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Food Feature: From ballpark to park bench, Atlanta's top dogs

We don't care what's in 'em, we love hot dogs!

The hot dog has always been with us.

Maybe not since the Garden of Eden, but at least since the 9th century B.C. — Homer mentions sausage in The Odyssey.

Germans claim that hot dogs were developed in Frankfurt in 1484, while the Viennese (Wein, get it?) insist that Austria deserves the credit. Pushcarts in the Bowery were filled with them in New York in the 1860s; the first Coney Island hot dog stand opened in 1871.

Alas, the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, after extensive research, has been unable to verify the beloved tale that the great American hot dog was born in New York's vast, venerable Polo Grounds in 1901, when frankfurters were purportedly first put in a bun to make the popular immigrants' snack known as red hots easier to eat in the stands. (They were already traditional at St. Louis Browns games in 1893.) And if the cartoonist Tad Dorgan did indeed dub the result "hot dogs," it can't be proven by his extensive archives.

AT THE BALL PARK
In spite of this, the hot dog is synonymous with baseball.

Ah, but times change, and ball park fare changes, too. Now that there is sushi in Seattle, clam chowder in Boston and nachos everywhere, the humble hot dog is scrambling to become more glamorous. Down at Turner Field, colorful posters announce the 21 varieties of hot dogs that make the home of the Braves "Hot Dog Heaven": Bison Dog, Kiddy Dog, Kosher Dog, Super Dog, Jumbo Chicago Dog, Chicago Dog, Jumbo Southwestern Dog, Southwestern Dog, Smoked Sausage, Braves Juicy Jumbo Dog, Ballpark Special, Bratwurst, Italian Sausage, Chicken/Turkey Sausage with sun-dried tomatoes, Chicken/Turkey Sausage with artichoke and garlic, Jumbo New York Dog, New York Dog, Jumbo Georgia Dog, Georgia Dog, Chili Cheese Dog and the Grilleworks Dog.

The lineup in not as overwhelming as it looks. For one thing, the Georgia Dog and the Jumbo Georgia Dog (chopped Vidalia onions, in case you were wondering) are not two varieties, they are simply different sizes of the same variety. And most of the dogs are the same old Bryan hot dog, drizzled decoratively with mustard and ketchup (the Super Dog) or chili and cheese (the Southwestern dogs). As to the purported Chicago dogs, well, don't you believe it; celery salt does not make a Bryan dog a Chicago dog. (See Mike's Dog Haus below.)

For the health conscious, there's the mildly spicy bison dog. For the gourmet, there are two versions of lean chicken-turkey sausage, one with specks of sweet sun-dried tomato and one with imperceptible artichokes and mild-flavored garlic. Tasty enough but hard to eat, thanks to a tough casing.

The standard for taste remains the Hebrew National Kosher Dog, to which one can add grilled onions. The authentic all-beef flavor cannot be improved upon, and the size is just right.

AWAY FROM THE BALL PARK
Away from the ballpark, here's where you can get your hot dog fix:

THE VARSITY: Opened in 1928 by W. Frank Gordy, The Varsity goes through two miles of hot dogs, 2,000 pounds of onions, 2,500 pounds of potatoes, 300 gallons of chili, and 5,000 fried pies every day. To keep everything fresh requires three to six grocery deliveries daily. What one wants to order here is a chili dog, a barbecue sandwich and onion rings. These delicacies are unique in the fast-food world.

At The Varsity, it's the balance of tastes and textures that account for its food's endearing goodness. The greasy barbecue, for example, seeps into the soft, nondescript bun, transforming the otherwise drab container into food for the gods. Likewise, a Varsity chili dog is the best of its type, thanks to the chili meat, ground so fine as to be pulverized. This is critical. The mixture sticks to the thin, pink hot dog like drying cement. Its gritty texture blends lusciously with the moist dog. Then there are the onion rings. Like snowflakes, no two are the same. They'll come to you, hot with batter, in a little paper boat. Among them will be crunchy little fingerlings, fat droopy slices, and all manner of shapes and sizes in between.

Varsity lingo:

Hot dog Hot dog with chili and mustard

Heavyweight Hot dog with extra chili

Naked dog Plain hot dog in a bun

MK dog Naked dog with mustard and ketchup

Regular C dog Hot dog with ketchup

Red dog Naked dog with ketchup

Yellow dog Naked dog with mustard

Yankee dog Same as a yellow dog

Walk a dog Hot dog to go

All the way Anything with onions

Sideways Onions on the side

61 North Ave. at Spring Street. 404-881-1706. Open every day except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Sun.-Thurs. 9 a.m.-11:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 9 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Other locations at 2790 Town Center Drive at Mall Boulevard, 6045 Dawson Boulevard at Jimmy Carter Boulevard and 1085 Lindbergh Drive at Cheshire Bridge Road.

MIKE'S CHICAGO DOG HAUS: With an interior as bright yellow and red as cheap mustard and ketchup, Mike's Chicago Dog Haus is as much fun to look at as its mountainous sandwiches are to eat. I refer, of course, to the famous Chicago Dog made with the equally famous "Vienna 100 percent Pure Beef Hot Dog." Mike's turns out an exemplary example. This is no mushy, tasteless wurst, its blandness undisguised by second-rate relish. The Chicago Style Dog is a paragon of the type, enhanced by freshly minced onion and a light relish. In addition to both mustard and ketchup slathered on a steamed poppy seed bun, the dog is topped with an entire pickle spear — a good 5 inches long — and the final kick of a dash of celery salt and a small hot pepper. (Look before you bite!) And this, mind you, can be ordered as a double, which is still not as big as The Works ("need a fork to eat it").

Craving something gooey and goopy and dripping with character as well as with chili, slaw, kraut and grilled onions? This is the place: Chili Dog, Slaw Dog, Chili Slaw Dog, Cheese Dog, Chili Cheese Dog, Kraut Dog, Stew Dog (as in Brunswick), Corn Dog, Plain Dog and the Veggie Dog. 5948 Roswell Road in Hammond Square shopping center, Sandy Springs. 404-252-8484. Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. u??





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