Nathan's hot dog

This week’s Burning Question is trickier than one might suspect.

The matter at hand—is the hot dog a sandwich?—has stymied even the most expert minds. The answers they put forth have been pestered by semantic loopholes, muddied by government agencies, found legal refuge on both sides and fallen prey to any number of logical fallacies.

Some insist it was settled in 2006, when a judge in Massachusetts ruled that a burrito did not constitute a sandwich, settling a bitter culinary dispute between Panera and Qdoba. The two chains were actually butting heads over a lease agreement, but somewhere in the reams of testimony, the court defined a sandwich as involving at least two pieces of bread—which appeared pretty straightforward. And there are plenty who agree.

“It’s a hot dog, silly,” says Valley Hills Deli & BBQ manager Nora Jones with a laugh. “I wouldn’t call it a sandwich. It’s a round dog, so how are you going to put it on a flat piece of bread?”

Unfortunately for those ready to accept an easy answer, New York sees things differently. The state tax code dismisses bread count, instead implying that a sandwich can be “on bread, on bagels, on rolls, in pitas, in wraps, or otherwise, and regardless of the filling or number of layers.” It goes on to suggest—at least for taxable purposes—buttering a bagel is the same as constructing a Dagwood.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg declared the hot dog a sandwich. That she did so on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert hardly lessens the importance of an RBG ruling. Not surprisingly, the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council weighed in. In an official release that strayed far beyond culinary bounds, they argued “a hot dog is an exclamation of joy” along with “a verb” and an emoji. Eventually the council concluded the hot dog is “a category unto its own.”

Like Jones said, a hot dog is a hot dog.

So what’s the cause of all this confusion? The bread, of course—unless you leave it up to government agencies, but more on that in a moment. The question is whether bun or loaf must be sliced all the way through for it to be considered a sandwich. If not, then the role of a sub, hero and hoagie is called into question. If so, it opens tacos, gyros and—yes—hot dogs to inclusion in the sandwich category.

Emily Muñoz at El Estero Snack Bar in Monterey (by Sollecito Ballpark) understands all of this commotion.

“It’s subjective, like art,” she explains. She serves hot dogs at Monterey Amberjacks baseball games, so may be in the best position to answer this week’s question. But even Muñoz pauses before responding in the affirmative. Just like a burger, “it looks like it is a sandwich.”

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I believe the Supreme Court already used the “if it looks like” argument, but for another matter. Which brings us back to government deadlock.

You see, a U.S. Department of Agriculture official confirmed on NPR that the feds consider a sandwich to be “a meat or poultry filling between two slices of bread, a bun or a biscuit.”

Hang on. That clearly puts the hot dog in sandwich territory. But at the same time it dismisses outright the famed grilled cheese, along with McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish (as well as the McRib, in which the meat product is difficult to identify) and a host of vegetarian options.

Navigate federal boundaries, however, and you find that the USDA only oversees meat and poultry labeling. The Food and Drug Administration handles the non meat items, so their version of a sandwich likely reads differently…which makes sense until you get to USDA’s “sandwich-like product” designation.

Federal government labeling policy includes both hamburgers and hot dogs in this fuzzy “almost” category. In other words, to the USDA, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it may in fact be a rooster.

To muddy things up even further, California tax code, citing a 1941 court decision in the riveting case of Treasure Island Catering Co., Inc. v. State Board of Equalization, claims “The sale of hot dog and hamburger sandwiches”—how’s that for being obtuse?—”from sandwich stands or booths where neither chairs nor tables are provided for customers, does not constitute a ‘meal.’”

So in this state, hot dogs not only may (or may not) be sandwiches, they also may not necessarily amount to lunch.

So I am tempted to cause a distraction and slip out the back door, leaving the answer hanging. After all, it’s almost happy hour—a holiday we take seriously in this office—so a Jimmy Panetta-esque “I can work with both sides” sounds pretty fair.

But there’s something in what the Valley Hills Deli & BBQ manager said. Jones recalls as a child being served hot dogs split down the middle, slapped flat on a griddle and—after a proper scorching—slipped between two slices of white bread.

“That was a hot dog sandwich,” she says.

(1) comment

Craig Malin

Given my Chicago heritage, trust me when I tell you a hot dog is not a sandwich. It is the pinnacle of human culinary achievement; a cultural totem of sublime gustatory ecstasy.

Calling a hot dog a sandwich demeans the art and science of the delicacy and - perhaps - humanity's quest for meaning and purpose in the cosmos.

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