Iceland’s Famous Hot Dog

Downtown Reykjavik

The buildings get to shine against gray and overcast skies.

After we cleaned up, we went outside for more adventure. It had been a bright grey overcast sky all day but now there was a fine drizzle that went from a heavy haze to something almost like raindrops. Rebecca was a bit discouraged at the crappy weather, but I was delighted with a childlike glee at the opportunity to use the swank new rain jackets we got at REI for the trip. The epitome of function over fashion, I’m sure I looked a little dorky trotting around in this thing, and no less dorky for the huge cheese-eating grin plastered all over my face.

It was my turn to pick something out of the guide book and I selected nothing more and nothing less than the traditional Icelandic hot dog. Iceland has put their own interpretation upon this dish, and there were hot dog vendors aplenty throughout Reykjavik, but the Lonely Planet guide book insisted that the sine qua non was the local legend: Bæjarins Beztu, which is short for bæjarins beztu pylsur, or “the best hot dogs in town.” You walk from the commons down a back street through some tall, dark buildings that look like the kid brothers of castles, and then you turn down a street and walk towards the ocean. It feels like you’re making wrong turns all over the place and just wandering deeper into an industrial area where you don’t belong. To the right, behind a building, is a small and colorful booth with one guy working over a simple boiler, fixing hot dogs. It appeared even more quaint and pathos-evoking in the rain, but nonetheless there was a line of a dozen people waiting to order! I gave Rebecca my camera to get some action shots of me waiting, too. The stand makes a big deal of the fact that former president Clinton once ate there; so did James Hetfield, but I didn’t know that until I read it on Wikipedia just now.

Bæjarins Beztu

Waiting in line for the best hot dog in town.

The book suggested ordering one with everything, so I stepped up to the booth, kronur in hand, and carefully pronounced, “Eina með öllu… did I say that right?” The vendor, a young man in his late 20s, laughed and assured me it was perfect, I was well on the way to mastering his language. Stuff like that always discombobulates me and I giggled almost to the point of hyperventilation, which made it hard to count out what I owed him. I was slightly off: if it cost 170kr I only had 150kr ready, for example, but he waived the last 20kr and called it a “first-timer’s discount” and a welcome to the country. Would any Minnesotan vendor be as friendly to a foreigner struggling with English?

The recipe of the Icelandic hot dog is different not only in the consistency of the sausage, whose skin is a little more rubbery, but in the ingredients. Ingredients vary from place to place but as I recall “one with everything” entails this: hot dog and bun, a sweet variety of mustard, remoulade, a mysterious “hot dog sauce” (Rebecca thought it tasted like Thousand Island dressing), minced fresh onions, and a sprinkling of fried onions, called “crispy onions.” The remoulade is intriguing enough, and “hot dog sauce” was not unique to Bæjarins Beztu, but the crispy onions were a feature I readily embraced. It made a fun tactile experience for the mouth, and it was awfully tasty besides. The last time I grilled for a group of people, I made a point of attempting to replicate the Icelandic hot dog experience as closely as possible. I hardly nailed it but I haven’t surrendered the dream just yet.

After this we decided to go for a formal dinner and to give Tapas a second try. It was six in the evening so the place was not crowded at all; indeed, there was one table of people eating who left after we ordered, and another table who sat down just before we got our food, and that was the entire patronage. The owner was a gregarious Spanish gentleman or maybe South American, very warm and smooth in demeanor, seemed genuinely happy to see everyone who showed up. He could not be faulted for service, certainly. I started out ordering a Tio Pepe sherry: I’ve never had it before so I don’t know what it’s supposed to taste like, but my impression was that it was scandalously watered down. It could be that Tio Pepe is especially smooth and light, but I have never encountered so weak a sherry.

Puffin for dinner

Having Icelandic puffin at Tapas.

Then the menu: I felt daring and ordered a dish with saltfish, a beast one hears quite a lot about in Iceland, and also a plate of puffin. The Lonely Planet guide suggests that puffin meat looks (and tastes) like calf liver, and perhaps this description is not far off. Mine was cooked and then prepared cold, served in a blueberry sauce. The meat struck me as a little gamey at first but this was solely the nature of the meat and not any fault in preparation. I adjusted quickly and appreciated this tender preparation, though I wondered if this was a borderline risque dish to try. Puffin are one of the cutest animals in the world, and the two kinds of animals I can’t consider eating arecute and companion. Would I give up beef if I somehow developed a soulful relationship with a cow? Probably not. Anyway, as it turned out, we later saw a movie involving a guesthouse out in the middle of nowhere and the proprietor was plucking and preparing a great stack of puffin for dinner, so I suppose it’s actually a common food.

