Mara Dillinger stood at a hot dog cart in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, eating her fourth hot dog of the night.
“I asked KUOW where'd the Seattle dog come from,” Dillinger said. “Now they’re forcing me to eat all the Seattle dogs in Seattle.”
The Seattle dog: grilled onions and cream cheese. How did this become a thing?
Well, the Seattle dog actually started with bagels, created by a vendor named Hadley Long. Long had previously run a successful bagel pushcart Carbondale, Illinois, a college town.
“It was over a charcoal grill and it was all vegetarian,” Long said. “I was the bagel man for a college town.”
Long sold bagels in Carbondale for eight years. But he wanted to see if his bagels would do well elsewhere.
“I felt like a big fish in a small pond. And I always wanted to see if I could be the big fish in the big pond,” he said. “And in the late '80s, Seattle was still the place to go.”
Long followed his dreams to Seattle, working at a bagel deli in Pioneer Square. He convinced the owner to let him start a vegetarian bagel pushcart at night, from 10 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.
His cart was between J&M Café and the Central Tavern, where grunge legends like Alice in Chains were head banging on stage.
“Pioneer Square was just like a mecca,” Long said. “You could pay one charge and get a wristband and go to all, like, seven bars and hear live music.”
But as far as demand for Long’s vegetarian bagels? It was okay, Long said. “I can't tell you how many people would always ask me, ‘You got bratwurst? You got a Cajun hotlink? You got a hot dog?’”
Customers wanted meat.
“I didn’t want to sell out and be a hot dog vendor,” Long said. But he had these bialy sticks, essentially bagels shaped like hot dog buns. He put cream cheese and a hot dog on them.
He paired cream cheese with the hot dog, because the original bun was a bagel, and bagels and cream cheese go together like peanut butter and jelly.
“That was the beginning of Hadley’s Bagel Dogs,” he said.
When you smear a hot dog with cream cheese, it’s slippery. So every bagel dog he sold, came with this instruction: “Put your hand on top, put a hand on the bottom, you got to hold on to it!”
Over time, other vendors started putting cream cheese and grilled onions on their hot dogs. It got the name Seattle dog.
Do people like the cream cheese?
“You kidding me?” exclaimed Al Griffin, owner of Al’s Gourmet Sausage in SoDo. “You would have a war if you didn’t, oh yeah. You would have a war if you didn’t have cream cheese.”
The Seattle dog has migrated to Capitol Hill outside music venues and to Ballard, where it lives with microbrews, games of corn hole, and real dogs.
These days, the Seattle Dog has even gone vegan. It has soy-based cream cheese and a seitan sausage.
Mara Dillinger, the KUOW listener who sent us down this dog hole, brought us to her favorite spot—Cycle Dogs. We split a dog three ways.
“The cream cheese is really mild,” Dillinger said. “Mostly you’re depending on the delicious bready onion flavor.”
After sampling Seattle dogs from four different vendors, we had our fill. It was a lot of hot dogs for one night.
As for Hadley Long, the creator of the Seattle dog, he moved to Idaho years ago. Reached by phone recently, he said he is flattered that his invention is thriving. The Seattle dog, with its cream cheese, had started being copied by other food vendors before he left in the late 1990s.
“I hear Pioneer Square has changed a little bit,” he said. “I call it the grunge years. Even though Seattle had a lot more going on than grunge music —all of my friends in my inner circle at the time, all the people that worked in the clubs down there, all the bartenders down there – the music scene was just a highlight. The art galleries. I mean, they’re still there. But yeah, I miss everything and the beautiful city that Seattle is.”