In Acquired Tastes, The A.V. Club explores the food and drinks we can’t live without.
The few times I visited Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood as a high schooler, it was to eat at Dick’s Drive-In, the beloved burger hop that slung decent cheeseburgers and even better fries. Dick’s is very much the Capitol Hill institution today, but the neighborhood, as with much of Seattle, is nearly unrecognizable from what it was two decades ago. It’s less grungy (in both meanings of the word), with far more expensive luxury apartments and fancy restaurants. From the corner of 10th and Pike, it’s bookstores, boutique coffee shops, and bespoke Belgian waffle purveyors as far as the eye can see. But there’s another relatively recent, far less upper-crust addition to the area: hot dogs.
I left Seattle for college in 1999. That same year, alt-weekly The Stranger first reported on a food cart that served a curious hot dog—one slathered with cream cheese. The author wrote that this concoction “sounded repulsive, but turned out to be sublime.” And the following it’s attracted since suggests that a lot of people got over their knee-jerk reactions to taste and agree.
Seattle has long earned its place among the country’s most ambitious food towns, and its culinary exports are legion: oysters, craft beers, salmon, Starbucks, Ivar’s clam chowder, Beecher’s mac and cheese, and so on. But the Seattle hot dog remains relatively unknown outside the Pacific Northwest. It’s not uncommon for people hearing the Seattle-style dog described for the first time to blanch. Cream cheese on a hot dog sounds incongruous, but if you think about it, it’s all just part of our American tradition of marrying meat with cheese.
After midnight is when Capitol Hill’s entrepreneurial street food vendors set up shop. They’re grilling bulbous links of Polish sausage, firing a shot of pasty cream cheese from a caulking gun into a grilled bun, then topping all with a tangle of grilled onions. It’s really not a strange pairing. Reconfigured in different forms and consistencies, it could be onion dip and sausage, or a more streetwise rendition of the bagel sandwich.
The bagel dog was, in fact, what most Seattle food culinarians believe was the progenitor to the Seattle-style dog. Food writer Hanna Raskin, back when she was at Seattle Weekly, wrote the definitive oral history of the Seattle hot dog in 2012. Two names are credited—and disputed—as being the first to incorporate cream cheese onto a hot dog bun: Hadley Longe and Otmane Bezzaz, both bagel vendors in the downtown district of Pioneer Square.
Of course, food being exempt from copyright provisions, the popularity of Longe’s and Bezzaz’s respective enterprises spurred other vendors to sell their own cream cheese hot dogs. By 2001, the Seattle Mariners were in the midst of a record-breaking season (116 regular season wins), and hot dog vendors outside Safeco Field were booming. For Seattleites, cream cheese slathered on hot dogs had crossed the threshold from novelty to accepted norm. When I visited Seattle last weekend, I was struck by how every hot dog purveyor—from stand to sit-down restaurant—listed cream cheese as a topping option, alongside relish, ketchup, and mustard.
As for why the Seattle-style dog never spread beyond regional notoriety, the most obvious assumption is the likely answer: It’s a fine sandwich, but nothing so earth-shatteringly delicious to inspire hot dog stands in Cleveland or Kansas City to replicate the recipe. Still, the cold creaminess of the cheese spread proves surprisingly appealing against the warm grilled sausage. A Polish dog is juicy as is, and the added richness of cream cheese takes the sandwich to a level of lip-slickness that rivals mayonnaise as a hot dog topping. While most people probably aren’t considering textural balance when it comes to hot dogs, just know that the savory pairing of cream cheese and sausage ain’t so bad. But as with many regional foods, its staying power can be attributed to more than just taste. It’s about narrative, taste memory, and a fond association with home.
“Maybe what’s most quintessentially Seattle about the Seattle dog is that people don’t complain about it—it’s stoically tolerated, just like a 48-degree day in July,” says Raskin, now a food writer at Charleston’s Post And Courier. “Because unless you’re very drunk, or your happy college memories are held together by cream cheese and sausage casings, there’s nothing to recommend the Seattle dog. The combination never strikes me as appetizing between a bun. And if the hot dog doesn’t have a particularly snappy casing, the whole shebang is too soft for my taste. I’d take an Appalachian dog with slaw or Chicago dog with onions any day.”