Some Like it Red Hot | Food + Drink Features | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Food + Drink » Food + Drink Features

Some Like it Red Hot

The Plattsburgh fast-food staple has a vibrant cultural history


Published July 28, 2009 at 4:36 p.m.

When Vermonters roll off the Plattsburgh ferry, one of their very first sights is a diner-ish building labeled Gus’ Red Hots. No, it doesn’t dish out cinnamon candy. The city known to many as Wiggletown happens to be a Mecca of hot dogs topped with spicy meat sauce, mustard and onions — commonly known as Michigans, or Red Hots.

Let’s get something straight: People don’t eat Michigans in Michigan. In the Midwest, dogs fitting the above description are known as Coneys. Brian Spiegel, of Clare and Carl’s Texas Red Hots, says the name “Michigans” originated right here in Plattsburgh. (No, there’s no Texas connection, either.) As Spiegel tells it, back in the 1940s, Clare and Carl Warne, the founders of Clare and Carl’s, had an employee by the name of Eula Otis who used to introduce herself to guests with a friendly “I’m from Michigan. Would you like to try one of our chili dogs?” Hence, Michigans.

The Otis family’s influence doesn’t end there — they seem to have been the North Country Johnny Appleseeds of hot dogs. A 1927 ad in the Plattsburgh Press Republican trumpets the opening of the Michigan Hot Dog and Sandwich Shop by a Mr. Garth C. Otis — Eula’s husband, according to contemporary accounts from the late Nitzi Rabin. Otis was followed by Rabin and her husband Jack, who opened their hot-dog shack in 1935, reportedly using Eula Otis’ recipe. (Their stand is now run as part of the McSweeney’s Red Hots chain.) Right across the street from Nitzi’s, Clare and Carl’s first served its dogs in 1942.

So, is there any difference between a Red Hot and a Michigan? When I ask John Lambrinos, owner of Gus’ Red Hots, to explain the etymology, he seems perplexed — then admits they are one and the same.

At first glance, Gus’ Red Hots appear to be related to the scary, bright-red pickled pups you find in the grittiest convenience stores. They share a scarlet skin, a manufacturer — Glazier’s Hot Dogs — and little else. Glazier’s, which first extruded in 1903, still encases its pork-and-beef dogs in a snappy red sheep casing. Opened in 1951 as a small hot-dog stand by Lambrinos’ father-in-law, Peter Larios, and Larios’ brother-in-law, Gus Neforus, Gus’ has used Glazier’s dogs from the start.

They may not be the most appetizing-looking food you’ll see at Gus’, but take a bite. As your teeth break the skin, a surge of hot, viscous fat coats your throat. It is only once you’ve swallowed that you realize how sweet the dog is: not cloying or saccharine, just an ambrosial tube of mixed meats. Then you taste the chili. The beef is nearly liquefied, with a texture more like a thick sauce than the ground-up remains of a large mammal. It is slightly spicy and slightly tangy — the perfect foil to the red dog. A thin line of yellow mustard and crisp onions brighten the flavor.

Want a less erotic sausage experience? You can get your Michigan sauce on a regular Tobin’s First Prize hot dog, produced in Albany since 1924. (This is the dog of choice at the other purveyors I visit.) A single Red Hot Michigan, as they’re called at Gus’, goes for $2.25. I choose the $6.56 Two Michigan platter so I can try both kinds. The accompanying fries are battered just right — fluffy-soft potatoes coated in a tempura-like crust. The elbow macaroni salad is studded with colorful peas, carrots and cucumbers. The potato variety has fresh dill and thyme. A side of sweet pickles brings even more color to the plates.

In 1975, Lambrinos and his co-owner, son Nick, added a dining room to their stand. With it came an ad-bedecked menu that now offers everything from Lake Champlain Perch to surf and turf. I try the honey-stung fried chicken, which Lambrinos claims is made in-house. Nearly everything is, he says, despite the presence of three microwaves in the open kitchen.

But there’s nothing microwaved about this chicken thigh — it’s dripping inside its candy-like, crispy crust. I finish off the meal with a slice of strawberry shortcake, stuffed with syrup-soaked berries and covered in delicious cream.

