What constitutes a gourmet hot dog? Usually, a dog is referred to as gourmet to try and justify it's high price. These dogs are made by places with reputations for selling high quality meats. They use a good grade of beef and either make the dogs themselves, or have someone else make them.
I have been hearing a lot lately about 2 franks referred to as "gourmet". One is from Niman Ranch, the other is from Lobel's. Both companies have reputations as having some of the finest meat in the country. Niman Ranch is an Oakland, Ca. based company that is known for high quality, hormone free meat products. Lobel's is from New York and well known for their prime beef. Both supply restaurants and ship to individuals.
The Niman Ranch dogs are made from beef that's been dry aged for 5 days. They are served at a place called Sparky's in Brooklyn, as well as a few other places in the New York/N.J. area. They sell for $8.25/per lb. Lobel's franks are specially made for them using their prime beef by an 80 year old Austrian wiener maker. They go for $14.95 per pound.
Well, how good are these dogs? Are they worth the hype? Or the money? I wanted to find out for myself, so I had my wife buy both brands for my birthday (she thought I was nuts for requesting hot dogs for a present) I compared these dogs along with some Nathan's natural casing franks that I had in my freezer.
First the Niman Ranch dog. This one was 6 to a lb with a natural lamb casing. Smaller in size than their standard 4 to a lb Fearless Frank. All three dogs were simmerred in hot water (brought to a boil then turned off) for 10 minutes, then finished off on a griddle. The Niman Ranch dog had a good flavor with a mild spicing. Indestinguishable from any decent all beef kosher style dog of it's type. Ok, but it doesn't stand out. Not worth the high price.
Next was the Lobel's. 9 to a lb, long and thin with an artificial (collagen?) casing. This frank was picked by David Rosengarten in the Rosengarten report as his favorite N.Y./Chicago style all beef dog. Incidentally, he picked Schaller & Weber as his favorite German style beef and pork dog. The Lobel's frank had a better casing than the Niman Ranch, which was a little too tough in my opinion. A good beef flavor with a fairly mild spicing. I liked this one better than the Niman Ranch dog. If you were to try this dog without knowing its origins, I think you would say that it is good; better than average. But again, not a real standout, and definitely not worth the high price.
Last was Nathan's. I got these at Costco while they were still selling the natural casing ones. I think they are unavailable once summer ends. They were $9.99 for 3 lbs. 8 to a lb with a natural sheep casing. This one was the best of the three. Better spicing; more flavor without being too spicy. Nathan's hot dogs are still made according to the original 1916 recipe and are a great example of a kosher style N.Y./N.J. hot dog.
My conclusions: both of the gourmet dogs were good, but not really distinguishable from any fine kosher style all beef dog found in the New York or New Jersey area. Not worth the high price. I think that people (and restaurants) buy these franks because of the reputation of the companies that provide them. I also believe that the spice mixture is as important, even more so than the meat used. Dogs like Nathan's, Sabrett, and Best (N.J.) use high quality beef. Best uses choice, and I believe the others do also. They are also made without fillers and are smoked. The spicing is superior to the gourmet franks. I think that places that specialize in sausages and frankfurters (and have been making them for awhile) have an advantage over companies that specialize in steaks and other meat products, but want to put out what they consider a gourmet frank with a gourmet price.
As I said, these are good franks; they just didn't knock my socks off like Usinger's. Now that's a dog that deserves to be called a gourmet dog. Head and shoulders above the rest. And reasonably priced also. I wonder if David Rosengarten tried these. As for a beef and pork dog, Schaller & Weber is a quality frank, but the ones that you can get at a German butcher (there are 4 in Union) most notably the Union Pork Store, are better. Thumann's remains the standard for this type of dog.