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Chapel Hill, or the "Southern Part of Heaven," is known for many things. Academics, basketball, indie rock and much more. Some even call it the hot dog capital of the Carolinas. By some, we mean us —  the official Daily Tar Heel heavyweight hot dog champions and connoisseurs Carson Elm-Picard and Lucas Thomae.

We teamed up to survey part of the ever-developing local hot dog scene to see who reigns supreme and who is left on the grill at the cookout. For our basis, we used the Carolina dog — a hot dog typically topped with chili, coleslaw, onions and mustard. 

Al's Burger Shack 

Carson: As an introduction to the evening, the Carolina dog from Al's is a textbook example of the Southern staple.

A "Mr. G," Al's unique name for the dog, is everything you needed it to be.

The toasted bun adequately held the contents of an all-beef hot dog with an ergonomically-placed slice in the middle of the dog to ensure proper mouth-height clearance for toppings. This hot dog felt like a warm hug. 

Carson's grade: B+

Lucas: Al’s Mr. G has everything I want in a Carolina dog. The chili is hearty and sweet but not sloppy. The slaw is a finely chopped, nearly homogenous mixture that allows for it to be piled on top of the dog generously without becoming overwhelming.

The dog itself was split lengthwise, an ingenious tactic that allows for a greater surface area and a more satisfying bite. Overall, Al’s offers a solidly constructed hot dog that hits all the right notes.

Lucas' grade: A

Buns Burgers & Fries

Carson: The uninitiated hot dog connoisseur could potentially be skeptical of hot dogs from an establishment whose name features its direct competitor. However, Buns' dog was larger than any of the others we ate, and in my opinion, offered the most bang for your buck.

While it was my favorite, a Carolina dog traditionalist may knock points off Buns' hot dog because the ratio of coleslaw to onions leaned heavily in the onion's favor.

This felt like a dignified approach to an American classic that demonstrates the power of innovation. 

Carson's grade: A

Lucas: Buns' take on the Carolina dog is a pungent kick to the senses, which can be attributed to its chunkier slaw that includes red onion. The bun is well toasted and the dog boasts an impressive circumference that, when combined with the chunky slaw and tangy mustard, creates a cacophony of flavors and textures upon first bite.

This dog is more invigorating than it is comforting, but it’s a boldness that I respect and will certainly return to in the future.

Lucas' grade: B+

Spotted Dog

Carson: The great thing about a hot dog is its aptitude for personalization. That is why we decided to expand our palates by ordering a vegan option.

At first glance, this dog was the most visually appetizing meal of our night. The soft glow of the dining room illuminated the hot dog in a manner that felt akin to what one might receive in a metropolitan restaurant.

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Unfortunately, my praises end there.

The consistency of the vegan hot dog itself was indistinguishable from the chili, which made the experience far from enjoyable. While the chili and coleslaw were just fine, the vegan hot dog felt like a sad replacement for the real deal.

After eating this hot dog, I felt distressed and ultimately worried that the best was already behind as we prepared for our final stop. 

Carson's grade: C-

Lucas: There’s a certain snap, crackle and/or pop that I expect when my teeth sink into a well-cooked hot dog, and unfortunately that element was missing from this vegan take on a Carolina dog.

It was well dressed with chunky slaw and chili, but I just couldn’t get over the underwhelming dog that seemed to fall apart the instant it touched my mouth.

While I’m happy this option exists for plant-based hot dog enthusiasts, it’s simply not for me, and that’s okay.

Lucas' grade: C

Sup Dogs

Carson: We thought it only fitting to end our journey at Sup Dogs, the last place you expect to be but somehow the place where you end up week after week. 

The hot dog itself was wrapped in tight paper turned translucent by grease. The coleslaw was abundant and wetter than the previous hot dogs.

This is a drunk hot dog — the type of meal when the specifics don’t matter.

A Sup Dog isn't a hero, but your regular guy who gets the job done. I respect it for that reason and can’t think of a better end to our hot-dog-filled adventure. 

Carson's grade: B

Lucas: I have to agree with Carson here. While I salute Sup Dogs for its commitment to satisfying late-night hot dog cravings, its Carolina dog didn’t impress me much.

The slaw is very mayonnaise-y and the bun is untoasted and pillowy — like something you could find in any grocery store. I much prefer the standard Sup Dog, a more simple creation topped with chili and Sups sauce.

Lucas' grade: B-

We want to acknowledge that this list is not a definitive ranking, and is admittedly missing heavy hitters such as Sutton's Drug Store and Merritt’s Grill. Unfortunately, we are mortal men restricted by budget limitations and mayonnaise tolerances.

Alas, be comforted by the knowledge that the real value in a hot dog taste test is not in crowning a champion, but the friendships curated along the way. Just as the Swedish pop supergroup ABBA once said:

“The wiener takes it all.”

Editor's Note: Lucas Thomae is a former editor at The DTH.


Lucas Thomae

Lucas Thomae is the 2023-24 sports managing editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as an assistant sports editor and summer editor. Lucas is a senior pursuing a major in journalism and media with a minor in data science.

Carson Elm-Picard

Carson Elm-Picard is the 2023-24 multimedia managing editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as the design editor. Carson is a senior pursuing a double major in journalism and media and political science.