Dog Days: Is the District Witnessing the Early Stages of a Hot Dog Boom?
The last time someone tried to make hot dogs a culinary star in the District, it didn’t take.
Amsterdam Falafelshop owners Scott and Arianne Bennett thought they had another hit when they opened M’Dawg Haute Dogs in 2007 on 18th Street NW across from their popular chick pea–and–frites place. Foodies were talking about it, and the early reviews were good. The plan, however, soured quickly. A focus on “haute” dogs—like a $20 Kobe beef sausage—and premium toppings had diners wondering why they were spending so much on something you can buy from a cart on the corner.
Seven months after opening, the Bennetts sold their share of the restaurant, citing differences with their investors. The business wasn’t hitting budget projections. A year later, the shop closed.
There’s not much history with hot dogs here. So far, Ben’s Chili Bowl and the Vienna Inn are the only notable brick-and-mortar restaurants in the area able to turn a sustainable long-term profit on a hot dog–heavy menu. And both of those establishments leverage their history and neighborhood tradition more than the quality of their food. As a stand-alone menu item, hot dogs are tricky for restaurateurs, says Erik Bruner-Yang, co-creator of U Street Music Hall’s pho dog, and chef/partner in the upcoming Toki Underground restaurant slated to open this January on H Street NE. Ingredients are expensive, but customers tend to think dogs should be cheap.
Still, a handful of D.C. restaurants are giving hot dogs another shot, setting up sausage-heavy menus. Pizza and burger joints have boomed as the economy has stagnated by taking advantage of quality ingredients, clever marketing, and the occasional celebrity chef. The restaurants provided customers value and a side of nostalgia, while creating a void for upscale hot dogs—one that looks like it’s about to be filled.
On Barracks Row last month, the restaurant group behind Matchbox and Ted’s Bulletin opened a new hot dog business, DC-3, with a cool and sleek façade. A fresh coat of gray paint cloaks the storefront, as well as the interior walls, and a giant propeller salvaged from a 1940s passenger plane sets a theme that continues everywhere. Take-out menus resemble airline ticket sleeves. Tabletops bound in rivets resemble faux airplane skin. Along one wall, a giant red map doubles as a menu describing regional hot dog offerings.
A flight to Illinois via the “Chicago 7” and a root beer set me back seven bucks and change. The soft bun, heavily studded with poppy seeds, nearly collapsed under its toppings as I tried to maneuver a hot dog “dragged through the garden” to my mouth. The peppers were snappy and hot, and the pickle stood up on its own with a healthy dusting of celery salt. Sweet relish, a shade of green that would make Peter Venkman’s nemesis Slimer blush, gave the dog an almost festive look. It’s obvious these guys have been doing their homework on Chicago-style dogs.
Still, some of DC-3’s offerings leave me feeling a little lost. The “Arkansas razorback red” tastes of cheese and bacon but resembles neither, sporting an artificially colored pinkish red casing. The “Bay Bridge dog” boasts a Heidelberg pretzel roll, crab dip, and a dusting of Old Bay seasoning. While I love the salty chew of the pretzel roll, the crab dip–meets–beef frank is a surf-and-turf combination I don’t find compelling. The vegetarian option, a “California left winger” boasting a tube of falafel, doesn’t work at all.
DC-3 does hedge with a few other offerings. The most notable is an Italian beef sandwich, packed with half a pound of shaved rib-eye and topped with an oily heap of peppers and a ladling of au jus. My first bite caused a torrent of oil and juices to pour from the back of my sandwich: A bite packed with beef, salt, and briny, bright pickle flavors.
The classic dogs, however, have become popular over time for a reason and resonate with my childhood memories. At DC-3 these more simple links are irrefutably delicious. Rochester’s “snappy griller,” featuring a Zweigle’s white, is by far my favorite, and all the items featuring Nathan’s links satisfy. Crinkle-cut fries, fried pickles, and a collection of throwback sodas also help this vintage hot dog shop leave a lasting impression that could bolster a hot dog trend in the area.
