Why you should care
Brazilians have managed to take the ordinary hot dog and make a feast out of it.
When people talk about Brazilian food, they don’t often bring up hot dogs. But something special happens to hot dogs in the hands of Brazilians.
As the sun goes down, the food carts come out. Hazy halos around strung-up lights and the barking beer promoters show the way. Dollies carrying Styrofoam coolers full of icy beer, bem gelado as demanded by Brazilians, pass by fluorescent-lit shelves laden with an infinity of liquor and fruit combinations, and past rusty oil drums topped with grates over which meat kabobs — jokingly referred to as cat meat, given their dubious origins — send off clouds of hunger-inducing smoke.
The key to the Brazilian hot dog’s success is in pile-driving ingredients on top.
Some might say the Brazilian hot dog puts the American hot dog to shame. But maybe it’s just a different species of the same family. And the Brazilian species is mightier.
And yes, while boutique hot-dog shops populate the hippest U.S. cities, the Brazilian hot dog is the opposite. It’s prolific, even more so in the poorest and most festive streets of Brazil, and it’ll set you back 2.50 reais — about $1.
The key to the Brazilian hot dog’s success is in pile-driving ingredients on top. The wiener itself is nothing special; rather, the stars of the show are the toppings.
A typical completo hot dog will likely include most, if not all, of the following:
- Seasoned ground beef
- A pico de gallo-like blend of bell peppers, tomatoes and onion
- Canned corn and peas
- Grated Parmesan cheese
- Shredded carrots
- Diced ham or bacon
- Fresh cilantro
- Shoestring potato sticks
- A hardboiled quail egg
Some enterprising carts even layer the bun with a soft bed of mashed potatoes, better for the sausage to lie in before getting buried by toppings. It’s served with a tiny spoon.
So why add so much to the humble hot dog? First, have you ever had cachaça? If you have, you’re tracking. The Brazilian distilled sugarcane liquor packs a sneaky, forceful punch; it’s a hit stronger than the puny, American-style hot dogs can handle, and the Brazilian hot dog is shrewdly crafted to offer the best defense against the damage. As a result, in Brazil, the hot dog morphs from an on-the-run New York snack, or a supporting actor at a backyard barbecue, into the cachaça companion food you didn’t know you needed until you take your first bite.
But beware the hot dog bureaucrats. In some cities, such as Curitiba, street vendors are legally allowed to sell only hot dogs. However, a scaling back of that law — yes, the hot dog law — in São Paulo birthed the city’s first food truck movement last year. The dog’s nights in the spotlight may be numbered as cooler competitors roll in.
The completo can still be found sandwiched between crack alleys and abandoned buildings in the faded colonial center of João Pessoa in the northeast. There, Dona Maria holds court behind a glowing glass case of meat. The spot is officially called Realeza do Careca, but to regulars it’s just Dona Maria’s hot dog. Dona Maria’s dog requires patience and a drink to work through the tower of toppings, minus the mashed potato layer. “It’s too hot here for mashed potatoes,” she reasons. You won’t miss it. Few food experiences satisfy like a Dona Maria dog, the best in Brazil, in my opinion.
But most Brazilians would disagree with me. Hot dogs are still a divinely localized dish in Brazil, available in every neighborhood of every city. The search for the “best” hot dog is flawed from the start. The “best” Brazilian hot dog is found not in a physical space, but in a mental one, where you’re relaxed, maybe had a few, and are among friends, on the streets, enjoying the star of Brazilian street nights.