Fast Food Chains That Serve The Highest And Lowest Quality Hot Dogs

Do you really know what's in your hot dog? While some may not care — just buy the dogs, throw 'em on the grill, and enjoy — others are a little more cognizant of what they're eating when it comes to foods that have historically been highly processed and not exactly the standard of health. Then, take into account the various horror stories that have arisen surrounding hot dogs (everything from eating one could take more than a half-hour off your lifespan, to human DNA being found in hot dogs) and it's enough to make you seriously reconsider your hot dog purchase.


That said, just as is the case with most foods, hot dogs are a spectrum. Yes, some are a little fishy, packed with filler ingredients or containing a shocking amount of sodium. However, others are made with high-quality ingredients, by high-quality brands, and can be happily enjoyed in moderation. This is the case both at the grocery store and at your favorite restaurants. So how do you pick the best possible hot dog to enjoy this summer (or anytime)? If you're dining out, here are the best and worst places to order a fast-food hot dog, based on factors such as ingredients, sourcing, price, size, and more.

Highest: Portillo's

If you've lived in the Chicago area, or even just visited, you likely know Portillo's. The regional chain serves a variety of delicious and regional eats, including, yes, Chicago hot dogs. Founded in 1963, Portillo's has been using the same brand of hot dog from the very beginning: Vienna Beef. Vienna Beef has a rich history all of its own, founded in 1893 and catapulting to success during the Chicago World's Fair. Today, the brand's products are still made in Chicago, still made in small batches, and still made according to the original Austrian-Hungarian recipes.


The hot dogs are made with all beef, and contain few other ingredients — salt, sugar, mustard, garlic juice, and a few basic preservatives. Additionally, the dogs have less fat and sodium than you'll find in many other hot dogs — around 15% of your recommended daily value for both. Plus, you can't beat the price at Portillo's: under $5 for the basic dog on a poppy seed bun and topped with mustard, relish, celery salt, onions, tomatoes, a pickle, and sport peppers (and you can get the jumbo version for just a dollar more).

Lowest: Dairy Queen

Dairy Queen does a lot right. Who can deny the perfection of a Blizzard? Depending on where you live in the country and your Dairy Queens' regional offerings, you may enjoy menus that are much more expansive than just ice cream and some even include hot dogs. Unfortunately, Dairy Queens' hot dogs aren't exactly as awesome as the ice cream.


To start, the number of ingredients in Dairy Queen's hot dogs is a bit higher than what you'll find on the nutrition labels of some of our higher-ranked fast food hot dogs. Unfortunately and additionally, a handful of those ingredients are multiple kinds of preservatives. Then, the actual hot dog bun is a bit of a disappointment, too, with its third ingredient being high fructose corn syrup. 

High fructose corn syrup is not unusual in white breads, it's not desirable for myriad reasons, including increased risk of chronic disease (via Cleveland Clinic). Add on the reports from Reddit users as to how Dairy Queen cooks the hot dogs and things are even less fun. Some say the hot dogs are frozen before they're cooked and several say they're microwaved — definitely not the best way to cook a hot dog.


Highest: Shake Shack

Shake Shack has developed a bit of a reputation for its high-quality ingredients and, while you may be more familiar with the brand's burgers, crinkle fries, and shakes than its hot dogs, that doesn't negate the fact that Shake Shack's flat-top, split hot dogs, served on a toasted, non-GMO potato bun, boast a fandom of their own.


Like Portillo's, Shake Shack also sources its 100% beef hot dogs from Vienna Beef. Plus, even if the brand didn't source its dogs from such a reputable provider, its commendable U.S. animal welfare policy would be enough to assure that its beef products, including hot dogs, are added hormone-free, and antibiotic-free, and that the beef used for the products received humane treatment and were fed no animal by-products or sub-therapeutic antibiotics in their feed.

It does make sense that Shake Shack's hot dogs would be among the most high-quality fast-food hot dogs on our list. Shake Shack got its start as a hot dog cart in Madison Square Park in New York City, long before the brand began making ShackBurgers.


Lowest: Freddy's

Freddy's is a Midwestern franchise founded in Kansas, in 2002. Now, you can find more than 400 Freddy's locations throughout the country, where the restaurant serves up a mix of burgers and similar sandwiches, alongside frozen custard — and a hot dog option.


Freddy's hot dogs are, like Shake Shack's and Portillo's hot dogs, also sourced from Vienna Beef in Chicago. However, we're not just analyzing the hot dog all on its own. We're also looking at quality from a cooking method perspective, as well as factors like price and nutrition — and it's factors like these that move Freddy's to the bottom of the pack. 

