Nothin' but a dog hound

Hawk Krall tucks into a specialty of the house at Moes Hot Dog House, 26th and Washington.
Hawk Krall tucks into a specialty of the house at Moes Hot Dog House, 26th and Washington.

Hawk Krall sniffs out the best of America's local wieners, draws them, and devours them.

Posted: August 30, 2009

Starting in June and continuing through the dog days of summer, Hawk Krall - "My full name is James Hawk Krall," he says, "but no one has ever used James" - has stalked the American hot dog in its native habitats, an Audubon of the bun, sketching the specimens he has bagged in his curious and patient hunt.

By this month, he'd done portraits of the fried or griddled Texas Wiener (said to have debuted in Paterson, N.J., of Greek parentage); Hawaii's Puka dog, a Polish sausage stuffed in a hollowed-out bun and garnished with pineapple salsa; a creamy Slaw Dog (with spicy chili) in West Virginia; and his favorite - he waited two hours for it! - a snappy-skinned baby at Flo's, the dog shack on Route 1 in Cape Neddick, Maine, ennobled with a sweet-onion-molasses-tamarind-like relish that he likens to a native-born chutney.

That was just the warm-up. A fuller chronicle of his exertions - "Hot Dog of the Week"- may be found on a food blog called Serious Eats (www.seriouseats.com). If you call it up, you will be rewarded with the art of his eating, the comics-style drawings that accompany his reports, a pinch of R. Crumb in their swagger and rotundity.

It was an offering of those drawings as art prints that showed up in my e-mail that tipped me to his safari in the first place. So I called him up to find out a little more: Who was this guy? What was it that launched his mission?

How about Moe's Hot Dog House, I suggested? Which, of course, was fine with him; it's at 26th and Washington, a short bike ride from the Graduate Hospital neighborhood where he lives. (Moe's hit the spot. But he'd been there before: "I should have met you at Johnny's Hots," he said afterward. For all his wanderings, he'd never made it to the Delaware Avenue stand, known for its spicy hot sausages, hot dogs, and fishcakes.)

Actually, both Moe's and Johnny's feature the distinctive Philly combo (see the artwork above), the so-called surf 'n turf that is a hot dog (Dietz & Watson in most applications) conjoined with a griddled, potato-y fishcake, slicked with mustard and a local relish called pepper hash. Once upon a time, back in the Victorian days, pepper hash was ubiquitous, served with grilled catfish and fried oysters, its vinegar tang standing in for the pricier wedge of lemon.

Krall concludes his Philly-combo post with a traditional recipe for pepper hash from his Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother - shredded cabbage, green peppers, a vinegar-water-sugar brine. But at Moe's, we are informed by Amber Eberz that they use a family recipe that skips peppers entirely, substituting ground onions. It also requires pouring a hot, boiled dressing of oil-vinegar-sugar-and-water over the cabbage to tenderize it. A bit sweet, but good and chewy!

Krall is 31, a child of Jenkintown, a product of Pratt Institute, the Brooklyn art school. But until a year or so ago when he gave it up to concentrate on his illustrating, his day job had been cooking, his longest run at now-closed Brasserie Perrier, where he turned out pastas, appetizers, even the house choucroute garni, an Alsatian dish of braised sauerkraut and sausages.

Still, he'd rather go hot dog-hunting (or hoagie-searching). He doesn't dig the stuffiness of upscale dining. And besides, if you've cooked at Brasserie, he says, it's hard to find a meal out as good as what you'd been making yourself on the line the night before.

There may be a genetic explanation, as well. He spent childhood vacations traipsing around with parents who were keen on photographing old hand-lettered signs and the ruins of amusement parks, instilling in him, he suspects, a respect and affection for "the vernacular."

The regional hot dog, of course, may be one of its purest expressions - Moe's "Highway Hog," invented by a former highway patrolman, involving baked beans, bacon, and kraut; Mexican-inspired Sonoran-style dogs, slathered with guacamole and mayo in Tucson; Rhode Island's stumpy, porky New York System Wieners; the "Depression Dog," a less-adorned variant of the salad-topped Chicago Dog; and a greasy, glorious, salami-wrapped, bolognese-drenched newbie at the counter at Paesano's on Girard Avenue, a Philly riff on the Texas Tommy by the name of Tuscan Tony.


Take a Look

See Krall's hot dog drawings at www.hawkkrall.net/prints


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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