Despite the having New York in the name these N.Y. System Hot Wiener Restaurants are only found in Rhode Island. This is the location I visited for my research project
This spring I made a round of chili dogs. Now I like chili dogs, but they are not N.Y. System wieners. Yes they both share a meat sauce covering a grilled mini sausage-like meat product. But they are different, very different. As I was eating the chili dogs, I was thinking to myself that what I really wished I was eating was a N.Y. System Hot Wiener like they had in Rhode Island. These wonderful treats are served only in Rhode Island. The wieners were smaller than hot dogs and had square ends because they were chopped off of a long hose-like run of beef and veal in a continuos casing. The beef and veal meat gives them a different taste than a beef or pork frank. The wieners were served on a soft and moist steamed bun. If you ordered them “All the way” they were served with yellow mustard, the wonderful meat sauce, diced onions and last but not least: a healthy does of celery salt. I also began wondering if my memory of them was better than they really are and would I like them today.
My version of a N.Y. System Hot Wiener: A beef/veal mixture in natural casing served on a steamed bun with yellow mustard, special meat sauce, diced onions & a healthy dash of celery salt on top.
Fast forward to the weekend. My parents were over having dinner which that day was steak and cheese. Nothing to do with winers or hot dogs. My dad started talking about Rhode Island where he and my mother are from. I asked if he missed living in Rhode Island. He said no not really, what he really missed were the hot wieners and the coffee cabinets (coffee frappe or milkshake for non-New Englanders). He said he’d love to have a hot wiener again. My mom chimed in, saying she could do without the coffee cabinet but really missed hot wieners and Del’s frozen lemonade. This was completely out of the blue and with no coaching from me. My jaw hit the floor, I was really stunned. I told them how I had been raving about them just a couple days earlier. We reminisced about how they were so good, you’d be stuffed to the gills and couldn’t stop eating them. Some of the locals call them “gag-gahs” or gaggers for just this reason. The other thing we talked about is how they topped the wieners before the health codes got strict. The server would run a dozen or so of the wieners in the buns from the palm of their cupped hand right up their arm. The wieners were running perpendicular to their arm, side by side. They would then top them with the mustard, sauce, onions & celery salt. I always wondered if they ever dropped them, but I never saw it. These days they hold only as many as their gloved hand will hold, usually 2 or 3. After my parents left I decided it was a sign: I had to make some hot wieners.
The first step is to make the sauce which needs to simmer for about an hour so the flavors will blend. 80/20 ground beef is browned and I used a pair of spatulas to try to chop it up fine.
Finding a recipe was a lot easier than I thought. Had I known this, I would have done this sooner. It seems there are a lot of transplanted Rhode Islanders who love hot wieners and can’t get them outside of Rhode Island. There are many websites devoted to Rhode Island food or Hot Wieners in particular. In the process I got the answer to some questions I’d had. The first was why are these things called N.Y. System Hot Wieners when they don’t have hot wieners in NYC? Well there seems to be several reasons. First the folks starting the restaurants were Greek immigrants who had passed through NYC when they came to America. They admired the city and what it stood for as a gateway to America. Also when these restaurants were first started in the late 20’s, the hot dog was still relatively new and people associated it with New York City. They figured by saying these wieners used the N.Y. System people would figure these new restaurants could be trusted to know what they were doing. This also explained something to me. Down in Providence there were multiple locations called say ABC N.Y. System Hot Wieners and others XYZ N.Y. System Hot Wieners. The name before N.Y. was the name of the neighborhood or city they were in or the founder’s name. They were owned by different folks and used variations on the recipe. I guess the reason no one sued each other was because the N.Y. System part described a process not a unique restaurant name. It those less litigious days the first restaurant just renamed itself to “Original N.Y. System Wieners”. The folks who started these restaurants were Greek which helped explain the celery salt and some of the other ingredients in the meat sauce. I looked at lots of sites to try to come up with the most authentic recipe. I quickly found the web site of the Olneyville N.Y. System Hot Wiener restaurants. Olneyville is a neighborhood in Providence and these were the second N.Y. System Hot Wiener restaurants to open. This location had just been featured this Spring on the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” show, where Guy Fieri, host of the “Diners, Dives and Drive-Ins” show, named R.I. hot wieners as his choice. The Olneyville N.Y. System website had a very good description of the entire process of making the wiener from start to finish, with one exception. They didn’t list the spices found in the meat sauce because they market pre-made spice packs for use in the sauce. I didn’t even consider buy a spice pack. I wanted to use my own spices and not be beholden to a mail order outlet. In looking at other meat sauce recipes I settled on one found on allrecipes.com. It got rave reviews from Rhode Island natives many of whom said it was just like the real thing. Several of the web sites mentioned Little Rhody Hot Dogs made by Rhode Island Provisions who still made wieners and sold them to some of the N.Y. System restaurants. There was a hitch however: to get the wieners in natural casings the minimum quantity was 10 pounds (4.5 Kg). Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that and I could find wieners locally.
The sauce used chili powder, dry mustard, allspice, nutmeg, onion salt, garlic salt, celery salt, ginger, cumin, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce & ketchup.
