of tea under normal circumstances, and in this case, I particularly disliked it because the whiff it gave you about halfway into chewing one bite was overpowering and punches you in the nose as you eat. Something about marjoram reminds me either of spoiled food or formaldehyde–you know, for dead corpses? Perhaps I am flashing back to my Physiology & Anatomy 101 days.

The sausage is incredibly dense in texture, and extremely dry. Between the dry sausage and the bread — I desperately needed water after one bite of this because I started hiccuping.

And for what it’s worth, it was even worse cold.

Kielbasa (Polish)

Top Dog Kielbasa
Kielbasa Sausage at Top Dog

Mmmmm, that nice charring floats my boat. I’ve had kielbasa quite a few times in my life and I’ve always liked the sausage but this one….this one was outstanding.

This sausage was incredible. It’s plump but soft, and has some incredible flavors in it. The sausage is a blend of pork and beef–which makes perfect sense as it offers the best of both worlds. It’s very juicy and combines wonderfully with the Top Dog buns, and without being spicy at all, it seemed to awaken your taste buds. Really love this one!

Garlic Frankfurter ($3.25)

Top Dog Garlic Sausage
Garlic Frankfurter

I could’ve sworn the guy said “Garlic Chicken” as he passed this to me, but based on the Top Dog website, it’s 3/4 beef and 1/3 pork with fresh garlic. So, no chicken–though I did take notes when I took a bite of this that says, exactly, “Intense flavor — doesn’t taste like chicken!”

This one was quite delightful. Contrary to some of the others, it didn’t look moist, and frankly (get it?), I didn’t feel like it even looked tasty. But one bite of this and my eyes lit up — what juiciness and moistness in each bite! It was also soft and gave into a bite easily. The flavors of this one were rich and soft enough that it reminded me more of pate than a hot dog or sausage…really smooth and appealing texture on the inside of the casing.

Bockwurst – German ($3.25)

Bockwurst Top Dog
Bockwurst Sausage

Meine Güte! 

While this was the second to last one I tasted, after some good and bad intense flavors and fragrances, it screamed for attention after one bite. Seriously, this sausage is magnificent. As I prefer, the Bockwurst gives a big pop on your first bite and a tiny splash of oil. The inside is soft and smooth with an extra dose of moistness every time you chew! In some ways, one could say it was the milder cousin of the aforementioned Bratwurst that I really didn’t like, but unlike its cousin, it was just enough aromas and just enough denseness to really become the perfect sausage.

The sausage is made of 1/2 veal, 1/2 pork, milk and eggs. You can immediately see what provides the flavor, what provides the oil and what contributes to its wonderful texture.

I may or may not be salivating as I’m writing this right now.

meine Güte!

Top Dog Linguica
Linguica

You know how you save the best for last?

Nope, that doesn’t appear to  be what I did in this case. 

Never again. I am a big proponent of using good vinegar to liven things up, but using wine to sour things up doesn’t seem to be my thing. This is an all-pork sausage, oak smoked and —just weird. Many of you know I love weird, disgusting food but this was just bad weird, like reminiscent of what would happen if I took a sausage, put it outside for 9 days, then cooked it on the grill and stuffed it in my mouth. I cook with many ingredients and if I bought a sausage that extended this kind of taste, I’d throw  the whole dish out thinking I cooked with spoiled meat.

The gritty texture was off-putting and the sausage was dry to the bone. Much like the Bratwurst, it had a pungent tendency to it–but not of herbs. It wasn’t of anything I could easily identify.

Do some people love this? Yes — I’m sure they do. Also, knowing Top Dog, I have no doubts that it was actually fresh; this was the only reason I could fight off the instinct to spit it out immediately because while it may taste spoiled, it wasn’t. This is how it’s supposed to taste.

But, to each his own, right? There are plenty of things that I devour that would make others start gagging, so I am only saying that for me personally–this was not my dog. Not at all.


 

Conclusion: Top Dog Hot Dogs

After trying 10/11 hot dogs at Top Dog, I can now safely and most confidently recommend my favorites.

Here's my list in order of preference:

 

  1. Bockwurst
  2. Hot Link
  3. Kielbasa
  4. Garlic Frankfurter
  5. Top Dog
  6. Smoked Chicken Apple
  7. Calabrese
  8. Spicy Chicken Mango
  9. Bratwurst
  10. Linguica

 

You see how this could present a serious dilemma on my Top Dog treks, having to order just two dogs on each visit.

Unfortunately, I think the Top Dog Frankfurter has fallen off my usual order list because of this taste test. It would be near impossible to choose only two between 1-3, so I’d have to say I need to get three dogs on each visit. Or, if I can convince someone to share with me, I wouldn’t mind getting the top five items and have a few bites of each.

The Bockwurst was really so good that it even beat out the Hot Link, ever so slightly, but most certainly. I cannot go and NOT EAT the wonderful Hot Link, so that has to stay. The Kielbasa was just wonderful; it’s a combination that anyone would enjoy and appreciate, and if you’re someone who cannot eat spicy food–well, get the Bockwurst and Kielbasa– they are two outstanding choices on the Top Dog menu.

I didn’t try the chili since if you like it, you will get it on top of your dog. I make my own chili at home, so it’s not something I like to put on top of hot dogs. I also didn’t order the potato salad because, well, you may have noticed I ordered 10 hot dogs for two people here.

Over the next 18 hours or so, we couldn’t finish it and finally tossed out the leftovers we didn’t touch, I admit I still downed the top five hot dogs only without the bun, since nobody wants to eat day old buns.

But now, I’m craving hot dogs again. Anyone up for a Top Dog run tonight?

Grace Keh

Managing Editor

Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.

21 Comments
  1. Wait a second….Phil, they didn’t give me lemon chicken! It wasn’t even on the menu…have I been duped? Or perhaps it was replaced by one of these others. There is a lot of tape like stuff covering up the menu.

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