There was also Minke whale on the menu, and while I was dead curious to try so uncommon a food, I could not override my personal convictions and order it. My head was full of the news articles of Japan bending/breaking the rules to continue hunting Minke whale “for scientific purposes” and selling the leftovers to restaurants, a fact which breaks my heart about Japan. Two species of Minke are on the “near threatened” and “conservation dependent” lists. While I realize the meat was already prepared and sitting in storage in the restaurant, I wasn’t going to contribute to the demand for it and had to pass. I don’t regret my decision.

Saltfish chowder

Icelandic saltfish chowder.

The saltfish, which came in a kind of chowder, was completely delicious and there was no ethical consideration to wrangle with. I haven’t yet met anyone familiar with saltfish as a taxonomical term so I searched online and found a Jamaican dish that uses “salt cod” and calls it saltfish. I have no idea whether the Jamaican saltfish is the same as the Icelandic saltfish, but if you try to hold those two concepts in your head at the same time it seems unlikely.

We wended our way back to Café Paris once again for coffee and cake. We spotted the cute couple from Halifax again—that is, the cute wife and the emotionally reserved husband. Despite his demeanor it was still a nice little treat to run into someone familiar in this foreign city. Rebecca had to excuse herself for a bit and I people-watched in the meanwhile.

A couple tables over there was a lovely woman with dark blonde hair parted and plaited down her chest and a man who at times appeared much older than her. I say “at times” because the woman’s age fluctuated: sometimes she seemed young, early 20s, and sometimes she seemed aged and eroded, the way a soul-crushing relationship with do to a person. The man, late 30s and balding in a most elegant way, certainly was upset about something, though his stone-faced composition gave me to think he thought he was very good at swallowing it. The woman, on the other hand, was the picture of misery and hopelessness. Occasionally they spoke and that’s when the man looked angry, speaking harshly to her but in quiet tones I couldn’t begin to pick up. The woman looked down at her hands as though she were struggling to contain a reservoir of tears that might burst forth at any moment. The man would relent, or rather take a break to sip some coffee, think, and then lay into her again. I almost wondered if he were less angry and more heartbroken about something, because there was a kind of urgency in how he spoke and gestured, as though he were trying very hard to impress a point into her. The situation was far too complex for me to read clearly. At one point the man got up and left the table for a couple minutes; the woman happened to glance up at me staring at her, and she smiled forlornly at us (for Rebecca had returned and I pointed out this unhappy couple to her).

Cafe Paris

Drawing animals and enjoying coffee at our favorite place.

Rebecca practiced doodling an ostrich—my sisters-in-law got me a fun little sketchpad that shows you how to draw unusual animals out of letter and numbers—and demonstrated her mastery of the heron doodle, entirely from memory. She also researched areas that featured hot pots, you know, the geothermal spas that are so justifiably popular, but trying to bus out to one of those was quite a fiasco…

Whatever my successes in navigation Reykjavik, riding the bus was one of my failures. I never could figure out the system: it was clear that buses ran on a loop, so if you stayed on one long enough (like maybe an hour at the most) you’d arrive where you departed originally, so you were never in danger of getting lost or stranded. That’s cool.

Reykjavik statues

Take this map and shove it.

But the schedules made no sense to me. The map I had in hand referred to bus stops by name, but the stops were not named after the streets they were on nor the parts of town they were in, as far as I could tell (and I don’t read Icelandic). As far as I could tell, every bus stop has its own name. Like, if the bus stop was on Bryant Ave. S. in Minneapolis, and it’s situated in the East Harriet neighborhood, the Icelandic naming convention could have it be called “Hannah,” “Bravery,” “Northern View,” or anything else. It would never be called “Bryant Stop” or “East Harriet Stop.”

As it happened, one of the stops was named after the part of town I was trying to get to, and they were not in the same location… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Rebecca and I ran downtown (an area we were handily familiar with by now) and caught the 14, but due to my misnavigation we headed off in the wrong direction. My impression was that the driver was not fluent in English, but Rebecca is convinced he was simply rude. We could call him both and not be far off the mark.

Fishing wharf

This doesn’t look like the Olympic hot springs.

See, we got on the bus and asked the driver if we were headed to the part of town that had these famous hot pots. We didn’t call them “hot pots” or heiti potturinn, we gave the name of the part of town and this is what he did. He sat there, driving. His face twitched into a half-smirk, he sighed, and he gruffly muttered, “Right bus. Wrong direction.”

