By LAURA Reiley
Times Food Critic
I thought I was special. A few weeks back I began getting postcards from readers urging me to try Bruce's Chicago Grill & Dog House. "The chili cheese dog and the fries with celery salt are amazing," they said. "They have the best dogs this side of Chicago," they said. It was a campaign, and it worked.
I stood in front of Bruce's, the exuberant orange-and-yellow signage temporarily distracting me. But there it was, a review by my predecessor Chris Sherman, who started with the cold facts. Owner Bruce Karlin had launched a similar campaign back at the turn of the millennium, which prompted Sherman to get in there and start noshing tube steaks at this funky homage to the Chicago dog started back in 1994. Fine, Mr. Karlin, you cad, you've pulled this come-hither ruse before with food critics.
Still, it's a darn fine dog.
The decor is pure Windy City, with photos of Al Capone, da Bears and other local luminaries, dog-eared menus from Chicago greats and pictures of Mrs. O'Leary's house (pyromaniac cow not visible), all haphazardly staple-gunned. It makes for an entertaining few minutes while your order is assembled.
The coin of the realm is the basic Chicago dog ($3.35), dragged through the garden (translation: with the works). That means a tender steamed poppy seed bun cradling a Vienna beef dog in the casing, topped with yellow mustard, alarmingly neon green relish, a dill pickle slice, tomato and cuke, chopped onion, "sport peppers" (hot little babies packed in vinegar) and a couple shakes of celery salt.
This is not the dog to eat if you are wearing your good pants. The dog itself is salty, with good snap (iPhone users, there's an app for that: locate Vienna beef hot dogs), and it lends itself to being the anchor of a number of other excellent offerings. The coleslaw dog ($2.95) is sweet and creamy from mayo, crunchy with cabbage and salty from the dog; a Reuben dog ($3.25) gets a little slick of Russian dressing before the dog is nestled into the bun and topped with tangy kraut and a mantle of molten Swiss.
Karlin and crew do some of the other Chicago classics with grace and verve. Chicago-style Italian beef ($6.95 and $8.25) has nearly the devoted following, the crusty roll piled with slightly thick-cut sliced beef and finished with a thin jus (what they call Italian gravy), sweet peppers and onions, melted provolone or hot giardinaire peppers in olive oil.
These last are put to best effect on another Chicago oddity, the tamale. Thin, cigar-shaped and fresh from the microwave, the corn masa enfolds a simple beef filling. Disconnected from its Latin American roots, it's a basic building block, best heaped with chili and hot giardinaire peppers ($2.75). It's small, but sits heavy in your belly like ballast.
Karlin will magnanimously serve you a Hebrew National or a Nathan's dog as well (both $2.75). Heck, he'll even top a dog with ketchup without giving you too much guff. But the indigenous foods of Chi-Town are his passion. Which means the proper respect is paid when, post dog, you opt for a creamy, dense slice of Eli's cheesecake ($2.59). It's too much of a good thing, but it almost made me want to write myself a postcard: "Having a wonderful time, wish you were here."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Read her dining blog at tampabay.com/blogs/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.