Don’t call it a chili dog.

One cool, cloudy April Saturday in 1988, I threw on my jean jacket and headed “up town” to North Warren Street. Destination: Texas Lunch.

Texas Lunch, North Warren Street, Trenton, NJ

This was a little hole in the wall joint that had been a favorite of my father’s. Rare was the time we would pass by and he didn’t pull the car to the curb, hand me a dollar or two and send me in for a few Texas Weiners {sic…that was the way the neon window sign spelled it}

For the uninitiated, it is generally accepted that this style of hot dog appeared in Paterson, NJ before 1920 and Altoona, PA maybe a year or two prior to that. The dog is often fried, sometimes grilled and served in a bun with chopped onion, spicy mustard and the sauce. The sauce visually resembles a finely textured, rather thick chili but its flavor profile is more Greek than Mexican or Southwestern US. This is because the recipe for the sauce was most often concocted by the Greek cooks and owners of the little stands the popularized the treat.

Versions of these dogs appear in various regions of the country and some people even make the case they actually started in the upper midwest. It doesn’t matter. Its a great treat to find a good regional example wherever one happens to be at the moment that craving hits.

Here in Trenton, it was that little shop on North Warren that was a touchstone to my youth. And so, I set off to retrieve a couple of Texas Wieners that spring Saturday circa 1988. I fetched two of the dogs and returned home with them. Ann wasn’t interested so I sat down in the kitchen and devoured them both. I was satisfied.

Good thing I went that day. Not too long afterwards I had reason to be driving down North Warren Street and was shocked to see the restaurant and the other buildings that stood in that row had been razed! I was glad I’d made it over there for a couple of last treats.

More than a decade later, I had a chance meeting with Mrs. Calagias, the widow of one of the owners of the Texas Lunch hot dog stand. She asked me if I had ever known of a place called “Texas Lunch” on North Warren Street. I happily shared the story of my last visit to the luncheonette and commiserated with her over the loss of a food icon from the Trenton scene.

Mrs. Calagias passed away this past year. I’m glad I had the opportunity to meet her and relive my fond memories of the place she ran with her husband and his partner, Pete Muzithras.

Every now and again, I get an incredibly strong desire for a good Texas Wiener. Of course, when I do, my thoughts turn to the Texas Lunch.

A year or so ago, I got to speaking about the Texas Lunch with my friend, Mark Stradling. Mark had come across what purports to be THE recipe for the Texas Weiner Sauce from Texas Lunch on North Warren.

The story, as Mark recalls it, was that a scion of one of the owners of Texas Lunch was contacted by some charity or other that said its members wanted to publish a cookbook of recipes from area restaurants and sell the book as a fundraiser. The kid gave them the recipe. When his father found out he went bonkers and demanded it back from them, saying it was a big family secret. They gave it back but someone had already made a copy of it. The cookbook was never published, and the recipe finally ended up on a website.

Unfortunately, Mark didn’t bookmark the site and try as we might, neither of us has been able to find that site again.

Mark did have the presence of mind to copy and paste the recipe into a file. He tried his hand at the recipe and shared the resulting sauce with me. We found it rather sweet. Looking at the recipe, we noted the it calls for two, 8 ounce cans of tomato paste. Today those cans only hold 6 ounces.

Another thing was the specification to use Heinz catsup in the recipe. I’ve nothing against Heinz catsup. In fact that is usually what we have on hand here at home. A look at the ingredient list on the Heinz bottle shows that it contains both high fructose and regular corn syrups as sweeteners. Could today’s use of corn syrup based sweeteners and slightly less tomato paste have contributed to an overly sweet taste in Mark’s version?

For my attempt at the recipe, I upped the amount of tomato paste by 2 ounces and cut the amount of castup an equal amount. The recipe still has a sweetness to it…at least if you compare it to the more common concept of “chili”. Part of that comes from the use of nutmeg and cinnamon in the spice mix.