Industrial zone

There are better backdrops for a selfie, perhaps.

Helpful! We returned to our seats and rode out to the end of the route—you’d think a loop would have no end, just kinda go around in a wide curve, but you’d be wrong. We reached the end and the end was located in the wharfs. The bus driver parked his bus beside a bus stop, informed us we were not permitted to wait on board (not in so many words), left the vehicle and walked into a tiny black shed that served as a short-order café. We watched him trudge off and we looked at each other, then had a seat in the bus stop, behind which an old man had copiously urinated. The old man then staggered across the street, climbed into his tiny little car, and drove away. I hope everything turned out okay for him.

Studying a map

If you stare at these things long enough, they’ll surrender.

Rebecca was determined to enjoy herself despite the overpowering musk of rotting fish and decaying sea vegetation. She took funny pictures and promenaded about while I studied the bus map in vain. I thought I might have an ah-ha moment, an epiphany, noting some runes running down the border of the map that suddenly explained that this was not a map but a riddle, and I am sly with riddles. Intermittently, small groups of dark-clothed teenagers drifted down the sidewalk, all coming from the same direction and all heading into a large blue-gray block of a building with one bold title above the door. Wish I’d written it down, for we realized that it must have been a dance club for the local youth. Probably goth or heavy metal.

The bus driver returned, we all boarded the bus and road it past our origination point and off into destiny. The wrong destiny, it would turn out, as I saw the one word I was looking for, but as I said that word was both the part of town we were heading to and a bus stop. We got off at the bus stop and it was a good couple of miles earlier than the part of town (did I mention that these bus maps are not to scale?). The driver was well aware of where we wanted to go, because we pointed it out to him, but he made no attempt to stop us from departing the bus.

Rebecca thinks he did pause and was about to flag us down and warn us, but I didn’t detect any such behavior. And now I thought he was being an asshole and Rebecca thought he was beneficent. Weird, how perception can turn on a kronur like that.

We were let out at some strange part of town, but the magic of Reykjavik is that it’s so small, you’re never far from somewhere familiar (even if we were out 560 kronur). Even in a strange part of town I could spot the enormous Lutheran cathedral at the top of the tallest hill in the center of the city. We walked toward that and, from there, learned we were only five minutes from our apartment. Instead of returning “home,” we decided to check out some of these bars that were all the rage every night, and walked to the most popular one in the area: DILLON.

Sunset on North Sea

Sunset over the North Sea, downtown Reykjavik.

It was popular and fashionable, looking like Minneapolis’ own Triple Rock might if it had been founded in a fishing village: decorations included rudder wheels and harpoons, for example. I saw a bottle on a shelf behind the bar, the label merely said FISH. Discussion with the young, hard-edged, and pretty bartenders revealed that it was an anise-based drink similar to a cough syrup. Rebecca blurted, “Fisherman’s Friend!” and the girls agreed, though I’d never heard of the stuff. I tried some and, yeah, it could sit on the shelf next to Jägermeister. I also had a light golden Icelandic beer, THULE. It’s a nice enough beer, I’m sure any fan of Bud or MGD would consider it a treat. I like the darker stuff, is all.

We walked to the grocery store called 10-11 to shop for snacks and then retired to the apartment, collapsing with exhaustion and a little irritation. We took some time to vent our spleens and then reconnect, and we embarked once more to Vegamot, the restaurant we liked. Now it featured its evening population, all the young Icelandic men and women getting ready to dance. We didn’t actually see any DJs performing, that probably came later. A sturdy, platinum-blond young man behind the bar recommended a local vodka to me, REYKA. “It was good on ice,” I have written in my little book.

We sat at a table in the corner, attractive and fashionable youth all around, and next to us, even further in a shadowy corner, were two young black men in nice shirts and jackets. They were hunched over their table and looking considerably subdued, and it occurred to me these were probably the first blacks I’d seen anywhere in the city. Rebecca agreed that the country was deficient in racial diversity, though we had seen youth affecting the baggy trousers, street slang, and tagging/graffiti in the style of American inner city youth. Gangsta rap had made its way here and was idolized by these kids as tough and dangerous, just as it was in the States.

Anyway, these two young men were quite visibly marginalized, in the darkest corner of this bar, talking to each other and being talked to by no one else. I wanted to speak up and say something but I’m terrible with impromptu conversation in these situations. They had their drinks and hung out at their table, not reacting to the music and not glancing around. They appeared to me travelers from neither Iceland nor the U.S. and that made me even more anxious to strike up a conversation, but as I said I lack skill n this respect.

Eventually we left or they did and our night was over.

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