With the recipe, or more accurately recipes, settled it was time to make a trial run. My trip to several local supermarkets confirmed that I was not going to be able to score any real wieners up here. For this first run, I settled for some all beef hot dogs as suggested by the Olneyville N.Y.System recipe. The other problem I had was I couldn’t locate the right mustard. I was 99 percent sure the yellow mustard used on these was Heinz mustard. I had gone into all varieties of food stores big and small and came out empty handed. Some of them seemed to have 56 varieties of Heinz products, but the missing one was the mustard. I knew it was still made because Friendly restaurants around here serve it. The recipe from the Olneyville N.Y. System web site called for: “A bran mustard similar to a yellow deli style mustard.” A web site that listed ingredients in foods to assist people with allergies, specifically mentioned Heinz was the only mustard with bran as an ingredient. I also remember Heinz being quite a bit more popular in Rhode Island than it was around here. In restaurants around here you used to get French’s and lately Grey Poupon or French’s. Down in Rhode Island it was often Heinz. Using French’s yellow mustard for the first batch convinced me I needed to find the right mustard and that it was Heinz. It just didn’t taste the same with French’s. In the good news department the meat sauce seemed dead on, but then again it had been 10 years since I had my last wiener. It was time to make a batch for my parents. I was thinking a field trip to Rhode Island would be necessary for three reasons: I could buy the actual wieners the restaurants used, I should be able to buy some Heinz mustard and I could hit the N.Y. System restaurant I used to visit as a kid. So it was off to Rhode Island to score some winers.
Just one of the 5 FoodSaver bags made from the 10 pound (4.5 Kg) continuos string of natural casing hot wieners. It looked like garden hose when the man came out of the walk-in cooler with it.
The weather was extremely hot and humid and my pickup isn’t air conditioned, so I’d need to bring a cooler. I gauged the cooler volume based on what 10 pounds (4.5 Kg) of hotdogs in boxes like you get at the supermarket would take up. My plan was to pick up the wieners and then I would head to the N.Y. System location in North Providence I used to go to with my parents when I was a kid. The GPS software brought me right to the the factory store for Rhode Island Provisions. To call it a store was a bit optimistic. It looked more like a tool shed attached to the side of the factory building. Inside there was a desk & chair plus a large sliding metal door to a refrigerated portion of the factory. When the man came back with my 10 pounds (4.5 Kg) of wieners, I knew I had a BIG problem. My 10 pounds (4.5 Kg) of wieners were coiled in one long rope that took up almost as much room as my 25 foot (7.66M) garden hose. The wieners were able to be compressed, but I still ended up with a package that was 30” (76 cm) long x 12” (30.5 cm) wide x 8” (20 cm) high. This would not even come close to fitting in my cooler. With temps in the high 90’s (37 C) my first priority was finding a cooler. I didn’t think this would be too hard since the area was full of pharmacies, liquor stores, supermarkets and quickie marts. What I hadn’t counted on was it was the week after the 4th of July weekend and these stores were sold out of coolers. What surprised me even more was I was unable to find Heinz mustard. On my 10th stop I found some coolers and better yet they were on clearance sale. However this unexpected search for coolers had me running late and I had to be back home by 2:30 . It was looking like my trip to the N.Y. System location in North Providence was in jeopardy because I’d be hitting them at the height of the lunch hour. I figured I’d swing by and if it looked like I could get in and out quickly I”d stop. Otherwise I’d simple continue on home.
The finished sauce is supposed to be fine and moist
I was a couple miles away from R.I. Provisions after my cooler search, so my trip to back to the highway was via a different route to a different exit. I was close to getting back on when suddenly my GPS lost the signal as I passed under the intersection of two elevated freeways. The metal bridges overhead probably interfered with the signal. I missed my turn and was on a series of one-way streets leading to who knows where. After traveling down 4 different one-way streets I came to an intersection where I had a choice of where to turn. Looking to my left I couldn’t believe my eye: there was a N.Y. System Hot Wieners sign. My wrong turn had taken me into the Olneyville section of Providence and this location was the one Guy Fieri had visited and the source of one of the two recipes I was using. It was 11:55AM and their parking lot was already full, but there was one space left. I decided this was a sign and I pulled in without hesitation. I ordered 2 wieners “All the way” and a side of fries. I was in food heaven. Memories from my childhood flooded back. The wieners were as good as I remembered and more importantly tasted just like the batch of meat sauce I’d made the day before. While I had the taste down, it wasn’t a 100 percent match. This sauce was slightly more moist and the meat had a much finer texture. I was very happy though because the flavor was dead on. Texture and moisture could be easily fixed. The onions were a finer dice to and this could be easily fixed too. Full and rather pleased with myself, I drove home. Once home I cut the coil of wieners into 5 sections and sealed them in 5 large FoodSaver bags for storage in the freezer.
Who knew that Heinz mustard, a national brand product, would prove to be the hardest item to find.
