The humble hot dog is the epitome of all-American food, right? Well, not quite. Not only is it not so American (see: Germany, etc.), but it's also one of those foods that elicits fierce regional rivalries as to what is right and what is wrong (see: New York vs. Chicago, etc.). If anything, though, those regional debates stoke our love for the hot dog.
Georgia has its own rich hot dog history. In fact, two of our leading hot dog hawkers have been around since the early part of the 20th century. Nu-Way Weiners, out of Macon, started up in 1916, and the Varsity opened here in Atlanta in 1928. What is it with wieners and longevity? (What? Did I say something wrong?)
Barkers Red Hots began grilling in 1984, so it's young compared to Georgia's old dogs. It started off as a beloved cart — Atlanta's first licensed street food vendor, actually — but seems to be hitting its stride with the opening of a new location in Roswell to go alongside its lunch-only Marietta shop on Windy Hill Road. The carts are long gone. The interesting thing is, Barkers adheres to the Buffalo, N.Y., style of hot dogs, which you probably didn't even realize existed. It imports its dogs from a fifth-generation, family-owned Buffalo meat packer called Sahlen's that has been around since 1869. The horseradish mustard and "Hot Texan Sauce" both come from Buffalo-based Weber's. And, like its best Buffalo counterparts, Barkers does its cooking on a charcoal grill.
Barkers does three things really well. First, it uses great ingredients like those German-style Sahlen dogs, a superb pork and beef combo in a natural casing that is less greasy and a bit less spicy than a typical kosher dog. Second, that charcoal cooking is superior. There really is no better way to cook a hot dog, and Barkers carefully mans its grill to get a charred skin with a perfect smoke-stained crunch against the juicy interior of the dogs. Third, you are put in control of the toppings. Being able to have it your way is critical when it comes to hot dogs and those memories of backyard parties and baseball games that are sizzled into our brains. At Barkers, you can choose from those excellent Weber mustards, the signature Barkers spicy sauce, coleslaw, sauerkraut, chili, cheese, pickles, onions and more.
For me, the way to go is the "original" with slaw, Hot Texan sauce, onions and pickles. It's a little sweet from the finely chopped slaw, a little spicy from the mustardy relish sauce, a lot of crunch and just the right ratio of bun to dog. But again, to each his own. And the folks behind the counter do their darnedest to treat everyone right — patiently talking through the different topping choices and making sure each customer makes it through the line happy and eager for their cooked-to-order masterpiece.
Barkers also offers an all-beef jumbo, a veggie tofu dog (a decent, though mushy, approximation of a hot dog, especially if you load it up with other things), a steamed dog for the kids, and some very good Polish and Italian sausages (both pork and chicken). The sausages get a bigger, thicker bun that benefits from a nice smoke-infused toasting on the grill, but that big bun outweighs its savory fillings a bit too much. Still, there's not a bad choice here, and the prices are reasonable enough that a combo of an "original" dog and one of the larger offerings won't break the bank.
The menu also touches on sandwiches and salads, with the standout non-dog item being Barkers' take on the classic Buffalo "beef on weck" sandwich. Barkers uses charcoal-broiled flank steak on a soft, house-made, caraway seed-studded "kummelweck" roll, soaking up the steak's juices and smeared in fresh horseradish. That sandwich alone is enough to put Barkers on the map, and it pairs awfully well with an order of extra crispy, thinly cut onion rings and a sweet, purple Crystal Beach Loganberry drink, another import from upstate New York.
Barkers, at 27 years old, may still be a hot dog youngster, but between the charcoal and the quality ingredients, it has everything it needs to mature into a true Georgia classic. Oh yeah, Georgia by way of Buffalo.
Hot dogs and sausages: $2-$5. Sandwiches: $5-$7.