Joey Chestnut will attempt to eat 77 mustardless, water-drenched hot dogs this Independence Day, but for the truly patriotic, nothing beats heading to one of the 13 original colonies, Rhode Island, for a few well-appointed hot wieners.
You’d think the name alone would make these meaty morsels a nationally renowned dish, but hot wieners remain the realm of Providence. Don’t you dare call them hot dogs or chili dogs, especially not to Greg Stevens’s face.
Stevens is the great-grandson of Anthony Stevens, who with his son Nicholas founded New York Systems in 1946 (now officially named Olneyville New York Systems) after moving to Providence from New York City. The iconic fourth-generation eatery—which received the James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award—is actually the second-oldest of the Providence-based “New York Systems” restaurants, but is probably the city’s best-known, even ahead of Baba’s Original New York Systems, established in 1927. It’s a staple for locals and a destination for visitors, but remains largely off the radar of everyone who doesn’t live in, or find themselves in, the nation’s smallest state.
A wiener is a blend of beef, pork, and veal in natural casing. Visually, the only distinction you’d observe between these wieners and a hot dog is that the wiener is sliced from an even longer, cylindrical, carnal rope with a sheer terminus rather than its own individual tube with rounded ends. Picture a flat circle versus a tapered, semi-sphere at each end. But what really makes it distinctly Rhode Islandish is ordering one “all the way.”
“All the way” means the wiener comes dressed with diced yellow onions, yellow mustard, celery salt (like they use in Chicago), and the real pièce de resistance is the special meat sauce simmered for two and a half hours before being ladled on top. Not chili. Not Bolognese. The unfortunately named “wiener sauce.” A thin ground-beef condiment that, at Olneyville, Stevens personally blends himself with five spices he does not divulge.
“If I get hit by a bus today, we have to close, because I’m the only one who knows how to make it,” Stevens says.
Here’s one-fifth of a hint: it’s got chili powder in it. And Olneyville goes through so much that Stevens buys the chili powder alone in 500-pound increments. The only other Stevens at this Rhode Island landmark is Greg’s sister, Stephanie, but even she allegedly doesn’t know the recipe.
There used to be multiple “New York Systems” as a result of Greek families moving out of New York City and up to Providence. This was the Stevens family path, beginning when Anthony Stevens emigrated in the 1920s, two decades before transplanting to Rhode Island. There’s a Zee’s Wiener System in Austin, Texas that bills itself as “Rhode Island hot wieners” and rightly took it as an affront when, earlier this year, Austin Monthly named it the foodie city’s best “hot dog.”
As for why “Systems” stuck, that’s a little less clear. (According to Greg Stevens’s Uncle Ernie, “No one gives a…”) It’s believed to be the Greek immigrants’ homage to the first American city that took them all in, having initially arrived at Ellis Island among millions of other new arrivals.
Everyone needs a reasonably priced meal to feed their families, and Stevens says that the price of a hot wiener had always been in sync with the cost of gas (pointing out that in 1975, gas was half a buck while a wiener was 35 cents). But while we’re all grousing about gas topping $5 per gallon in 2022, a hot wiener’s currently selling for only $2.99 (if you’re really cash-strapped, a lettuce and tomato sandwich runs $1.20), making it seem as vintage as the yellow and orange formica tables at Olneyville that date back to 1954.
Olneyville New York Systems is open 24 hours a day and does brisk business around 3 a.m. when the bars close. The dive doesn’t serve any alcohol, but customers are allowed to BYO.
That said, perhaps the ideal way to wash down this Rhode Island delicacy is with the official Rhode Island state drink, coffee milk (think chocolate milk but with coffee syrup, which is readily available in every grocery store statewide). And a few wieners are best accompanied by a large plate of fries, especially when ordered as “beef stew.” As the quotes indicate, there’s no actual stew, nor does it contain a scrap of beef. It’s a plate of French fries pre-loaded with ketchup, cider vinegar, salt, and pepper, ordered more as a verb: “I’d also like some fries and can you beef stew that?”
Somewhat ironically, the wiener jockeys are more than happy to put ketchup on your fries, but they just might show you the door if you request any ketchup on your hot wieners.