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EATING HOT DOGS IS really an exercise in agnosticism. The hot dog's squat, enigmatic body begs certain questions: What constitutes meat? How far from the idea of meat can one stray without stretching its identity beyond recognition? The hot dog, in its purest form, becomes a signifier of the unknown, a reconstitution of various faiths. Condiments act as beautiful rituals, veiling the grand mystery--yes, the flesh that is the hot dog.

I came to love hot dogs during a visit to New York, where vendors are plentiful and absolution comes dressed in sauerkraut, crisp relish, and hot, mealy mustard. Problematically, I had just given up beef, convinced the cattle industry was an unnecessary evil by maps showing the rain forest bald as a bulked-up athlete. I decided hot dogs would be allowed to slide through my moral mesh because their substance was ambiguous (who really knows what's in there?), and my enjoyment of them suddenly reached ecstatic levels. I could do without the flank steak as long as I could occasion a hot, juicy dog.

Here in Seattle, shrines to the hot dog are less conveniently located, and the acolyte is forced to explore more creative outlets. It has been common knowledge in my circle of friends, for example, that some of the best hot dogs have for years been found in the small cafeteria at Price Costco. Usually located at the front of the store, this eatery offers a kosher version of the dog ($1.63) that melts in the mouth, haloed by a firm, slightly warm bread bun, neatly wrapped in foiled paper, with a condiment bar that lets one slather chopped onion, French's mustard, and a high quality relish at one's will. Although no one I know actually belongs to Costco, the guerrilla maneuvers implicit in a visit merely add meaty appeal.

But a hot dog should not require such maneuvers. Instead, as spring approaches, the hot dog should be stumbled upon, like the tiny crocus, at street corners and in the foyers of hardware stores. Blooming pink and nimble from its yeasty bun, these hot dogs might be blessed with onion, sliced jalapenos, or red Thai hot sauce.

A few hot dog stands around Seattle warrant mention. The first, and most highly recommended, is the stand in front of the Showbox. Operated in the evening hours when drunken show-goers crave something they can cradle, this stand consistently offered up well-cooked, beefy dogs on every one of 15 or 20 trial visits. Not only that, but they make something which, when I first heard it described, sounded repulsive, but turned out to be sublime (and nothing endears me more to food than this turn of events): the cream cheese hot dog. This hot dog, nicely cooked, appears in a crispy bun smeared with cream cheese--simple enough to hold up as a ritual, rich enough to visit unexpectedly, like the Holy Ghost.

Another fine stand is found in front of Gameworks, on Seventh Avenue, and is part of a chain that includes a walk-up in Westlake Center's square. Although rated more highly for convenience than quality (I have been served dogs so badly burned at both stands on occasion that their outer skins crumbled like ancient paper in my mouth), these stands will do in a pinch, providing glint-papered accompaniment for a walk to various pawn shops.

I hear that hot dogs are closely associated with sports events. Since I don't attend sports events, I can't corroborate this, but I imagine that these dogs, sprinkled by the dust of cleat-pocked fields and congealed by high-roofed air, might be sublime enough to include in an examination of the faith. The appeal of hot dogs, after all, is heightened by great hunger, and the only thing sure to invoke hunger more than open air would be love (and this might explain hot dogs' increased springtime popularity). My friend Rachel, a devotee of love and linked meats, actually served hot dogs at her wedding reception: an entire papered table of quail hot dogs, rabbit hot dogs, tofu hot dogs, and spicy Cajun hot dogs. Not only did these dogs recall her nuptial vows taken on Coney Island, but they evoked fertility.

Other fine hot dogs can be found at Shorty's in Belltown, and at the brand new Diggity Dog, amusingly located kitty-corner from the vegetarian Honey Bear Bakery. Diggity Dog veers towards gourmet, but they also offer a fine Kosher frank ($2.75) and a perky array of condiments, all housed happily in their red-trimmed corner location. Hot dogs found at bars, like Linda's, are often quite good in a traveling-salesman-dinner kind of way (eaten on the run and with lots of beer). The hot dog, like faith, can be carried with you wherever you go.