Hot dogs make me think of childhood. I smile when the two words — reminding me of Pillsbury crescent rolls wrapped around a slit Oscar Meyer Weiner hot dog stuffed with Velveeta cheese — are mentioned. Now hot dogs transport me to one of the most sophisticated cities in the world, New York. In the Big Apple, I could be in my high heels standing at a street cart taking a bite of the iconic sausage in a soft bun. My only worry was to not splatter the front of my dress with sauerkraut while dabbing the corners of my mouth from oozing mustard.
Steve Galleta and Allison Cassie have brought East Coast Sahlen Packing Co. hot dogs to Billings. At Steve's Hot Dogs on Grand Avenue near Billings' West End, the hot dog producer founded in 1869 in Buffalo, New York, supplies this establishment. Galleta, the former owner of Big Horn Angler Fly Shop and Lodge in Fort Smith, sold his business in May, and six months later opened his hot dog joint in the space formerly occupied by Taqueria Zapotlan.
I did not want to venture to Steve's Hot Dogs alone and was glad when Dave Coppock cheerfully volunteered to accompany me. To avoid the lunch crush, we decided to arrive before noon. The cartoon caricatures of hot dogs on the entrance side of the building exude Montana fun, picturing dogs fly fishing, hiking and skiing.
Upon entering, one finds the menu on a huge board highlighted in red with white writing and offerings spelled out in black with yellow showcasing the extras. Dave chose the Regular Hot Dog with ketchup, mustard and onion. With my affection for the Pacific Northwest, I ordered the Jalapeno Poppin' Dog with cream cheese, fried onion strings and jalapenos, Steve's interpretation of the Seattle Dog topped with cream cheese and sauteed onions often sold from late-night or game day food carts in Washington's largest city.
Inspiration for the Signature Dogs came from regional wieners. From Coney Island, the Cowboy Coney was served with chili, cheese sauce and onion while the Magic City hot dog made with "ignature hot relish, tomato relish, mustard and celery salt was a knock-off of the Chicago-style combination.
The pork and beef blend sausages wrapped in natural sheep casing were char-grilled instead of steamed. Co-owner Cassie said, "It's a product you can't get anywhere else and Steve wanted to bring that experience, that East Coast hot dog experience, to our local community." Traditionally hot dogs in lower New York are warmed with hot water while in upstate New York, dogs see fire. "It's got a nice grill-mark and a snap when you bite into the dog," Cassie added.
When our name was called, we picked up our order with each hot dog in a potato bun cradled in a paper container on a metal sheet pan lined with sleek white paper printed with amusing thoughts associated with hot dogs. Words and phrases as "Cheese Please," "Hand Crafted," "Hand Picked Ingredients," "Taste Better" and "Char-grill" and images of barbecue tools, logs and burgers, playfully summarized the vibe of this hot dog place.
Dave said of the Regular Hot Dog he ordered, "There is a good char on the outside from the grill. The hot dog has a nice snap when I bite into it. It tastes like an outdoor barbecue."
I found my Jalapeno Poppin' Dog easy to eat. Neatly cut slices of jalapeno sans seeds topped the hot dog swaddled with caramelized onions and cream cheese, all held together in a soft potato bun.
Upon first chew, I tasted the snappy tender hot dog. Soft smoky onions, voluptuous cream cheese, fresh crunchy peppers, and squishy bread completed the experience. This was yin and yang all in one bite.
Burgers made from never-frozen beef, Polish dogs and bratwurst were also available.
I am comforted to know that if I ever crave food memories of childhood, of barbecues and ballgames, and of New York, I can drive to Midtown Billings to Steve's Hot Dogs.
Stella Fong, author of 'Historic Restaurants of Billings and Billings Food' hosts 'Flavors Under the Big Sky: Celebrating the Bounty of the Region' for Yellowstone Public Radio.
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