FLAVOR RATINGS Catching good dogs provides ample reward

There's still nothing to touch the taste of the real thing.
Here's the pitch: The 2005 baseball season is under way, and according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, fans will eat more than 27.5 million hot dogs while at a game this season.
At the retail level, Americans purchase a remarkable 837 million packages of hot dogs each year. And when I surveyed an eclectic collection of supermarkets, specialty stores and meat markets, I found a huge range of hot dogs under their own names and a variety of aliases, including franks, wieners and red hots.
Thus I set about to see how they compared to each other. I'd found more than 30 distinct varieties, and no doubt would have found more if I'd sought out more independent butchers, many of whom make their own. But to keep it manageable, I limited the field to a dozen relatively traditional hot dogs and four "alternative" hot dogs (made from turkey, chicken, veal and soy).
To keep the playing field reasonably level, I also settled on single, indoor form of preparation. First I steamed them, and then I finished them on top of the stove in a cast-iron grill pan. I sampled a couple of bites of each on a simple, white-bread bun without condiments.
For proper reference, you should probably know my "strike zone" for hot dogs. I like a good, meaty texture, one that gives some resistance when you bite through it. For flavor, I want it somewhere in the middle range: not too heavily seasoned, but also not too mild - and certainly, as you'll see from the tasting notes, not too salty.
With that in mind, here are my preferences, in descending order starting with the top dogs, including where to find them.
UAbeles & amp; Heyman Kosher Provisions Beef Frankfurters (select grocers, specialty markets and mail order; www.abeles-heymann.com) 3 stars: Medium red color, nicely chewy, well-balanced flavor, not a lot of saltiness.
UBallpark Kosher Beef Franks (supermarkets) 3 stars: Similar in all aspects to the Abeles & amp; Heyman, which nudged out Ballpark for the top spot with a bit better overall flavor.
UFrick's Red Hots (supermarkets) 21/2 stars: Memorable bright red casings on these dogs from Washington, Mo., and an interesting black-pepper-spiced flavor.
UHebrew National Kosher Beef Franks (supermarkets) 2 stars: Another meaty and full-bodied kosher frank, with more flavor than most contestants but less than the other kosher franks.
UEmpire Kosher Turkey Franks (supermarkets), 2 stars: One of the biggest surprises of the tasting, an alternative-meat hot dog with full-bodied flavor and texture.
UApplegate Farms Organic Uncured Beef Hot Dogs Whole Foods Market and other specialty stores; www.applegatefarms.com/), 2 stars: A different flavor, not as zingy, but lingering. As a trade-off, it's relatively low in sodium (390mg compared with as much as 1,000mg for some of the others).
UNathan's Beef Franks (supermarkets), 11/2 stars. As much as I like the original in New York City, this hot dog was middle-of-the road in flavor.
UOscar Meyer Wieners (supermarkets), 11/2 stars: Nothing in its flavor or texture to set it apart.
URubashkin's Aaron's Best Chicken Franks (specialty markets, including select Trader Joe's), 1 star. Salty and otherwise bland, with a forgettable spongy texture.
ULightlife Smart Dogs (supermarkets, www.lightlife.com), 1/2 star: The flavor of this soy-based sausage comes close to a hot dog, but the texture won't fool fans of the real thing.

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