Freddy's hot dogs have more calories than Shake Shack's. The cooking method and serving style are also lackluster, with the bun-to-dog ratio leaning too far into the overly bread-y area. The Shake Shack dog has a superior sear thanks to the split cooking method, and then the Portillo's dog comes with an array of toppings and that poppyseed bun that adds further textural interest and flavor. So, in short, while the hot dog all on its own might be good, the overall attempt leaves something to be desired, when compared to its competitors.


Highest: Nathan's Famous

Nathan's Famous has been making its hot dogs the same way for more than a century and, even if you've never visited one of the brand's restaurant locations, you likely know the green and yellow Nathan's branding from your local grocery store. The hot dogs are made from 100% beef and with no artificial flavors or colors. They're also gluten-free.


As a New York Daily News article detailed, the creation process starts with prime beef trimmings, water, fat, and a blend of secret spices. The dogs are mixed until the right consistency is reached, and then it's quickly deposited into lamb casings, to achieve a snappy exterior and an interior that has a little more texture than what you might normally get from a heavily processed hot dog. The dogs are then smoked, and are never frozen.

In the restaurant setting, the hot dogs are cooked on a griddle and at a lower temperature. A spokesperson for Nathan's Famous told the New York Daily News in the article linked above that Nathan's hot dogs should start at 300 degrees, with the temperature rising to 400 degrees, until the dogs are cooked.


Lowest: A&W

Root beer, burgers, and chili dogs — A&W may do all of these things well, and to the tasty satisfaction of many diners, but are those A&W hot dogs really all that great once you remove the chili and cheese? (Or, if you're more into the chain's corndogs, peel away the layer of cornbread-like breading?)


For A&W, it's really up in the air when it comes to determining how high quality the brand's hot dogs are — and if you can't say definitively that they're high quality, are they really high quality at all? A&W locations are franchises, and franchisees can source their own products to a degree, which is why, A&W says the hot dogs are 100% beef at "participating locations only."

This begs the question, what are the hot dogs made of at non-participating locations? In 2012, a company known as Koegel Meats reported to serve A&W, but, if that's still the case, the company could be providing A&W with a variety of products, including franks filled with a mixture of filler, like dry milk to corn syrup.


Highest: Five Guys

While Five Guys might be more well known for its burgers, its hot dogs are pretty great, too. Five Guys sources its hot dogs from Hebrew National. The brand's 100% beef Kosher hot dogs are made with just Kosher beef and water, and then 2% or less of extra ingredients that include flavors, spices, and seasonings, and a few preservatives.


While the ingredients list does include a few more preservatives than what you might see on the ingredients list at other fast-food restaurants that have made our "highest quality" ranking, Five Guys does make up for this a bit with its cooking method. Like Shake Shack, Five Guys splits its all-beef hot dogs and grills them on the flat-top, for a caramelized finish. From there, you can customize your Five Guys hot dog as much as you like, just like you can everything on the chain's menu, adding cheese, bacon, and anything else your heart desires.

Lowest: IKEA

Big-box store cafes like those you'll find in Costco and IKEA have cult followings that absolutely adore the limited menus. For IKEA, the meatballs are a top pick, but when it comes to hot dogs, the Swedish chain could do a little better.


Representatives from IKEA in the United States have previously said that the hot dogs aren't 100% beef. Instead, they're made from a mixture of beef and chicken, with chicken being the leading ingredient. More specifically, "mechanically separated chicken" is the leading ingredient used in the hot dogs. If you don't know what mechanically separated chicken is, count yourself lucky.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, mechanically separated poultry is a pasty, almost liquid-y substance made basically by pulverizing chicken bones and all technically edible bits attached to those bones. Yum. Good news, though. If you're in Canada, the IKEA hot dog does away with this mechanically separated chicken in favor of a pork and beef mixture. It's not exactly amazing, but possibly preferable?


Highest: Costco

The Costco hot dog might just be the most famous fast-food hot dog of them all — and for good reason. The hot dog is on the larger side, at a ¼ pound, and 100% beef. It costs $1.50 not just for the hot dog, but for an entire combo. Originally, Costco sourced its hot dogs from Hebrew National, like Five Guys, but then switched to its own, house-produced hot dogs. Now, hot dogs at plants are made for Kirkland's Signature around the country.


So what's in a Kirkland Signature hot dog? No by-products, for starters, and no corn syrup or fillers. The ingredients list is fairly short, with beef, water, sugar, salt, spices and a few preservatives — but fewer preservatives than what you'll find in some of the other hot dogs on this list, like those sold by Dairy Queen. In terms of getting the best value for your money, it's truly difficult to beat a Costco hot dog.

