Why This Hot Dog Vendor Is the Oakland Coliseum’s Biggest Hit

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Man holds up a hot dog at a baseball game, with fans cheering behind him
Hal the Hot Dog Guy serves a fresh hot dog at the Oakland Coliseum (Briana Chazaro)

¡Hella Hungry! is a weekly conversation with Bay Area foodmakers, exploring the region's culinary culture through the mouth of a first-generation local.

Despite the Oakland Athletics’ losing record, and the cycle of bashing (not by Jose Canseco or Mark McGwire) the team’s paltry stadium by national and local media outlets, there’s at least one statistic where the A’s remain undefeated: hot dogs.

That’s because the A’s, who can’t seem to win back their fans, are currently being sustained by Hal Gordon, an all-star hot dog vendor with an entire lineup of nicknames. He’s Hal the Pal, Hal the Hot Dog Guy and Hal the Hot Dog Economist—he even has a set of trading cards and sponsored pins he signs and gives out to fans. It’s no stretch to say this red-and-white-stripe uniformed food purveyor is more popular than the current players on the field. Hal even brings his own extra condiments like jalapeño mustard and capers to serve fans, since they aren’t provided otherwise, making him a beloved fixture with A’s diehards and first-timers alike.

Hal recently appeared with me as a guest on Forum, hosted by KQED’s Alexis Madrigal, to speak with baseball experts and fans about the team’s dire situation. (He is a PhD student at UC Berkeley studying economics, after all). But besides the drama surrounding this team, there’s a playfulness to Hal and what he delivers—and it’s served from a 53-pound steamer he lugs around for approximately 8,340 steps each game. 

I caught up with him while the Boston Red Sox were in town to discuss his favorite style of dogs and his love for Bay Area food. Here’s what baseball’s celebrity food slinger had to say.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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KQED: What are your early memories of hot dogs at baseball games?

I’m from Chicago, so I remember being a kid at Wrigley Field. There are weird rules around hot dogs [in Chicago]. Kids are allowed to have ketchup on the hot dog. But once you turn 13, you’re supposed to get rid of the ketchup. 

woman holds a hot dog with jalapenos, onions, and ketchup at a baseball game
An Oakland A's fan shows off her hot dog with speciality toppings like capers, mayonnaise and more (Briana Chazaro)

What differentiates your hot dogs from the concession stands?

The hot dog itself starts the same. But when it’s delivered in the steamer, the hot dogs are plumper than when you cook them. Steaming allows water to get into the hot dog and puffs it up as opposed to grilling it. When most people vend hot dogs, they are already pre-rolled. The hot dog is in a bun and rolled up in foil. Those lose their temperature, and the buns also get soggy. Besides that, the differences are mostly the condiments I offer. And bringing the service right to your seat. 

Hear Hal the Hot Dog Guy in action:

Can you list off each condiment and topping you offer? How many varieties of hot dogs can you prepare? 

I’ve got ketchup, mustard, relish, mayo, Sriracha, onions, sauerkraut, jalapeños [and] capers. Of the mustards, I have four right now. Regular yellow, golden brown, and on the super secret menu I have two more—one is a hot jalapeño mustard, and the other is called Coney Island mustard, which is honey mustard with chunks of onions and tomatoes. That last one is shipped from Oregon. Oh, and I have sweet relish and dill relish. That’s 13 different condiments. That’s about [takes a long pause, mumbles calculations] 8,192 ways to serve a hot dog. Right?

You bring your own condiments to the games. How did that start?

When I started out, I used whatever the Coliseum had. We had yellow and brown mustard, ketchup, sweet relish, sauerkraut, jalapeño and onions. I added some mustards for variety, and one day someone asked for mayo, so I brought that. It grew from there. Last year when COVID hit, the Coliseum wasn’t able to provide any condiments, so I wanted to make sure the fans got what they need. The vending company reimburses me, so it’s not exactly on my dime. But I go to the restaurant supply stores myself and bring big cases of condiments myself. At the beginning of the last homestand I ran out of some ingredients, so I grabbed my backpacking backpack and filled it with the giant gallon bottles of sauerkraut and took BART.

What are some of the less popular hot dog styles you’ve dished out?

The rarest thing is when someone only orders toppings and no sauce. Someone once asked me to pile on onions only, all my onions. Another guy only orders the spicy items: Sriracha, jalapeños, jalapeño mustard, with extra of each. One fan brings her own gluten-free buns because she’s gluten intolerant. She’ll pull out a sandwich baggie with a bun and hand it to me. Some of the hot dog pros will ask me to put the condiments first and the dog on top. There’s less spillage. I know when someone knows their way around a hot dog when they ask for that.

You’re famously vegetarian. Why don’t you serve veggie dogs?

I’m hoping to get veggie dogs soon. The problem is the steamer; it’s a pan with a small flame beneath it and about an inch of water. The steam water gets meaty, full of dissolved hot dog fat. If you put a veggie dog in the same steamer, it would get covered in animal fat. Recently, I’ve been working with a welder to try and design a pan that has a water tight divider. Normally, I can fit 40 hot dogs in my steamer. In this pan we’re designing, I could fit maybe 35 regulars and 5 veggies, with a separate compartment. I’m hoping that I’ll have that pan sometime in the next month. In the Bay Area, I bet I could sell a couple a game. I’d like to offer that because I myself am vegetarian, but also, the whole idea of my existence as the hot dog guy is that this is a fan service. It’s a fan-centered experience. When they ask for something, it becomes my goal to provide it.

Where do you go to get the best veggie dogs in the Bay Area?

Top Dog in Berkeley. Instead of a bun, it’s served on a French loaf. That’s such a great touch. They also have at least 10 other types of sausages and dogs and a huge condiment bar. As someone who grew up in Chicago with the dogs there and all the condiments on a Chicago dog, it really taught me that hot dogs aren’t just good, but what’s most fun about the food is that it becomes a canvas for whatever flavors you want. I also want to say: I don’t eat bacon-wrapped Mission dogs because of the meat, but whether you get them near the BART or in San Francisco, it’s great to see. Shout out to all those vendors who work with those flat tops making fresh bacon dogs. It’s a good hustle. It just ticks me off when I see stories about the cops harassing those guys. That’s part of the Bay Area culture.

Besides hot dogs, what do you most appreciate from the Bay Area’s food spectrum?

The burrito is the best food here. Growing up in Chicago, getting a burrito for me meant going to Taco Bell. And I can still remember the first time they opened a Chipotle in my suburb. I haven’t been to a Chipotle since moving here. Fifty years ago, if you were to say what’s the iconic American food, you’d probably say the hot dog or maybe the cheeseburger. But now, honestly, I think there’s an argument to be made that a burrito from the Mission is a more iconic American food. Vallarta in the Mission has a killer eggplant or nopal veggie burrito.

What do you enjoy about serving hot dogs at baseball games?

Going to sporting events is so evocative of all our childhoods. It’s about remembering what we remembered as kids and getting excited about it. A while back there were only two vendors: hot dogs and beer. The steamer I use, it’s definitely older than me. I actually tried looking it up before, and it’s made somewhere in New Jersey; I can’t find any evidence of that company even existing anymore. That makes it fun. It used to be how hot dogs were sold decades ago in this Coliseum.

I almost forgot to ask: ketchup or mustard only?

Listen, like any self-respecting Chicagoan, I don’t put ketchup on my hot dog. But like any good server, there’s no judgment from me. Like I said, what’s nice about ordering a hot dog is that you’re always in the driver’s seat. 

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Find Hal yelling and chanting his way around Ring Central Coliseum on 7000 Coliseum Way, Oakland. Check the A’s schedule for home games.