And the Wiener Is…

(reprinted from the Phoenix New Times, January 2, 2003)

Dogging the town’s frankfurter joints
By Cary Sweet

It’s a few minutes past the noon hour, and my hot dog lies limp and ruined, a wizened gray tube of half-eaten meat on a soggy heap of celery-salt-dusted bun. Around it sprawls a litter of neon green relish, bits of slippery pickle, sliced tomato and sports peppers. To the side rests a small plastic cup of wet beige sauerkraut, a splat of yellow mustard, and a scattering of French fries.

The sandwich is such a mess, it had completely fallen apart as I tried to pick it up. The flabby bun collapsed, the toppings tumbled, and I was left with a frankfurter steamed to a creepy peach tone slipped in an icky brown foreskin.

Most of my root beer float remains, too — it’s not the tangy-sweet treat of thick ice cream and fizzy pop I craved, but a quickly melting splotch of soft-serve dairy product under Barq’s brand soda that I filled myself from a fountain nozzle.

My wallet is $6.50 plus tax lighter; my stomach isn’t much fuller than my pockets. I am not happy.

How hard is it to get a good hot dog in this town?

More difficult than it has to be, I’ve discovered. Especially after four new sit-down-style hot dog shops opened recently in the Valley. Chicago-style hot dogs, chili dogs, fire dogs, chili-cheese dogs: These interlopers have all got ’em, and each place claims its frank is the best. Each also promises things like “five-star fast food,” a “higher quality experience,” “not an average Arizona hot dog,” and gourmet-style “food that rocks.”

So for the privilege of what’s perhaps two, maybe two and a half ounces of cured beef or mixed meats formed into tubes, plopped in a bun from a bag, usually served with frozen fries and a beverage, I’m driving all over the place, shelling out around $5 a pop to find out who’s got what. And sad to say, I’m not impressed.

Particularly not when for a truly special, mouth-watering hot dog, I’ve always known where to go. The dogs at Luke’s Chicago Beef (a dive at 16th Street and Indian School) and the Chicago Hamburger Co. (another dive at 38th Street and Indian School) are delicious. They’re also cheap — just $3.15 for a dense, barely spiced dog and big sack of fries that keeps me fat until dinner. On Mondays, CHC even drops its price to $2.85.

And now I’ve encountered the disappointing, pricey gray weenie at Lazlow’s Dawg House, just opened at Scottsdale Road and Thomas in Scottsdale. A few days later I sample another underwhelming newcomer, Big League Dogs at Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard and the 101 in north Scottsdale. Things improve later in the week, but not by too much, at the two-month-old Wolfee’s, on McDowell north of Hayden in Scottsdale. In fact, by the time I end up at Hound Dogs, opened last summer at Desert Ridge Marketplace in northeast Phoenix, I’m beginning to wonder if something is wrong with me. Maybe I just don’t like hot dogs.

But I do adore the humble pups, really I do. All it takes is a return to my cherished Luke’s and CHC to reconfirm this. Just to be positive, I resample the franks at my runner-up favorites, too — Ted’s Hot Dogs at Broadway and McClintock in Tempe (charcoal-broiled to order), and Costco, that shrine to cheap eats with its quarter-pound monster, including drink, for just $1.50.

Maybe I just don’t get the “gourmet” aspect of these new wienie wonders. Each of the new restaurants has some things that work, but none gets everything right.

It can’t be that hot dogs are so difficult to prepare. They’re already cooked, for Pete’s sake, by the manufacturer. All that’s required by the chef is reheating, but therein lies the irony. The worse the treatment, sometimes, the better the dog.

The best dog, since the dawn of time and through the ages never-ending, has been, and will always be, a Dirty Water dog. Dirty Water dogs are those franks served up from an umbrella-topped cart on virtually every street corner of Manhattan, hot, fast and loaded to order for just a buck. Dirty water really isn’t dirty at all, though it sure looks like it as the vendor lifts the lid to his steam cart and sticks a long fork into a pit of roiling gray foam. The liquid’s not scum, but jeweled broth flavored with the juices and salts and meaty liquor from that day’s batch of wieners (the later in the day, the better the dog). The vendor shifts and spears — whatever frankfurter he finds is intense, juicy gold.

I know, I know — it’s not fair to compare boiled New York dogs (generally Sabrett brand with kraut and mustard on a plain bun) to the steamed Chicago dogs we’ve got here (generally Vienna Beef brand, buried under mustard, neon green relish, diced onions, sliced tomatoes, a long sliver of pickle and sports peppers). But a dog needs to snap and spit juices when bitten, not ooze wimpily, as does the soft meat at Lazlow’s. A dog must burst with heady beef flavor, not limp along tastelessly as it does at Big League. Buns are important — to disintegrate, as they do at Lazlow’s, is a crime; to be dried out, as at Big League and Wolfee’s, is wrong.

Good dogs: the taut, moist gems at Wolfee’s and Hound Dogs. Good buns: the celery-salted bread at Hound Dogs. Great dogs and great buns: Luke’s, and CHC.

Toppings demand respect. A champion chili dog needs body thick enough to chew, not slurp. There’s no excuse for the stingy application of kidney beans and hamburger with processed cheese spread that’s found at Wolfee’s, the dainty portion of meek stuff offered at Big Dog, or the too-sweet stew at Lazlow’s. Good chili: the classic, spicy, almost puréed model at Hound Dogs. Great chili: the buckets of beef drenching the franks at CHC, and the ocean of thick bean brew topped with real shredded Cheddar at Luke’s.

Fries can never be afterthoughts, especially on a five-dollar plate. The paprika seasoning at Big League is a bit too frou-frou, I feel. The limp sticks at Wolfee’s haven’t been helped by sitting out too long behind the counter. Good fries: the skin-on spuds at Hound Dogs. Great fries: the crisp, steaming pile in my plastic basket at CHC. Out-of-this-world fries: Luke’s, with its crunchy edged crinkle-cut stubs, blissfully mealy inside and exploding with potato flavor.

A dog is grub, to be savored in the sunburn of summer, or cradled in wind-raw hands when it’s cold like it is now even in Phoenix, our snouts buried in fragrant buns with the warmth of down comforters as we march down the street. Napkins? Pros don’t use them, since any fallout is to be licked from our fingers without embarrassment.

It just doesn’t feel right to be eating a dog with a knife and fork in the garish red-white-and-blue surroundings at Big League, or the slick vintage-rock ‘n’ roll ambiance of Hound Dogs. Lazlow’s is closer, with its homemade decor of the owner’s mastiff (the one-year-old, 190-pound puppy for whom the place is named) squirting mustard, though there’s the cute addition of a cart selling ’50s and ’60s candies. And Lazlow’s sends its pups out on plates! Wolfee’s is closest, a converted Wendy’s, but still not grungy enough with its shiny yellow and teal scheme. No, for real dog chow atmosphere, it’s the perennially beat-up grace of Luke’s and CHC for me, lovable shacks with fake brick walls, orange floors, blistered paint and stolen Windy City street signs as decor. At Luke’s, my beloved frank arrives — fries and all — shoved without ceremony into a wrap of paper.

I can think of no reason whatsoever to return to Lazlow’s, not much excitement to go back to Big League, just some stirring to try Wolfee’s again, and, if I’m in the neighborhood, I might wander into Hound Dogs again. Maybe I just don’t get it, this curious rush to make our friendly frank so fancy.

Because a hot dog shouldn’t require thinking to eat. It should just feel good to have in our hands, in our mouths, and in our stomachs. And it should never cost more than three bucks. Max.