Next, I pull up to Clare and Carl’s Texas Red Hots. They advertise car-hop service, but I go inside to the counter, which is painted red and blue with a white faux-cracked-marble top. As at Gus’, Clare and Carl’s dining room is an addition to what was once little more than a kitchen. It was built hastily, without a foundation. “Every year when we reopen, we know the building sank because we can’t open the door, ” says Brian Spiegel, whose wife Terry inherited ownership of the spot when she was widowed by the Warnes’ grandson. When the couple installed a new door this year, it took the contractor five days to sand it to the correct proportions.

Spiegel, who bears more than a passing resemblance to actor Terence Stamp, speaks quickly and excitedly when reeling off the history of the business into which he married. The owner of a custom brokerage firm when he and Terry met, Spiegel says he looks forward to going to work every day. Asked why, he indicates the customers crowding the counter. It’s 4 in the afternoon, but two older couples and a solo man are supping early. The man, who gives his name as David, reveals, “I come from London to get the Michigans. My parents think I’m here to visit them.”

The male half of one of the couples pipes up, “I’ve been coming here since 1942. I remember sitting in the back seat with my mom, and cars in the lot here were three deep.”

Clare and Carl’s, with its partially burnt-out neon sign, has been serving up dogs for 67 years without a break. Now registered with Upstate New York’s Register of Very Special Places, the snack bar offers a menu that itself is a time capsule. Spiegel points to the board and says, “This is it. We don’t change anything.”

Michigans at Clare and Carl’s come three ways, explains Spiegel: “With, without and buried.” This refers to the chopped onions. “Buried” is the standard, because, as one elderly female patron puts it, “That way you don’t get onions all down the front of ya!”

Until it was acquired by George Weston, Bouyea Bakery used to custom-make buns for Clare and Carl’s. Today, Spiegel and his crew painstakingly cut troughs in their bread, leaving just enough room to deposit onions, a dog and a whole mess of sauce. The onions are indeed “buried” in a delicious cumin- and chile-powder-heavy sauce, which moistens the “coffin” of a roll into something like a spicy, savory bread pudding.

The previous day, Spiegel says, heavy rains turned his sinking building into “an indoor waterfall,” but today, he estimates, “I probably made 200 buried dogs.” His burgers are also a cut above. Perfectly crisp bacon sits atop beef ground that morning at Carsana’s Delicatessen Gourmet. The deli also supplies Clare and Carl’s Dockside, a recent addition that has dockage for 25 and an expanded menu including wraps and panini.

Right across the street from Clare and Carl’s, Nitzi’s once meant big competition. Now that space belongs to the newest dogs on the block, Steven and Mike Farrell, who opened the first of three McSweeney’s Red Hots restaurants just down Route 9 from Gus’ in 1991.

Though McSweeney’s offers car-hop service and the cheapest of the Michigans, at just $1.95, the place has a resolutely slick, “Happy Days” vibe. A banner covering one wall lists every Yankees World Series victory. Above the counter, a sign proclaims, “Just another day in the doghouse!”

Our diminutive server apologizes as she brings our “extra-thick” chocolate shake to the table: “This is not as thick as I had planned. I won’t charge you extra.”

If it were any heavier, the semi-solid would not fit through the straw. This kind of homey doting is characteristic of McSweeney’s, where meals end with pies topped with whipped-cream smiley faces. Not that the place is serving pablum. Its Michigan sauce is the hottest of all, with whole pepper seeds sprinkled throughout. It’s worth the extra 55 cents to get ultra-crispy hand-cut fries, rather than the ones out of the bag. For picky eaters, the menu features some bizarre variations on the Michigan: a hot dog already cut up, a “Sauceburger,” a Michigan sans dog, and a low-carb offering featuring a frank sitting in a pool of sauce.

To newcomers from across the lake, the city’s array of Michigan/Red Hot options may seem a bit daunting. But to Plattsburgh old-timers, the choice of dog is simple, says Spiegel: It all depends on where you grew up. “If you lived on Cumberland or Beekman, it was Ronnie’s,” he says, referring to yet another venerable local dog dealer.

As Spiegel goes on, listing city neighborhoods and their relationships with each stand, it’s clear that Michigans are more than fast food for Plattsburgh natives: They’re history. As Spiegel puts it, “This is a place where your grandparents came; then they took your parents, who took you, and now you take your kids.” Michigan native Eula Otis would be proud.