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IN DOG WE TRUST 

Happy Dog builds a menu around top-quality hot dogs and offbeat toppings

Hot dogs and sausages get a bad rap. What other food's manufacturing process is invoked to describe the most loathsome aspects of politics? Yes, lots of unpopular parts of uncuddly animals are ground up to make the tubular treats. But show me a ballpark or backyard barbecue that doesn't offer them — or at least vegetable-based facsimiles — and I'll show you a haven for communists and perverts.

Not that the dogs you'll be served in Rockwellian settings will be, you know, good. There is a wide range of quality in hot dogs, from the pathetic, pale, food-in-name-only creatures sold at Progressive Field (made, I suspect, from those beer cups that proudly proclaim their corn ancestry and recycleability) to the fat, flavorful, all-beef franks that are the heart of the menu at the West Side bar and music venue Happy Dog.

Chef Eric Williams (Momocho) co-owns Happy Dog with Rini McNulty and Sean Kilbane. Williams says the concept was inspired by the hot dog joints in Chicago, and by a low-key, sign-less corner bar he visited once in New York. "It was 4 in the afternoon and the place was packed," recalls Williams. "It was just locals, and it had good music and good energy and I really liked it."

That's the vibe the partners are going for at Happy Dog, whose small stage has recently accommodated the Afternoon Naps and Brian Straw of the Buried Wires (on February 5, Coffinberry and Bill Fox perform; join the bar's Facebook page for more on upcoming shows). The other part of the concept, the hot dog-centric menu, has been equally successful, Williams says. On opening night last October, he hoped to sell 50 or 60 dogs — and ended up selling almost 200.

Like burgers at Michael Symon's B Spot, Happy Dog's dogs are the opening acts ­— the toppings get top billing. But unlike at B-Spot, mixing and matching is not just encouraged at Happy Dog, it's required. And with more than 50 toppings to choose from, you likely will puzzle over the checklist menu for a while. Several members of the Scene staff did that on a recent Friday (the only day that Happy Dog is open for lunch). Even with seven of us ordering, no topping was selected twice.

"I guess I went pretty conventional," admitted Michael Gill, "with bacon, chorizo chili and tilamook cheddar. It was like a great hot dog, only better: The tangy sweetness of the beef taken a bit farther with a strip of bacon and chili spiked with that Mexican sausage, chorizo: a barnyard of taste-mingling."

"The dogs themselves are wonderful, are they not?" asked Ron Kretsch — and indeed, that was the consensus in our group. The buns, however, "strike me as merely servicable, and have 'institutional enriched white bread' written all over them." I'd have to agree — my bun fell apart pretty quickly, explaining why we'd all been provided with forks and knives.

I thought Ron was taking one for the team when he ordered peanut butter, Marcella's grape jelly and chile sauce, and rainbow candy sprinkles on his dog. It sounded to me like something my 11-year-old would order and pretend to like before quietly giving up and hijacking my fries. But Ron insists, "One should try a PB&J hot dog before one dies. Sprinkles optional."

Damian Guevara ordered his with roasted Spanish piquillo peppers and black-truffle mustard. He found the contrast of hot weiner and cool toppings "a little unsettling at first," but still enjoyed it. I played it safe and stuck with toppings I was pretty sure I'd like — "killer" steak sauce, smoked Gouda cheese and bacon-spiked southern greens. And what a terrific combo that turned out to be, smoky and tangy and summery. I'd be much more willing to watch the Indians lose in person if I could get a dog like that (I'd even pay a little more than the very reasonable $5 that Happy Dog charges).

Even the two vegetarians in our group were pleased. "The veggie hot dog tasted more like sausage than a hot dog," noted Michael Gallucci (and indeed it is a store-bought sausage, Williams confirms; he's still perfecting his own quarter-pound meatless frank). "Still, with all the stuff piled on top, it didn't really matter." Gallucci opted for bleu cheese, cole slaw and ancho chile barbecue sauce ("which was a little overwhelmed by the cole slaw," he noted). Anastasia Pantsios said her veggie sausage with Spanish onion, diced tomato and cucumbers "was like having a little salad on a hot dog."

But the winning order in our group was placed by committed omnivore Vince Grzegorek — Caribbean cole slaw, habanero pickled onions and Spanish peppers, all topped with a fried egg. It was a sight to behold, parked next to his Pabst can and silently proclaiming all this has been, is and will be great about living and eating in Cleveland.

Most of us ordered tater tots as sides, and here too the toppings are the story. Ron was a little put off by the Chipotle hollandaise ("tasty, but the texture seemed, creepily, like it had been extruded through something and then starched"), but noted that on previous visits he has enjoyed the Creole remoulade, ancho barbecue and black- truffle honey mustard. Vince dug Momocho's habanero hot sauce and the spicy thai chile and garlic sauces.

Our order took a while, and Williams admits that he can get slammed in the kitchen. "I'm a one-man show on Friday," he says. Damian felt that $4.50 for a Brooklyn Lager was pricey for a neighborhood joint, and Mike Gill lamented the lack of Great Lakes beers on tap. But as Vince noted, "It feels like a PBR kind of place." We all agreed we'd go back, but next time, I am totally getting the fried egg.

dining@clevescene.com

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