Tuesday, January 29, 2013

From Not to Haute - The Dirty Water Dog Redeemed

It had all the makings of a delightful afternoon.  A classic.  Five chef friends and me gathered in an almost-empty restaurant in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood to collectively vanish from the world of gastronomy for a golden hour or two.  There was wine in our glasses.  Sunlight in the window.  Cheese on our plates.  And our own, self-imposed no-cell-phones-allowed policy promised a tipsy two hours for which we might be lost to the world, and during which absolutely nothing—and I mean nothing—would get done.  There would be eating.  There would be drinking.  But that would be all.  So we sat and laughed over any number of woefully predictable food industry topics—which District chefs were expanding, which were shuttering, which were buggering the bus boy behind the grease trap out back—until the sunlight paled in the windows and the conversation, now wine-soaked, turned more philosophical.  It turned to food.  So we spoke, each and in turn, about recent food epiphanies we’d experienced in travels over the holiday season.  For one chef, life had changed after partaking in the ritual eating of ortolan in southern France on New Year’s Eve.  For another, it was the discovery of hake throat (or what the Basque’s call kokotxas) in San Sebastian from an old man, who sold the live fish off his boat.  (For me, the only writer in the room just barely credentialed enough to sit tableside thanks to a highly successful, decades-long run as a front-of-house guy, it was Carolina barbecue, but you already knew that, didn’t you.)  It wasn’t until the last chef to speak recounted his encounter with the chivito in Uruguay that things went sideways at the table.  Things went wrong on a scale not seen since the Yalta land-grab of 1945, when F.D.R. told Stalin to kiss his lily-white gringo ass.  For not only did this chef friend describe this encounter with the sandwich in almost-pornographic detail (tales of melted cheeses that resembled body fluids; simulated moans of bodily pleasure that had our fellow diners—few as they were—rolling their eyes in disgust), he loudly lamented the fact that the hamburger, and not something as truly magnificent as Uruguay’s internationally celebrated sandwich, the chivito, should represent the United States as its national dish.  We each put down our wine glasses and blinked at one another.  We each did the math.  Was the fucking hamburger really the national dish of The United Stated of America?  Silence.  Really?  Then everyone spoke at once.  There was shouting.  Name-calling.  Pounding on the table.  Then other stuff happened.  Stemware fell over.  Flowers were upended.  Flatware hit the floor.  At issue was not just the hamburger’s national identity, but other things, too:  the vast disparities in burger excellence (the argument juxtaposing Nebraskan pink slime with beer-bathed Wagyu beef from Japan, for example); or culinary empires built on burger-pimping charlatanism by one DC-based douche-o-licious celebrity “chef” in particular (hint:  his nickname rhymes with “bike,” though reports have him riding a scooter these days).  That’s how quickly the discussion devolved into culinary chaos.  And it was loud.  Very.  So I waited until my fellow luncheoneers had paused to breathe (or refill their glasses) before launching into my own diatribe.

I told them this:

Forget the hamburger.  Forget the calamity of culinary falsehoods propagated by that golden-arched confederacy of laughing clowns and red-caped kings about the culinary supremacy—in our hearts, on our plates—of a puck-shaped piece of meat, sandwiched between two “enriched” flour buns, topped with “secret sauce” and infused with enough bovine fecal matter to kill a full-sized human adult, at an outdoor picnic, on a sunny day in May.  The hamburger isn’t your friend, boy-o.  Not those kind.  Never was.  Never will be.  Consider, instead, finding fulfillment in the hot dog.  The ultimate in street food.  The quintessence of American nose-to-tail eating.  And by virtue of its sheer ubiquity—from the ballpark, to the airport, to the push-cart down at the local Home Depot—what must surely be our national dish.  This is not to suggest the hot dog is healthier than that burger at your average fast food joint.  Intestinal casing stuffed with a nitrate-rich meat slurry of ground-up animal elbows and assholes hardly trumps a shit-tainted patty of ground beef on the Upton Sinclair scale of food crimes.  But that’s not the point.  It’s not about being good for you.  It’s about honesty.  Truth in advertising.  Occupational integrity.  And how the ingredients, however questionable, are marketed to a legion of faithful eaters.  For while the hamburger’s most colossal, clown-faced pimp smilingly assures us the burger in that kids’ meal is not only safe, but in fact, nutritious, the hot dog has long demanded of its eater that he operate under the rule of implied consent.  As in:  sure, those might be pig’s noses and chicken lips you’re eating inside your footlong, but you knew that when you ordered, didn’t you, tough guy?  Connoisseurs of these nasty bits have long known that frequent booster shots immunizing against Hepatitis A are well-advised for the habitué of that city-corner stand, whose third-world style sous vide bath smells kind of off, and not entirely unlike that of New York City sewer water.

Then I raised my glass and drank.  I had just spoken my masterpiece, written my own Hamlet, and I proudly scored it like this:  Hot Dog: 1/Hamburger: nil.

