What Makes Michigan Hot Dogs Unique?

It may be obvious that the U.S. does not suffer from a lack of creative and delicious hot dog variations. From a classic steamed ballpark-style dog smothered in ketchup and mustard to a grilled backyard BBQ variety, it seems everyone enjoys their hot dogs slightly differently. Cities like Chicago and Seattle have also reached culinary fame with their own spins on the standard dish, and even the meat sauce-topped varieties have their own regional variations.

While you may be familiar with a classic chili dog, or even a Coney Island dog, there is a variation of this meat sauce-covered hot dog that is unparalleled in flavor and service: the Michigan hot dog. While you might expect a Michigan, or Texas red hots as they're also called, to be served in either of those two states, this hot dog is actually unique to a small town in Upstate New York: Plattsburgh. Located in the North Country region of the state, Plattsburgh is located between the Adirondack Park and picturesque Lake Champlain, and it's just a short drive to Canada's second-largest city, Montréal, as per the Town of Plattsburgh's website

Upon first glance, the Detroit Coney hot dog and Michigan hot dog seem nearly identical, both being topped with meat sauce, a drizzle of mustard, and chopped raw onions. However, Michigans not only use their own unique blend of meat sauce and their own type of hot dog, but the way Michigans are served is special to Plattsburgh, New York.

History of the Michigan

Even within the town of Plattsburgh, there is a lot of speculation about how the Michigan hot dog was first invented and where it got its name. The most frequently mentioned theory, according to Serious Eats, is that the original sauce recipe traveled to Plattsburgh via a Detroit woman who moved to the area. This lore would explain the namesake of the hot dog and why it appears so similar to a Detroit Coney dog. Although as the Town of Plattsburgh's website says, while it is known the recipe showed up in the 1920s, the exact origin is unknown. Many residents have their own stories and theories about the real history.

Even the Hungry for History marker that was erected in the town in 2022 admits that the "origin of the name is buried in local lore."

While the history is murky, there is no denying that local residents are enthusiastic about having their very own culinary specialty. The Town of Plattsburgh has even declared the month of July, likely chosen as Michigans are undoubtedly a quintessential summer food in the area, as the celebrated "Michigan Month." According to the town's site, they even create an annual Michigan Passport that customers can bring to each of the four Michigan restaurants in the town. 

The ingredients in Michigans

The structure of this North Country staple is fairly simple. The Town of Plattsburgh website notes that a traditional Michigan consists of "a natural casing hot dog in a split top bun, topped with a specially seasoned meat sauce, served with optional mustard and onions..."

The split top bun is an essential indicator that what you are enjoying is in fact a Michigan hot dog, as it is ideal at holding in all the toppings. This bun is similar to a New England-style, but longer and heavier, as per Serious Eats. The outlet also notes that the hot dog used is very specific, too. Tobin's or Glazier "red skin" franks are the hot dogs of choice in this dish, noticeable by their bright red casing.

Another stark difference between Michigans and other meat sauce-topped hot dogs is the consistency of the meat sauce itself. As per Syracuse, this unique meat sauce is much thicker than others, but it's not quite as thick as chili. Serious Eats notes the sauce has a slight Greek flavor to it, possibly including cumin or cinnamon. However, each location makes its sauces slightly different. Some are more tomato-y while others are spicy and meaty.

The raw chopped onions are the toppings of choice and yellow mustard is the condiment that comes squeezed on top. While a bit of additional hot sauce, usually Frank's RedHot, is acceptable, requesting ketchup may get you a few odd looks, per Serious Eats.

How Michigans are served and eaten

When ordering this regional specialty, make sure you know the local slang to order it properly. Michigans either come "with," "without," or "buried," referring to how you want the onions and mustard served, as per Food & Wine. "Buried" simply means the toppings will come underneath the meat sauce. They also typically come in a paper boat, perfect for catching any stray onions that come tumbling out of the bun.

Part of what makes Michigans so unique are the seasonal roadside stands that serve them (many locations are only open during the summer). Unique to this Upstate town, these establishments allow you to eat inside, but many also provide car-side service, where you can enjoy your share of fries, soda, and, of course, Michigans from your driver's seat.

The most famous Michigan stand is perhaps Clare & Carl's, as Serious Eats notes, a little structure by the side of the road that appears to be gradually settling into the earth. While the building is a bit of a charming dive, the food is unmatched. Many locals are loyal customers of their Michigan stand of choice, whether that's Clare and Carl's, Ronnie's, McSweeney's, or Gus's Red Hots, each serving a slightly different recipe with its own special flavor profile.

While you can make your own Michigans at home, we do recommend visiting this quaint Upstate town to try one for yourself. There's arguably no better summer pastime than getting endless hot dogs with quick card-side service.