When you’re in the tootsie roll center of the gastronomic world, where do you bite down first? Do you warm up slow, ease into the situation at a low-key cafe or deli? Or do you go straight for the kill, stuffing your stomach and emptying your wallet at the finest establishment that will have you? Maybe you take the Goldilocks path and find someplace that offers a modest, affordable introduction into the culinary wonders that await you?
When we emerged onto the streets surrounding Copenhagen’s Central Station, with fists full of luggage and faces painted with the midday sun, there suddenly seemed only one logical way to wade into the sacred waters of New Nordic Cuisine: with a hot dog. For an area of the world better known for pickled fish than for emulsified meatstuffs, it warms the heart to see the love of a good tubesteak alive and well in the Kingdom of Denmark. Hot-dog stands dot the streets of Copenhagen like Sabretts’ peddlers crowd the corners of Manhattan. Here, the dogs aren’t plucked from some murky pool of simmering pork and beef detritus; they come straight from the griddle, bronzed and snappy, slicked with ketchup and mustard, layered with a mixture of raw and crunchy fried onions, and topped with coins of dill pickle. On paper, it plays out like a bridge between a New York street dog and a Chicago frank “run through the garden,” but bite down and you’ll find yourself in a different zip code entirely.
The dog pictured comes from John’s Hot Dog Deli, a stand set up just across the street from the main entrance of Tivoli Gardens. The man in charge, John Michael Nielsen, is a former chef who traded in the rigors of the restaurant world for the relative zen of hot-dog slinging. But Nielsen isn’t just slipping a wiener into a bun and collecting your cash; the guy makes his own mustards, bakes his own breads, and runs a monthly special that stretches the confined ambitions of a hot-dog stand considerably. This month, his featured frank is topped with chili, onions, guacamole, and a spicy mustard made with Mikkeller’s Mexas Ranger from Copenhagen’s finest microbrewery.
Tempting, but when you sink your teeth for the first time into a foreign country, you keep things classic. When John slides his bulky creation across the stainless steel counter, you quickly come to understand why the Danes refer to them as pølsevogns: literally, sausage wagons. It stretches well beyond the boundaries of the bun, wearing a heavy armory of crunchy golden onions and myriad sauces. While the condiment treatment is exceptional, the dog itself is the star here: juicy, porky, salty, with caramel-colored skin as taut as a snare drum. Snap, after all, is the single greatest virtue of a great hot dog, and this one’s got it like a wrist full of rubber bands.
Beyond the classic pølsevogns, I was happy to see one of the early loves of my life, the bagel dog, reincarnated here in the streets of Copenhagen. As a kid, I’d pull the pillowy, lip-burning package straight from the microwave, use my teeth to rip off the top nub of dough, then, letting the waft of processed pork wash over me, squirt streams of ketchup and spicy mustard through the small, bready opening. Nielsen takes one of his homemade rolls, pokes through the center with a condiment gun, then lines the walls with remoulade, that glorious mayo-based concoction souped up with pickles and capers and horseradish—the condiment of choice for most dog aficionados in Scandinavia. The Danes call it a French hot dog, perhaps in some misguided attempt to put lipstick on a pig, but for me, this is like taking a massive bite out of 1989.
Originally published on Roads & Kingdoms on May 9, 2012.