But my chef friends were little moved.  Gastronomic hairsplitting between the greatness (or not) of street foods like hot dogs and hamburgers—just as I had done—was about as pure an exercise in adolescent intellectual masturbation as that ninth grade, post-bong-hit-in-your-bedroom discourse on who rocked it harder, Zeppelin or The Who.  That my monologue failed—in every way—to somehow encompass—within my impassioned defense—the looming endangerment of fois gras at the hands of PETA-leery legislatures, and that it failed to address the way the EU was now adjudicating the export of white truffles, my audience was all too happy to file my defense of the hot dog under who-the-fuck-cares-dude.  They rose and turned on their cellphones and hugged each other goodbye.  Lunch was over.  The world was waiting outside.  There were kitchens to pilot, after all.  Culinary empires to run.  Lobbyists and politicians to feed.  The hot dog as America’s food was on its own, and so was I, off from work for the night, and alone on that chilly street in Georgetown, with nothing better to do than watch traffic build as the day bled out across the sky.  But as any savvy Washingtonian knows, the best thing about finding yourself alone on the street is the simple fact that you are surrounded by food.  Street food.  It’s everywhere—much of it glorious—and ready for the eating. 
Hot dogs were out there in the city.   I knew they were.  And have one (or three) I must.

Stand X – Washington, D.C.

So I hopped a red bike (surely you’ve noticed those now-nearly-ubiquitous communal bikes provided by Capital Bikeshare, and if you haven’t, shame on you) and peddled over to the corner of 12th Street and Independence Avenue, where stands the very apotheosis of what the dirty water dog hawker stand is supposed to look like.  To smell like.  To be.  Located at the very heart of Washington’s tourist corridor of the National Mall, this hot dog stand looms like a culinary Venus fly trap set there to ensnare tired, over-stimulated, museum-weary travelers from Iowa or Wisconsin, who gladly line up eight-deep to shell out two bucks for a iconic food they’ve eaten a million times before, and will, no doubt, eat a million times again.  But I understand this kind of eating.  Really I do.  For the act of travel awakens, in many, the opposing impulse to hunger for, and cling to, the familiar.  So after stumbling (often teary-eyed) out of the Holocaust Museum, after contemplating the loss of six million people to a badly-mustachioed, murderous tyrant, a hot dog, paired with orange-flavored Gatorade, and a four-pack of Nutter Butters, must surely seem like a good idea.  Even at a hot dog stand as seemingly inhospitable as this.  Which is not to suggest the proprietors of this location are anything but warm and friendly people.  It’s just that a tourist from Debuque would have to work awfully hard to unearth the proprietor’s largess.  There is, after all, the matter of language.  The middle-aged woman peddling dogs the day of my visit seemed recently arrived from Cambodia, or Laos, and her linguistic bag of tools contained words relating only to the hot dog; mustard and sauerkraut were in her wheelhouse, but my observations on the briskness of the day went without rejoinder, and she stared at me as if were some dimwitted child who had just stuck my finger into a wall socket.  There is also the matter of food handling practices, which, here, are done roughly, without discernable love of the ingredient, and most noticeably, without gloves (that being problematic for a food stand without running water, without a place to wash one’s hands).

But for this eater, however, none of that mattered.  Assimilation to American (food) culture is often a long, strange trip for immigrant food workers, and any bumps in the road I’d experienced in procuring my meal were instantly forgiven upon receiving that museum-grade piece of American street food wrapped in foil.  Unlovingly plucked from a warm bath of brackish, strange-smelling water, then wedged into an “enriched” white bun, and briskly dashed with yellow mustard and kraut, this street-bought hot dog satisfied every nitrate-laden, buzz-inducing craving for meat-in-a-tube I’d been enduring since noon.  I ate it in five bites, then balled up foil, and licked the mustard from hands.  And while surely far, far from the pinnacle of fine dining, my dirty water dog did what it supposed to do:  deliver a hot, savory, even marginally nutritious meal at a price nearly anyone could afford.  Such is the very essence of street food, and it’s the reason I’ll be returning to this stand, and citywide others just like it, tourists from Iowa and all. 

The Bottom Dollar Dog – Alexandria

Central to American gastronomy over the last several years has been the idea that street food, through better sourcing, and more careful preparation, can be elevated to something…finer.  To this end, the hot dog is no exception.  Enter, then, The Bottom Dollar Dog:  a tiny brick and mortal store hidden in the heart of Old Town, Alexandria, in that strange limimal space between the white-collar offices of South Washington Street, and the Section 8 housing project of South Columbus Street.  Opened by co-owners and twentysomethings Keith Williams-Parker and Patrick Thompson in May 2012, The Bottom Dollar Dog operates in the very same space that once housed the sandwich shop operated by Keith’s late grandfather, Walter, for over 60 years.  And if that’s not reason enough to want these lads to succeed, know this:  their hot dogs strike that oh-so-tricky balance between being “crafted” by someone who cares about your food’s appearance and taste, and some thing that an ironworker from the Wilson Bridge project could grab on his lunch break without fear of being called nancy boy by his thick-necked union buddies down at the job site.  Just fussy enough for foodies craving culinary nostalgia, and proudly blue collar enough for working class stiffs like, well, chefs and food industry professionals like me, the hot dogs of The Bottom Dollar Dog are remarkably egalitarian; culinary exclusion is clearly not their jam.  Hipsters (which Keith and Patrick are not) take heed.

