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Perfectly frank: a quest for the ultimate hot dog at PNC Park

Thursday, May 22, 2003

By Suzanne Martinson, Food Editor, Post-Gazette

Every dawg has its day, and the hot dog has three -- the Memorial Day weekend.

As the real start of summer approaches on Monday, I feel a hunger for a food nicknamed frank.

There's no better place to begin than the ballpark, so one afternoon last week, I trudged over to PNC Park to do an unscientific taste test.

What I found out surprised me.

First, there is a dollar dog at the Pirates' park. You can buy one, or a dozen, at the Buckaroos stand at the left-field gate. Mostly for kids, the hot dog is small, but not that small. And nobody was checking IDs or limiting buys to one per customer. Buckaroos is also a good place to buy a scaled-downed version of nachos and cheese.

I had a hike to our executive editor's seats in Section 124, so if the small dog's temperature dropped, that might be expected. But did the bun dry out en route, too?

Next I bought a "hot dog" for $2.25 -- three tasters judged it to be about 1/4 inch longer and a bit fatter than Buckaroos' -- then a Kahn's "super dog" for $4, bigger yet and. spicier, said my husband, Ace. An additional $1.75 plumper and plusher? Perhaps.

The foot-long frank cost $5.25. With a name like Hebrew National, you might assume it's made in a little shop in Brooklyn, but it's owned by food giant ConAgra.

It was the best of the bunch, but I had half topped with grilled onions and red and green peppers. The other 6 inches were simply slathered with Heinz ketchup. Good both ways.

However, we were bummed by the buns. How long had they been sitting around? Shouldn't they be grilled or at least steamed? Our four franks cost $12.50, and we would have settled for fresh.

It seemed a slow day at the park -- 16,000-plus attending -- with no long lines, yet the regular and super hot dogs were both tepid. Already cooked frankfurters were once finger food out of the fridge, but in today's safety-conscious environment, hot dogs should be heated to 165 degrees (145 degrees for food service). I didn't have my instant-read thermometer with me, but these were hardly hot enough to melt ice cream. Surely they couldn't have cooled that much as I scrambled down to Row D.

This one foray hasn't discouraged me, though. Anna Lancman, senior product manager for Hebrew National, had tips for grilling the perfect hot dog. Their kosher franks include instructions on how to cook them on the commercial roller grill:

"At ballparks most roller grills run front to back," she said. "The front is the warming part -- about 200 degrees. They should put the hot dog on the warming area for 4 minutes, then on hot -- 300 to 400 degrees -- for a minimum of 2 to 3 minutes. The heat is what sears the hot dog and enhances the flavor."

Aramark, PNC's food providers for fans without club seats or membership in the Homeplate Club, had a good onion-pepper mix, and their ketchup and mustard squirted with the best of them. The foot-long dog was hot, too.

If you're putting on the dogs at home, Lancman suggested grilling on an open fire, perhaps adding a smoky flavor with apple wood chips. The franks' skins can be brushed with grape seed or olive oil, which will make the skin crispy after several minutes on a hot grill. Or spread garlic cloves or spice rubs on the bun before grilling.

Although Hebrew National and others make hot dogs with as little as 45 calories and 1 1/2 grams of fat, she advised grilling the regular 150-calorie frankfurters, which "taste better."

Hot dogs have long been the supper of convenience. Mother would heat the oven, toss a few hot dogs into a pie plate, and dinner was practically served. If Dad didn't finish his chores on schedule, the dogs might pop their skins. They weren't bad, though, if you had the right kind of ketchup.

The Pirates are playing at home through Sunday, and I'll soon be back at the ballpark. Next time, all criticism is off -- especially if the Bucs win one.

Suzanne Martinson can be reached at smartinson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1760.

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