Saturday, August 14, 2010

Not Your Regular Hot Dog

A dip dog is not one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but don’t tell that to the folks of the Shenandoah Valley. It’s the choice of people who want to celebrate their 50th anniversary, teenagers for the right meal before high school prom, the final request by a father to his daughter as he is dying, and other Southerners who want a hot dog prepared according to a long standing tradition.

First, what is a dip dog not? It’s not a corn dog. But what is it? It’s a classic red hot dog on a stick that has been dipped in a family-secret batter, deep fried according to a time-honored tradition, dressed in mustard, and served in a brown paper bag. When you bite into a dip dog, you experience an outer-layer crunch before finding a soft white layer next to the dog.

Dip Dog Stand

More than 50 years old, the “Dip Dog Stand,” officially named Hi-Way Drive-In, has survived the onslaught of direct interstate travel and low-price (and often low-value) competition from fast-food establishments. Marion, Virginia, is the home. On U.S. Highway 11 (Lee Highway), the stand attracts travelers who know its location.

Fast traffic now prefers U.S. Interstate 81, which opened in the area in 1963. However, smart connoisseurs know to detour onto U.S. 11 when they approach Marion (zip code 24354). Unlike other businesses that got left behind when the interstate was opened, the Dip Dog Stand (less than a mile from the nearest interstate exit, Exit 39) still has a loyal following willing to take the slow road for comfort food that is reasonably priced. In fact, the dip dog is about the cheapest item on the menu. In 2010 it was selling for only $1.35, and it’s the cheapest dog on the menu (the regular hot dog is priced 10 cents more). The fancy footlong is more than twice as much. Even a small order of french fries costs more. Other items are clearly more, including the bacon double cheeseburger (more than three times as much), the small BBQ sandwich (twice as much), and philly cheese steak sandwiches (more than $5). Only an order of apple pie (without ice cream) costs less than the dig dog (add ice cream, and the dessert becomes more expensive).

Locals prefer the Dip Dog Stand to other food places and have voted it their favorite for not only best hot dogs but also best service, hamburgers, fries and ice cream. Although best hot dogs may be the beloved category, it is also best overall restaurant, according to customers who are readers of Smyth County Herald News and Messenger. In addition to being featured in the local press, it’s also drawn the attention of regional media, such as Southern Living.

Sometimes so many customers line up for dip dogs that those who have placed call-in orders can’t find a place to park. The stand closes only eight days during the year. Imagine the frustrations of travelers who arrive after it closes at 10 p.m. on Dec. 23. It doesn’t open again until Dec. 26. Otherwise, other closings are for only 24 hours.

The dip dog comes only one way: adorned with only yellow mustard. Traditional hot dog condiment options such as chili, onions, coleslaw, sweet relish, ketchup, are not available. It’s also served without a bun – an astute recognition that the bun can cost more than the red dog.

Got Dip Dog?

Opened in 1957, the stand was bought in 1966 by Grant S. Hall Jr. who owned it for about 13 years, when it was then bought by son Grant Jr. and his wife Pam. How widely known is the dip dog? Bumper stickers everywhere – from Iraq and Afghanistan to many points in the United States – ask, “Got Dip Dog?” More than 500,000 dip dogs are sold each year. Although most customers credit the Halls and the family’s dip dog formula for the business success, the owners point to God, who they say has blessed them abundantly. Pam modestly says, “We need to give the Lord credit.” In fact, the Halls have given away more than a million playing-card-sized, Bible-based pamphlets.

Covered in mustard (and just the right amount), a dip dog comes with little else, except for the stick (stuck in by hand). Many customers order the dip dog with onion rings or fries, but I liked it by itself (accompanied with only a strawberry milk shake, one of more than 10 flavors on the menu). A frequent question is whether “dip dog” is one word or two. Most prefer two, much like hot dog. Otherwise, there are few questions before customers order. The Dip Dog Stand also offers its own barbeque sauce, known as Backyard Batch (but that’s another story for barbecuing).

Lots of hot dog lovers attend the apple festival held in neighboring Chilhowie (once the second largest apple-growing center in Virginia) in late September each year. The grand parade on the last Saturday in September showcases the area’s best. Not surprisingly, the Dip Dog Stand is a usual participant and has been a finalist for the best float.

Red Hot Dog

The red hot dog itself deserves a little explanation, particularly for its fan base in this region. The multi-generation fondness for the red hot dog in parts of the South has been documented by Fred Sauceman of East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. In fact, I was in Bristol, Tenn., for an event sponsored by the Southern Foodways Alliance when the documentary “Red Hot Dog Digest” (which defines the dip dog as the “apotheosis of the red hot dog”) debuted to followers of Southern food and culture.

Even though several decades ago, the U.S. government began to warn about dyes, particularly red, in foods, few hot dog aficionados wanted their dogs looking differently than the familiar red color. When regional drive-ins try to serve undyed dogs, the results were amazing. Thinking that the dogs were undercooked, customers returned them uneaten. Since then, the red hot dog has reigned supreme in several Southern locations. As a result, some regional packers stayed with recipes (government approved) that retain the red color.

For example, Valleydale still colors its dogs with the same dye used to make cough syrup cherry red. Valleydale, which operates as a division of Gwaltney (an independent operating company of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer), markets its Valleydale brand hot dogs throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern United States. In the neighboring state of North Carolina, Carolina Packers also produces locally famous red hot dogs, which are also produced by other regional packers and served in local eateries in Georgia and Alabama. Only in southwestern Virginia is the red dog preferred without a bun and dipped in batter before being deep fried.


  1. Where is my tinto!!!??? :D

  2. The Dipdog is a great place to take family and friends. There is 55 years of memories and you can see some of them on their shelter while listening to some bluegrass music or playing checkers while your food is being prepared. Just an all around great place to go..