Service at The Bottom Dollar Dog is walk-up and take-away.  You order through a wire screen from a wonderfully restrained number of options, then stand back on the sidewalk and wait.  I ordered a chili dog with cheese and onions, with a Cheerwine to wash it down (I’m a dirty slut for the stuff) and mingled al fresco with several middle-aged, white-collar professionals, the middle-management crowd, who were clearly enjoying their newly found liberation from Subway and TGI McFucksters.  Life—for all of us—was good.  Waiting outside, away from the office, away from the wife—who forbids such indulgences—was good.  And before I knew it, Keith (or Patrick) was holding a brown paper bag in which was sequestered my chili dog.  And as I tore into it, there on the hood of my car, I was delighted to discover what northerners will recognize as a Nathan’s, or what southerners (especially those from Carolina) might know as a Red Rocket: a cherry-red meat-in-tube product, always good, whose iridescent color imparts no meaningful flavor to the experience, just a color-that-does-not-appear-in-nature thrill ride for the eater.  And the chili?  A just-as-good-as-Ben’s amalgam of Jack ‘n Diane goodness (remember them sucking on one of these outside the Tasty Freeze, boy-o) that speaks to you in an accent that just might be from Cincinnati.

I have driven past this location for years, hoping that something, someone, would move into the tiny spot and do the community proud.  Clearly, I got my wish.  We all did.  Next time I go, it’ll be for breakfast, for waffles, because word around the campfire has it that they’re good, really, really, good, but that’s another story, now isn’t it?

[Reader's note:  The Bottom Dollar dog has since closed.  Bummer.]

Haute Dogs & Fries – Alexandria

Disinclined to like.  Those are the three words I committed to my notebook upon entering Alexandria’s Haute Dogs in Old Town North.  After all, the place was…nice.  Too nice to purvey the venerated hotdog, I thought.  This place, I mused, took the street out of street food and made it wear a pair of flat-fronted khakis.  There were the gorgeous exposed brick walls, after all.  Smart pin-spot lighting.  Friendly staff.  A large, something-to-please-everyone menu.  The place had it all.  So why disinclined to like?  Because the name of the place, Haute Dogs, had set me on edge the way a place will when calling itself gourmet; because if you have to tell me you are, then you’re not.  Because I’ve too often experienced the correlation between dirt, danger, and transcendence of flavor.  Because nice interior too often serves to disguise culinary mediocrity and middle-of-the-road, take-no-risks eating, like what Jackson Browne or Huey Lewis are to rock ‘n roll:  safe. 

Good thing I write in pencil.

My correlative between dirt and flavor is, in this case, false.

I was wrong.

So much for first impressions.

To wit:  Haute Dogs is a revelation.  It’s a glory.  It’s the one place I’ve discovered that realizes where the hot dog has been, and where it’s headed.  I’ve been to Haute Dogs several times now to make sure my proclamation of one of the best hot dogs I’ve yet eaten could bear up under increased scrutiny and repetition.  And yet, those experiences at Haute Dogs have revealed just that:  one of the best hot dogs I’ve yet eaten.  There.  I’ve said it.  Twice.

How so the magic? 

Reverence for the ingredient is my theory.  The hot dogs are all beef.  No gluten.  No dairy.  No sugar.  Just cow.  And the bun on which they’re served is not a mere vehicle for the dog either.  Not here.  No way.  Here, the bun is New England style—think the kind of bun that encases the fabled lobster roll—and is toasted en buerre on the flattop grill beside your cooking dog.  I don’t know from whence the hot dogs come, but I do know their sausages and brats are locally sourced from Loudoun County (Fields of Athenry and Lothar’s Gourmet Sausages).  The love of ingredient does not stop there, either.  Even the freaking condiments taste fresh, are fresh, and enliven what is already a deeply delicious dog.  And all of this delivered in a cardboard box lest incidental contact with its contents otherwise sully its architectural perfection.

The L.A. Dog—let it be known—is my favorite:  cheese, bacon, jalapenos, and so West Coast for the way the cheese was the yin to the jalapenos’ yang, and for the way the bacon established the fact, that no matter the outcome of such a culinary tussle between such seemingly opposing flavor profiles—hot peppers, cooling dairy—everything would be alright because it already was.

The triumph of Haute Dogs is the elevation of the once-lowly meat tube without all the foodie skullduggery or over-thinking what, in essence, it a blissfully uncomplicated food.  America’s food.  And on that I’m sure my five chefs and me could agree.

See you out there.  I’ll be the guy with mustard on my chin.

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