The Traditional Toppings You Need For A Perfect New York-Style Hot Dog

New York City is famous for its historical buildings, famous filming locations, and landmarks, but one of the most well-known and sought-after parts of the bustling metropolis is its food. The city lays claim to countless iconic American foods, with New York-style pizza arguably being the most recognized, but an NYC-style hot dog is high up on the list as well. From ubiquitous street carts bearing the blue and yellow umbrellas of the Sabrett brand to other celebrated hot dog slingers like Nathan's Famous on Coney Island and Gray's Papaya, the humble frankfurter has a hallowed place in America's largest city.

While you can visit a hot dog spot in NYC and get plenty of toppings to choose from — ketchup, mustard, chili, relish, and more — a traditional New York-style hot dog uses a specific combo of toppings. Mustard, sauerkraut, and a unique type of tomato-heavy onion relish are must-haves, whether the hot dogs themselves are boiled or grilled for the coveted "snap" when bitten. The mustard can be either yellow or spicy brown, depending on who you ask (and of course, personal preference).

The synergy of New York hot dog toppings

Mustard and sauerkraut may seem like a more unusual combo to some eaters, but they work beautifully as hot dog toppings. The meaty, fatty, salty flavors of the hot dog are offset by the sharpness of the mustard and the refreshing tartness of the pickled cabbage, giving the dish a balance of flavor perfection. It's not just New Yorkers who enjoy these two toppings on their dogs — according to a 2021 survey done by the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, 68% of Americans prefer mustard on their hot dogs over ketchup and other condiments. Sauerkraut doesn't rank as highly, but it's particularly popular in the Northeast.

What arguably sets New York-style hot dogs apart from just an average frank with mustard and sauerkraut is the onion relish. While the seasonings in this style of relish differ from recipe to recipe, it contains onions, a tomato product (ketchup, tomato paste, or even barbecue sauce), vinegar, and cinnamon. Once all the ingredients are cooked down together and the onions are soft, the relish takes on a dark red or brown hue. It is mildly sweet and vinegary, and goes well with mustard, sauerkraut, and a host of other hot dog toppings.

Some hot dogs in New York are more expensive than you'd think

Most New York hot dogs are like pizza or bagels in that they're iconic, delicious, easy to find, and normally rather cheap. But will you find every single New Yorker chowing down on a humble frank with the classic trifecta of toppings? Obviously not. As a cuisine capital of the United States, New York is full of newer, less traditional hot dog vendors selling things like corndogs, Chicago-style dogs, cheese dogs, and even luxury hot dogs. 

In its roundup of New York's more expensive hot dog purveyors, the New York Times named the Bar Room at the Museum of Modern Art, which serves two bite-sized franks made with wagyu beef and topped with caviar for $32, and the restaurant Mischa offers a $29 dog complete with house-made relish and bacon chili crisp. However, this isn't to say that all chefs from New York prefer these sorts of seriously dressed-up franks. The famed chef Anthony Bourdain liked hot dogs from Gray's Papaya the best, preferably topped with only mustard and kraut and excluding the onion relish.

A classic New York-style hot dog is just one of the tons of varieties found from sea to shining sea. Whether you're a Chicagoan who insists upon tomato slices and pickle spears on their dogs, or you're from Atlanta, where they come served with onions and coleslaw, hot dogs are a true symbol of American culture, and trying a New York-style version is a must-do for lovers of unpretentious American cuisine.