After teasing the U Street NW corridor with professionally designed banners and signage for months, ChiDogO’s finally opened this November on 14th Street. The storefront, painted bright red, has a “multiple-locations-coming-soon” feel; carefully crafted logos dot the walls and staff T-shirts. The menu simply offers hot dogs, Italian beef, a few beverages, and a story about ChiDogO’s beginnings.
According to legend, a mysterious “Bob H.” was unable to find the authentic Chicago-style meals here in the District. On frequent visits to his hometown, he brought Chicago classics back to share with friends in the area, and the dogs were so well received, the new business enterprise was warranted. By phone, Bob H. reveals himself as Robert Hisaoka, a longtime D.C. area resident with family in Chicago. Perhaps striving to keep the mystery of the menu alive, Hisaoka tells me he owns and runs a number of other local businesses besides the restaurant, but he won’t say what—or where—they are.
On my first visit to ChiDogO’s, my foot-long was warm but not hot, and lapped with spicy full grain mustard. The link itself (from Vienna Beef Ltd., based in Chicago) was a mildly flavored steamed dog devoid of smoke or personality that would distinguish it from other hot dog suppliers. A pair of bright, vinegary peppers packed heat, but the tomatoes were unripe and flavorless. Onions and a pickle spear were bright and crunchy, and muddied with the expected, and much appreciated, dusting of celery salt.
The relish, however, left me confused. After talking to a number of Chicago natives and eating at DC-3, I was expecting a distinctively sweet, bright green number with a radioactive appeal. ChiDogO’s relish was grayish and tasted flat, as likely to come from a plastic Hunt’s packet as a specialty Chicago provider.
According to Hisaoka, all of his toppings hail from Chi-town except the onions, tomatoes, and other fresh condiments. When I badger him on the relish matter, he concedes the neon green varieties’ popularity, but says he decided on his chosen relish after a number of recipe tests. He won’t tell me what brand he’s using, citing competitive concerns.
But Hisaoka confirms my hunch that he’s already looking into additional ChiDogO’s locations. He’s not alone. Andrew Kim tells me his partners are aggressively evaluating real estate for expanding DC-3. The endeavor might seem gutsy considering how poorly M’Dawg fared, but the environment has changed significantly since then. At U Street Music Hall, Bruner-Yang’s pho dogs have become popular—a grilled dog previously simmered in Vietnamese beef soup broth with a spicy cabbage slaw and hoisin sauce. On busy nights at the club, he sells five or six dozen dogs. They’re not a serious profit-maker, but it lets Bruner-Yang play with new flavor combinations while waiting for Toki Underground’s permits to come through, and it gives his friend, club owner Jesse Tittsworth, a hell of a snack to sell patrons. Bruner-Yang recently added a Monte Cristo dog, complete with strawberry preserves, to the club’s hot dog counter.
At The Passenger, brothers Derek and Tom Brown also feature gourmet dogs for their neighborhood speakeasy. The tube steaks, handcrafted at Red Apron Butchery in Alexandria, come topped with a loose chili sauce and cheese, or spicy kimchi, and an $8 price tag. Stoney’s Bar & Grill, Bar Pilar and many other restaurants sell a few hot dogs too, though all of these businesses have one major thing in common: They rely heavily on sales revenues generated from other menu items.
It may just be the nitrates talking, but some of the chefs behind the hot dog boom say the District might yet turn into a sausage town, no matter how dim the history is.
“This city wasn’t a hamburger town years ago, and Five Guys changed that,” Bruner-Yang says. “Two years ago it wasn’t a food truck town, either.”
DC-3, 423 8th Street SE, (202) 546-1935
ChiDogO’s, 1934-C 14th Street NW, (202) 332-3647
U Street Music Hall, 1115-A U Street NW, (202) 588-1880
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery