Sunday, May 9, 2010

Hot Damn, it's Hot Dogs!

After what seemed like years of food haute couture, comfort food is making a strong resurgence. In the last five years or so a slew of notable restaurants have opened their doors to an adoring public clamoring for new takes on old favorites. The mighty hamburger has received a hardcore makeover at Chicago’s Kuma’s Corner. The humble grilled cheese has been boosted to legendary status by Cleveland’s Melt Bar and Grilled. And across the rest of the country macaroni and cheese, casseroles, and soups are all reclaiming their thrones in the pantheon of serious, delicious food. And now it looks as if the lowly hot dog is poised for a serious comeback.

Sure, the hot dog has long been standard fare at the ball park, camp outs, and lazy Sunday afternoon lunches, but recently there has been a hot dog renaissance throughout the Midwest. I think a lot of the credit for this re-popularization is due to Chicago’s Hot Doug’s who are renowned for filling their casings with a variety of wild game and exotic spices then topping them with everything from artisanal cheeses to homemade chili. Since its grand re-opening after a 2004 fire, the fervor and desire for gourmet dogs has spread with new establishments opening and established joints getting some much deserved love.

What We Eat is Laughable is no stranger to the dog, both Justin and Nick have waxed poetic on the humble tube steak after visits to Columbus’ Dirty Franks and pilgrimages to Hot Doug’s and O’Betty’s in Athens, Ohio. I have, in the intervening months, had a wonderful Dirty Franks experience and there’s a Hot Doug-ing in my near future when we trek out to the Pitchfork festival this summer. I can not wait! But I’m here today to praise the burgeoning hot dog culture in the Cleveland area.

I’ll begin with the humble Dog House on Coventry. A hot, tiny walk-in about a block from my apartment, the Dog House is a fantastic mom-n-pop dog shop serving things up simple and delicious. Most of the dogs offered at the Dog House are variations on the Coney and named for various Cleveland institutions. My favorite is the Tri-C, a mouthwatering combo of Chili, Cheese sauce, and Cheddar; get it? But if you’re in the mood for something different, the Dog House also offers Polish Boys, Cleveland’s signature encased meat dish. The Polish Boy starts with a Polish sausage (natch) and is loaded with coleslaw and fries, then topped with barbeque sauce. The Polish Boy is generally attributed to Seti’s, a lunch cart that can be found parked out side Dean Supply on Woodland Avenue, and is a favorite of Cleveland super-chef, Michael Symon. The Dog House also boasts one of the best Italian Beef sandwiches this side of Chicago, according to a Plain Dealer review of the establishment, but I’ve not tried it yet. As if that weren’t enough, the Dog House offers both regular and sweet potato fries along side their dogs, both of which are absolutely delicious, and fantastic hand dipped milk shakes. Though the Dog House can get a bit pricey, it’s definitely worth a stop when dining on the East Side.

The impetus for this column, however delicious the Dog House may be, is a new gem in Cleveland’s increasingly glittery Food Crown: the Happy Dog. Set up in quiet hole-in-the-wall bar on Cleveland’s west side, Head Chef Eric Williams (Momocho) has brought the Happy Dog back from the brink with the unbeatable combination of gourmet hot dogs and an amazing beer selection.

The Happy Dog shares a few things in common with some of the aforementioned doggeries, most notably a proliferation of amazing and unusual toppings, but where other establishments have pre-selected topping combos for you to choose from, the Happy Dog puts the power into the customers’ hands. The “menu” at the Happy Dog is a check list of the fifty (50!) topping options and sides. Customers choose between an all-beef frank, a veggie dog, or falafel and then check off as many of the condiments as they’d like at a flat rate of $5.00 per dog. And with such a laundry list of topping your dog options are nearly limitless, meaning each visit can be just as delicious but totally different from the last.

On my first visit I kept things (sorta) traditional, topping my dog with:
The chorizo chili was incredible, spicy but not overwhelming; it provided a hearty base for the tangy nacho cheese sauce on top. The caramelized onions brought some much needed sweetness to the party, balancing out the meatiness of the dog and chili, and the spice of the chili and cheese, as well as some texture to an otherwise soft palate dish. To keep this mountain of delicious company in my stomach I ordered a side of tater tots (quick aside: who would order fries when there are tater tots on the menu?) with a few sauces to dip them in.

I loved the chipotle hollandaise, it was creamy and spicy and unctuous and amazing, one of the best condiments I’ve ever tasted despite the fact that I think hollandaise is a little gross. I loved this so much I want to put it on everything from now on. The house made ketchup was disappointing in comparison, a slightly sweet, kind of sour tomato-y sauce that I kept expecting to get better, but it never really did. But the genius of the hollandaise and the hot dog more than made up for it.

The only problem I can foresee with the Happy Dog is: I can’t stop thinking about what I’m going to build next time! Brie, bacon, and onions with black truffle honey mustard? Smoked Gouda and Mole? Fried egg, bacon, chipotle hollandaise, and cheddar? I’m not sure, but I can’t wait to eat my way through this menu!

OH! And if gourmet dogs and a beer list fit for a king weren’t enough, the Happy Dog is quickly becoming a regular and reliable spot to see up-and-coming punk, indie, and country bands!


Jon said...

just revisited the dog last night and build myself a brie, caramelized onion, black truffle honey mustard, and bacon dog. awesome. awesome.

got some mole, kc bbq, and "killer" steak sauces for dipping my tater-tots in. all awesome.

i see chilli+mole+cheese and bbq+bacon+cheese+onion dawgs in the future.


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