The country's love affair with the hamburger continues unabated. But early this year, prognosticators agreed on one trend we'd see in 2011: gourmet, even "artisanal," hot dogs. It makes sense. Consumers are still feeling the smarts in their wallets, while the legion of unemployed are looking for a business venture that is affordable to start and maintain. Eureka: Take the original meal-in-a-bun comfort food and spin it gourmet. Be exacting about the meat and the bread, offer unusual toppers and condiments, and a "splurge" is still under $6. Sounds good to me.
Susan Norton is a personal chef by trade, running Epicurean Delights out of Palm Harbor for years. In November, she took over a charming space on Main Street in Dunedin formerly occupied by a massage therapist and opened Hot Dogs on Main. Why hot dogs? "Hot dogs are fun, and the demographic really needed it." It also gives her an opportunity to experiment with sauces and to exercise a little dog humor: The Greek Hound Dog reads like a Greek salad crafted atop a tube steak; the "poodle dog" is a reduced-fat spin; a special Italian Greyhound featured pesto and shaved Pecorino Romano.
She and significant other Nick Annenos had to build a kitchen, no small feat, but the culinary focus remains very targeted, with about a dozen dog "breeds" and a handful of salads and Italian beef and sausage sandwiches to round things out. Originally dogs were either Nathan's or Vienna (the big N.Y./Chicago Godzilla vs. King Kong of dogs), but the Windy City's Vienna won out. Norton will sub out a Yves veggie dog, kosher Hebrew National or an Applegate organic turkey dog, but she's primarily working with 1:6 (that means six dogs in a pound) skinless all-beef dogs.
Kids can opt for a 3-inch "puppy" ($1.25), and grownups can go for a foursome of them ($6) as a way to try out some of Norton's best work: a straight-up unadorned dog ($2.75 for a full-sized dog), a Southern Dog (fresh coleslaw, $2.95 for full-sized), a Brooklyn Dog (sauerkraut and spicy mustard, $2.95) or a classic chili dog ($3.50). On my visit, the Dixie Dog ($3.90) won me over with its mix of cuminy chili and crunchy housemade coleslaw, and the Greek Hound Dog ($5.75) had a great mix of flavors — pepperoncini, tzatziki, feta, cuke, olives — but man, it was a trick to eat.
In some of the country's most ambitious dog houses, meat has strayed to the unusual — rabbit and duck and heritage pig, topped variously with chutneys and aiolis and other exotica. Jason Fernandez, owner of the 6-month-old Hot Willy's Sausage and Italian Beef Superstore in Ybor City, has kept his vision more on terra firma. That didn't stop the Wall Street Journal from including the newcomer recently in a best-hot dog roundup. Opened at the beginning of the year, the casual stand has a number of things going for it.
Ybor City revelers will be pleased at the weekend hours (3 a.m.), and sausage cognoscenti will be impressed with the geographic breadth Fernandez aspires to: brats from Sheboygan, Wis., andouille from Louisiana, Polish sausage from Greenville, N.Y. As he says, "These are adult dogs."
A fourth-generation Tampa native, Fernandez (whose likeness is uncannily captured on the anthropomorphized hot dog logo) is new to the dog pack but a veteran in the restaurant business, owner of Ybor's Bernini and soon-to-be Carne Chophouse, part owner of the Green Iguana in Ybor and former co-owner of Malio's. The big sellers at the funky little shack are 1:6 Vienna dogs with casings (good snap), the Chicago style with the works ($3.74), which means the tangy relish and pickles, the kick of sport peppers, a riot of onion, tomato and cuke, and yellow mustard and celery salt for a little extra panache, all served on a soft, poppy-seed bun.
For a local spin, the Ybor Style Willy ($3.74) is aces, the Vienna buried under sultry black beans and a flurry of chopped white onion. Pair that with an order of loaded tots (crisp tater tots slowly softening under a mantle of chili and cheddar cheese sauce, $1.64) for about as filling a meal as five bucks and change can buy.
Much has been made of Burger 21's signature hamburgers (and Thai ketchup and sweet potato fries with toasted marshmallow goo), but frankly, this Westchase first link in the chain also offers a fine frank. Front Burner Brands (Melting Pot, Grillsmith) and Chris Ponte have parted ways, but the 9-month-old fast-casual spot (a second is coming in Tampa in the fall) continues to perform.
The dogs in question are Hebrew Nationals, the buns toasted for a satisfying crunch, especially when weighted under some serious condiments as in the Reuben Dog ($5.25), a blistery grilled dog topped with a beery cheese sauce, piquant sauerkraut and remoulade, which adds richness and cuts the tang of the kraut. Even better is the Danish dog ($5.25) with its surprising contrast of fried onion strings, pickled cukes and chopped tomato, with a bit more of that remoulade for lushness.
These "Mad Dogs" may have been overshadowed by Burger 21's burger list, but the dog days of summer are a perfect time to explore new spins on these most nostalgic foods. As Hot Dogs on Main's Norton says, "You can tell where people are from by what hot dog they order. But everybody has a story when they come in, a story of hot dogs from their childhood."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.