The trip wasn’t a total success though. I still hadn’t scored the Heinz mustard. The part of this I thought would be the easiest was turning out to be quite the challenge. I’d been looking for nearly 2 weeks and I now had 5 days left to find some. I went every place I could think of and when I was out and about on business I’d look in the local stores in those areas. On the Saturday I had promised to make the wieners I was still looking. I was half considering going to my local Friendly’s to see if I could beg borrow or steal some. I decided to try the internet. I quickly found various food related message boards with posts from folks who loved Heinz mustard, lamenting it’s disappearance from their local store’s shelves. There were posts from folks with tips on stores that did have it in various cities. The best I did was a post where someone said most, not all but most, super Wal-Marts carried Heinz. The nearest Super Wal-Mart was 40 miles (64 km) away in rural New Hampshire and was over an hour away. This would be my last shot. It was going to be hot so before heading out to the highway I decided I needed a Coke for the trip. There was a Tedeschi quickie mart around the corner less than 1/2 mile (0.75 km) from my house. I had already looked in a couple Tedeschi’s for the mustard, so I had never specifically looked here. As I walked in the door it dawned on me I hadn’t l actually looked here - I ASSumed one location was like another. I grabbed a Coke from the cooler near the register and asked the owner if by some strange chance he had Heinz mustard. I was stunned when he said: “I sure do, it is my favorite mustard. I started getting it in for myself about a month ago because I couldn’t find it anywhere. I gotta get some perks owning this store.” I was absolutely floored. I’d spent the last 2 weeks looking around Eastern MA, Southern NH and a little in Providence, RI and the only place that had it was the store which was the closest, only 1/2 (0.75 km) mile from my house. I bought 5 big bottles and headed back home thinking how lucky I was it was hot. If it hadn’t been so hot, I wouldn’t have made the side trip for a Coke before the 2 hour round trip to look for the mustard at a Super Wal-Mart. In case you are wondering, it was too early to call. The Super Wal-Mart would just be opening around the time I got up there.
The wieners on the grill. Notice the square end where they had to be cut apart.
It was a lot easier to make this recipe the second time around. I knew how long the process took time wise and knew what to expect every step of the way. This time I tried to chop up the ground beef even finer with two spatulas while it browned. While I got it finer than the first time, it still wasn’t quite as fine as the real thing. I combined the meat and other ingredients for the sauce and let them simmer for an hour. While the sauce simmered it was time to cut the rope of wieners to length. I had taken a length of wieners out of the freezer to defrost the day before, which was just the right amount of time. I finely chopped the onion and wrapped each bun in a paper towel and placed them in the microwave. I cook the wieners for 8 minutes total, turning them every 2 minutes. When I made the last turn and there are two minutes left, I ran into the house and fire up the microwave to “steam” the buns” for two minutes. All of the pieces were in place to try to give my parents a genuine N.Y. System Hot Wiener experience without their having to drive 2 hours to get it. I had all of the proper ingredients and the one variable, the meat sauce recipe had proven to be a perfect match. The wieners were indeed a big hit, although my father’s first comment had me nervous. He said: “The real wiener sauce is a bit finer consistency than this and a little moister.” But he quickly added: “But otherwise you’ve nailed it.” Using the real wieners made a big difference too, since they do have a different flavor that the beef franks I used the first time. N.Y. System Hot Weiners do seem like a chili dog on paper. But even though the hot wiener sauce shares some of the same ingredients with chili, it tastes totally different. It is milder, but in many ways more flavorful with a wide variety of flavors coming together. Then there is the celery salt that goes on last. When I made that first test batch, I’d forgotten to put it on. The celery salt makes a big difference too. And then there was the mustard. The first batch had been in the general ballpark, but the second time around they were right on.
The wieners are on the steamed buns and it is time to apply the mustard, meat sauce, diced onion & celery salt to finish.
Bottom line: the first production run was a big hit. I talked to an aunt and uncle, both from RI, later in the week and my parents had already told both of them about my making the wieners and how they felt like they were back in RI enjoying real hot wieners. I still had a little work to do. My dad was right, the sauce had turned out drier the second time around. Plus they still needed to be chopped up even finer. I really didn’t think I could do any better with spatulas. For my third batch, made a month later, I had decided on a solution for both problems. When you make the sauce you brown the ground beef and pour off the fat before adding the rest of the ingredients. My plan was to use a food processor to chop up the browned meat. I was worried this would dry out the meat even more, so I decided to only pour off some of the fat before putting the meat in the food processor. I then did 3 or 4 quick pulses to chop up the meat. This did the trick. The sauce was perfect. It was the most moist yet and had the fine consistency of the real thing. My parents both declared these were as good and maybe better than what they remembered. Plus they had a ball telling stories about getting hot wieners in Providence back in the day. I was asked if I would make them the next Saturday, so that told me all I needed to know. So I now had a perfected recipe for N.Y. System Hot Wieners and everyone liked them. This was good considering the large supply of wieners still in my freezer.
If you like hot dogs I think you’ll love hot wieners. I will put the links below for the two sources for my hot wiener recipe, plus if you are really hard core like me I’m including the link for the source of the wieners. Now before you go off thinking these are just hot dogs and meat, or a chile dog let me remind you Food Network’s Guy Fieri picked them as “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” for the show of the same name.