Hot Dogs: The Pride of Iceland


Photo by jayneandd/FlickrCC

Most Americans I know are familiar with Iceland only insofar as its strategic location in the board game Risk. So it's understandable that after I returned from a vacation there last August, friends and family were curious. Sure, I brought back some quintessential Iceland stories: I had attempted to communicate with the Hidden People; I had waded in the Blue Lagoon; and I had drunk Brennivin, a schnapps regularly (and deservedly) referred to as "Black Death."

But in truth, the most Iceland-y thing I had done was a good deal less exotic. I ate a hot dog.

It turns out Icelanders love hot dogs. Every convenience store, kiosk, gas station, roadside stop, and eatery of any kind carries them, and they're consumed for meals, snacks, pick-me-ups, and as late-night munchies. We even glimpsed a pair of schoolchildren grabbing some for breakfast. Vegetarianism, while not unheard of, is exceedingly rare (I found this somewhat incongruent with what seems to be an otherwise progressive country), and I met almost no one who didn't regularly eat hot dogs. I, however, was on the cusp of becoming a full-on vegetarian, and rarely, if ever, ate meat, local cuisine be damned.

Reykjavik natives, asked for recommendations, invariably mentioned the stand, often with a look usually reserved for deceased loved ones.

The hot dog is a point of Icelandic national pride. Ubiquitous and cheap, it has nonetheless managed to avoid a low-class status. I'm trying to think of an American equivalent here, but I can't—so just imagine our hot dog significantly higher on the food totem pole. And, by widespread reputation, tastier. (Cattle are scarce in Iceland, so there's some ambiguity as to what exactly is in the dogs. Conflicting reports led me to conclude it's likely a combination of beef, pork, and lamb.)

A reputation of hot dog supremacy wasn't enough to convince me, though. The last hot dog I had eaten was in summer camp at age 15 when I inhaled six of them to impress my new bunkmates. (It worked.) And while I readily admit that hot dogs have certain appealing qualities—namely convenience and, there's no denying this, taste--their origin and manufacturing process are generally more than enough to dissuade me.

But rumblings of a near-magical hot dog began almost as soon as we landed. On the bus from the Keflavik airport, en route to Reykjavik, a middle-aged German couple asked if we had heard of "the hot dog." The wife's brother had been to Reykjavik the year before, and the most exciting part of his trip was some local, well-known hot dog stand. Several other passengers murmured their assent and anticipation. Reykjavik natives, asked for recommendations, invariably mentioned the stand, often with a look usually reserved for deceased loved ones. Tourists were of three possible minds concerning this mythical hot dog: rhapsodize glowingly and urge a visit (and/or admonish your laxity); express anticipation; and regret having missed it. The hype was unbearable. My willpower (and queasiness) was steadily losing to my curiosity.

Research quickly identified the place: Bæjarins beztu pylsur, which translates as "The Best Hot Dog in Town." (It doesn't appear to be an ironic title—maybe hubristic, but mostly a kind of blunt, if self-serving, acknowledgement.) The place is a metal kiosk with no seating save a lonely bench in the parking lot. Technically it's downtown, but it's a block or so removed from the very mod Reykjavik bustle, on a strip that feels more like a homey port town than a European capital. The walls are plastered with autographed pictures of dignitaries and celebrities cradling their hot dogs, sometimes mid-bite. Bill Clinton, Madonna, that guy from Metallica—all have enjoyed the best hot dog in town, or even, if locals are to be believed, the world. You can imagine the swelling of national pride, then, when the Guardian named it the best hot dog stand in Europe.

This popularity has two significant corollaries: (1) The Bæjarins hot dog has penetrated the national consciousness: the majority of Icelanders—about 70% of the national population (300,000) lives in the greater Reykjavik Area—have eaten there. And (2) there's always a line. And I mean always. At 2 a.m. on a Thursday, I waited behind at least two dozen hungry patrons. There's nothing, natural or otherwise, to block the bitter wind coming off the water, and I was wildly under-dressed, having refused to believe that August in Iceland could be cold. An aspiring vegetarian, I was risking frostbite for a hot dog. The first-timers joked with each other a little nervously. People readied their money and jingled it in their gloved hands. It felt ritualistic.

The server, a dour man in his twenties, was machine-like, ultra efficient, and impatient. When I hesitated with my order, he simply slathered the dog with everything, which is apparently the default in Iceland. (In my defense, none of the condiments or toppings looked familiar, and the prospect of holding up a very hungry—and, in all probability, drunk—line at this time of the night just so I could review the offerings, was more than a little harrowing.) I later learned my meal, in addition to the dog and bun, consisted of yellow-orange sweet mustard, fried onion, raw onion, and remolaði, a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish.

At this point, I feel I'm supposed to regale you with poetic descriptions of the hot dog--to detail the transcendent gastronomic ecstasy in all its glory. Tell you it was life-changing, -affirming; divinity nestled in a bun. And I wish I could, really. But I'm severely hamstrung by my voluntary ignorance of regular hot dogs. I just can't meaningfully evaluate. I can, however, confidently proclaim it the best dog I've had in ten years, easy.