Lowest: Steak 'n Shake

No one is saying that Steak 'n Shake specializes in high-quality ingredients. However, Steak 'n Shake is great at what it does best, and what it does best is turn out very affordable, greasy, dineresque food, including hot dogs, fast.


Steak 'n Shake hot dogs do have a few things going for them. There are some varieties to choose from, including footlong dogs, chili cheese dogs, and kids' hot dog meals. The primary main hot dog on the chain's menu, though, is the all beef steak frank, which does, in fact, contain all beef, alongside water, some flavorings, and some preservatives.

However, the Steak 'n Shake hot dog does have one major thing going against it. Reviewers have found that the Steak 'n Shake hot dog on its own is pretty blah, describing it as not "especially tasty," and "quite salty" and "a bit dry." In order to make up for this, it's pretty much necessary to order the dogs smothered in chili, cheese, and similar ingredients, to mask the plain flavor — and that's a sign of a low-quality hot dog that can't stand on its own.


Highest: Sam's Club

If you're going to compare any hot dog to the Costco hot dog, it's going to be the Sam's Club hot dog. Extremely similar, the store offers a soda and hot dog combo for under $2, and the hot dog weighs in at a ¼ pound. Sam's Club uses its own Member's Mark beef hot dogs that you can buy in the store. 


Unfortunately, the hot dog ingredients list is a bit long for these all-beef hot dogs when compared to the Costco hot dog ingredients list. Plus, the Member's Mark beef hot dogs contain corn syrup, while the Costco hot dogs do not. (Do note, though, that corn syrup is not the same as high fructose corn syrup, and poses less of a health risk.)

Still, some say that the Sam's Club hot dog is superior to the Costco hot dog when comparing the two side by side. They said the Sam's Club hot dog offered a superior flavor and overall better value.

Lowest: Wienerschnitzel

Unlike all of the above brands, where the focus is on fast food as a category, with hot dogs just so happening to make an appearance on the menu (or even where the focus isn't solely on food at all, as is the case at Costco, Sam's Club, and IKEA), Wienerschnitzel is all about the dogs.


Wienerschnitzel got its start in southern California in the 1960s. Today, while still mostly located throughout the western United States and a few states in the Midwest and South, Wienerschnitzel is the self-proclaimed "world's largest hot dog chain," serving 120 million-plus dogs every year. So how good are these dogs, which have fueled the growth of an entire brand?

Unfortunately, not very. These are plain-Jane dogs topped with a few extras that hide their ho-hum basic-ness. The chains' primary hot dogs, aka the "world famous dogs," are made with "USDA approved cuts of quality meat," which sounds suspicious, and a closer look at the brand's nutrition and allergen guide shows that if you want an all-beef hot dog, you're going to have to ask for a special substitution.


Highest: Sonic

Sonic's Coney dogs are some of the most iconic items on the chain's menu, and they're frequently ranked some of the best fast-food hot dogs out there. The Coney dogs are made with all-beef hot dogs, and according to multiple Reddit posters, the hot dogs are sourced from food supplier Bar-S. If that's truly the case, we can assume that Bar-S's 100% beef franks are similar, if not identical, to those served at Sonic's, and so contain primarily beef, water, corn syrup, and salt.


One of the factors that help give Sonic's hot dogs their characteristic flavor (beyond the chili and cheese)? Sonic cooks its hot dogs on a hot dog roller, versus on the grill or in the deep fryer. This allows the hot dog to cook evenly on all sides, and is particularly desirable if you prefer a hot dog that's a nice golden brown, without any charring or change in texture due to caramelization.

Lowest: Checkers/Rallys

Whether you call Checkers or Rally's in your neck of the woods, the hot dogs are still the same. These sister companies sell all-beef hot dogs that sometimes go for as little as less than a dollar. You do, in some instances, get what you pay for.


While the hot dogs are supposed to be grilled, multiple reviews of the brands' hot dogs have claimed that doesn't seem to be the case, with one reviewer saying that it seemed as if the hot dog had been boiled instead, and another saying it merely seemed heated up, calling it "small, messy, and depressing."

Given, the general online consensus that Checkers' and Rallys' hot dogs are less than superb, you would think the brands would hold off on showing their wieners to the world. Yet that's exactly what the brands did in 2016, when they incited a "wiener war" with Burger King as a marketing stunt.

Tasting Table owns and operates Mashed and The Takeout.