Few food issues will bring out an eaterâs inner Idi Amin faster than discussing the âproperâ way to top a hot dog. This totalitarian tendency seems to particularly affect those folks beholden to the Chicago-style dog, that all-beef frank lounging in a poppy-seed bun with a colorful harem of ingredients (save of course for that infidel, ketchup). Just ask Arianne and Scott Bennett, co-owners of MâDawg Haute Dogs, the mold-breaking Adams Morgan operation that didnât set out to cater to Americaâs regional tastes in dogs.
âWe thought, OK, weâll bring the Chicago hot dog here, the meat, and weâll bring the poppy bunâŠ.And weâll put out tomatoes, and weâll have sport peppers, and people will be thrilled,â says Arianne Bennett. âThen they were like, âNo, weâre not thrilled. We want the chartreuse green relish, too, and we want the celery salt.â
âI donât think we even really [were] aware of how strict people feel about the toppings from theirâŠtown,â she adds.
You wonât find every famous American frank on the menu at MâDawg (which, by the way, is a contraction of âMy Dawg,â yâall, not MmmDawg). Thereâs no Coney dog and no Vienna beef, but you can order a kraut-covered brat from Wisconsin, an honest-to-goodness D.C. half-smoke, and a New Jersey ripper. You can even come close to recreating other regional faves. Yet hereâs the thing about MâDawg: You can scratch your little localized itch all you want, but youâre never going to be satisfied with MâDawg, and its semi-pricey products, until you surrender to the jointâs larger charms.
Perhaps this is easier for me. I grew up in suburban Omaha, where my familyâs concept of a hot dog pretty much stopped at an Oscar Meyer wiener bubbled and charred on a hot summer grill. I carried no regional bias into my adult life. But you know what? Despite my frankfurter tabula rasa, I still found myself conforming to a different bias: building the kind of simple dogs peddled at ball games.
During an initial visit, I ordered âDa Pimpâ (each dog or sausage here has its own cheesy moniker) and dressed the spicy Italian sausage with sweet relish, caramelized onions, and chopped tomatoes. The problem is, if you take away the ball game, all you have left is a link streaked with the familiar tangy and sweet flavors of youth. Baseball, it seems, adds its own unique flavor.
To get the full MâDawg experience, you have to stretch your boundaries, perhaps even into areas that you regional dog squatters might consider enemy territory. Greggory Hill, chef at David Greggory in the West End, is a partner in MâDawg, and his role is to put a fresh spin on traditional dog toppings.
Hillâs âUptownâ toppings barâsimilar to the setup at the Bennettsâ other Adams Morgan operation, the Amsterdam Falafelshopâis divided into hot and cold sections. The former includes toppings such as sauerkraut, chili (meat and veg versions), apricot chutney, and mushrooms in garlic butter. The latter features even more options, including such seemingly dog-unfriendly condiments as harissa remoulade and wasabi aioli. And thatâs not counting the collection of squeeze bottles filled with concoctions such as blackcurrant Dijon mustard and green peppercorn mustard.
The main contradiction about MâDawg is not that it asks you to dress the lowly dog in fancy condiments, but that in order to enjoy the place, you must be willing to hate it. By that I mean you must be willing to experiment with your toppingsâand therefore be willing to fail. The best bites Iâve consumed here have been experiments wholly concocted on the spot.
Perhaps you donât want to hear that you will have to abandon the traditional passive role of a diner at MâDawg or that you may create something that will feel like a complete waste of money. If thatâs how you feel, fine. Go back to your regional straightjacket. Youâll be like the Carolinian who goes to the Texas barbecue house and orders pulled pork.
No matter where you start among the 12-plus dogs and sausages on the wall-mounted menu, youâll likely start well; the owners have scoured the country for some of the best links, whether the Manger half-smoke (dubbed âThe Chubbyâ) from Baltimore or the Italian sausages (âDa Pimpâ and âThe Ladyâ) from a small company in Virginia. The few clunkers include the Tofurky-brand veggie dogsâkielbasa, Italian, and bratwurstâwhich taste like cardboard. Even the $20 Wagyu beef link from Australia (âKobe Bryantâ) is a disappointment, which makes sense when you remember that hot dogs are rarely a pristine taste of any meat.
My awakening to the pleasures of MâDawg occurred when I finally willed myself to experiment. I ordered the âSplit Beefer,â a deep-fried beef-and-pork New Jersey ripper, which I stuffed into a whole wheat bun and doused in harissa remoulade, wasabi aioli, and brown mustard. The creaminess, the heat, the spice, and the vinegary tang transformed this ultra-meaty American link into something exotic.
From that moment on, I couldnât wait to play at the condiment bar again. By way of example, I offer a short list of my creations and whether they worked: a dirty-water Chicago red hot (âCheap Trickâ) on whole wheat bun smothered with purĂ©ed spicy âdog slawâ and a regular creamy cole slaw (I could live on these cool-and-spicy dogs); a Thumannâs all-beef dog wrapped in black-pepper bacon (âThe Gloveâ), which I turn into a BLT on potato bun by adding chopped tomatoes, shredded lettuce, and a squiggle of Dijon mustard because I couldnât find any mayo (the Dijon scorches my nostrils and ruins the dog); and a house-made corn dog (âThe Brokebackâ) that I pair with four dipping sauces, including grape and blackcurrant mustards, and top with tiny dollops of creamy cole slaw (turned an average corn dog into a marvelous, multi-layered bite).
MâDawg offers little by way of sides. You have your choice of tater tots, crinkle-cut fries, or crinkle-cut fries with cheese and a dense, powerful, powder-heavy chili. The kitchen canât seem to maintain any consistency on its fries, one day churning out perfectly crispy spuds, the next serving up little mealy grub worms that have barely been passed through the deep fryer.
But the gooey mass of fried potatoes, cheese, and chili plays well to the after-hours set in Adams Morgan, which underscores MâDawgâs final contradiction. The placeâs attempt to bring the dog into alignment with adult tastes is all but lost on post-bar culinary brutes. âTheyâre not the people who are coming for the wasabi,â says Arianne Bennett. âTheyâre like, âOmigod, thereâs bacon, and thereâs a spoon, and you can have all you want!â â
Which makes them kind of like the regional dog purists blind to MâDawgâs true genius: helping you find your genius at the toppings bar.
MâDawg Haute Dogs, 2418 18th St. NW, (202) 328-8284.
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 466.
Multimedia Bonus Feature
View Audio Slideshow: Tim Carman and Arianne and Scott Bennett, co-owners of MâDawg Haute Dogs, dive into the gourmet topping bar to construct their dogs. Turn on captions for best effect.