The true test comes when the whole sandwich is put together. Per the instructions in the recipe:

“Hot dogs should be deep fried until the outside has a bit of a snap when biting into it. Open hot dog bun and put about 1 tbsp chopped onion evenly down center from end to end, add hot dog, then top with all-the-way sauce until dog is covered.”

I don’t deep fry the dogs, but a thin layer of vegetable oil in a hot cast iron skillet can get you a wiener with a nice snap to it.

The sauce mixture I made was pretty tasty. The dogs we assembled from it were very good.

Can I say without a doubt it is “the Texas Lunch” version? No. Will it do? Yes.

Texas Weiner Sauce

  • 2 lbs ground beef
  • 3 6oz cans tomato paste
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1 ½ tbsp chili powder
  • ¾ tbsp paprika
  • ¾ tsp onion powder
  • ½ tsp garlic salt
  • ½ tsp celery seed
  • ¼ tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground pepper
  • 4 oz Heinz ketchup
  • 2 tbsp spicy brown mustard
  • 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 cup finely chopped onion

The process is just as important as the ingredients, so please do not try to rush this.

1) Put all measured dry ingredients above into a small bowl and mix well, set aside.

2) Brown the ground beef while breaking it into the smallest pieces possible, drain most of the grease, leave a little.

3) Add tomato paste and water directly to the pan with the beef, medium heat, combine well.

4) Sprinkle all dry ingredients evenly into beef/tomato paste mixture while keeping a medium to low heat.

5) Add all other remaining ingredients to pan and stir/mix well. Remember, only 1 cup onion goes in.

6) Slow simmer for 90 Minutes, adding water as necessary so as not to dry out or burn.

7) After everything else was in, I sprinkled a little cayenne pepper (no more than 1 tsp…if that much) evenly over the mixture and then stirred well.

Your final sauce should have enough consistency so it does not drip or get too runny, yet thin enough not to clump into a ball.
Hot dogs should be deep fried until the outside has a bit of a snap when biting into it.
Open hot dog bun and put about 1 tbsp chopped onion evenly down center from end to end, add hot dog, then top with all-the-way sauce until dog is covered. EAT.

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5 Responses to “Don’t call it a chili dog.”

  1. Diane Says:

    Your post on Texas Weiners was very interesting to me. I grew up in Kingston, NY where we had 2 Texas Weiner restaurants. I always missed them when I moved away, and tried to find a recipe that would work. Apparently these are real secret recipes! I found this one a few years back, made with ground hot dogs, but it made such a large quantity. Here is the link to that forum that resulted in a lot of discussion, and ironically the name of the restaurant mentioned is also Texas Lunch, but I think a different one:

    http://www.roadfood.com/Forums/Hot-Dog-Sauce-recipe-from-Texas-Lunch-m211808.aspx

    The recipe I tried was on the first page and noted as “Texas Hot Wiener Sauce by Tom Jones 2007”

    It was interesting, but not exactly what I remembered. Will look forward to trying your recipe next time I get a craving for them. I wonder if grinding the ground beef further through the food processor would help to get a finer texture…. Thanks!

  2. Jim Carlucci Says:

    Thanks, Diane. I have seen recipes that use ground up hot dogs for the sauce. I’m not sure that I would like that…but I suppose I should keep an open mind.

    I had no problem getting the ground meat broken up fine enough in this sauce. It so happened I used some grass fed beef from a local purveyor, but I think any good quality ground meat would work.

    Do let me know how this works for you. Oh…and although it makes a bit, we divided up and froze what we didn’t use right away. Now we have a reserve for whenever the mood hits.

  3. Diane Says:

    Wow, I made these last night for dinner and it is a great recipe, Jim, a keeper — thanks for sharing! Only made half the recipe and there was still some left for lunch today. I think it would be great even without the weiner!

  4. Dennis C. McGrath Says:

    Jim, in rouding up the ingredients to try your recipe I did notice that Heinz now sells a ketchup called “Simply Heinz,” which is sweetened with – tada! – actual cane sugar, and their organic products also use cane sugar.

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