Beefing up the hot dog

With gourmet treatments and extras, chefs are hitting the lowly food out of the ballpark.

Posted: November 08, 2009

The possibilities of the classic American burger having been if not exhausted, certainly exhaustively explored (I give you the excessive foie gras-laden Whiskey King eight-ouncer, adorned with maple bourbon glazed cipollini, Rogue bleu cheese, and applewood bacon now playing at Village Whiskey, priced at $24), it should not be all that startling that the town's trendier kitchens would eventually reach down a link on the food chain and grab hold of the hot dog - the innocent, unaffected Eliza Doolittle of our street foods.

It would not be illogical to have presumed that the everyday dog - these days, at least - would be enjoying a boom, its cheap and easy reputation appreciated anew in hardened times. But who woulda thought a counterintuitive trend would emerge - stagier, haute dogs, and at far steeper ($9 per) and un-franklike prices.

We shall more closely examine two of these wonders of the nouveau wiener world - the house-made, 100 percent pork-shoulder "Supper Dog," debuting at Supper's new lunch service (yes, that's lunch at Supper); and the all-beef showboat, crowned with homemade chips, pickles, horseradish, and kraut at Daniel Stern's MidAtlantic, the West Philadelphia homage to Pennsylvania's heartland fare.

Philadelphia, of course, has never had quite the intimate bond with the hot dog that New York has. It tends toward pizza and good-bread hoagies, cheesesteaks, and Italian roast pork with sharp provolone and broccoli rabe.

One big-time local hot dog maker, Dietz & Watson, is currently celebrating its 70th year on Tacony Avenue. Another, Hatfield, provides decent dogs at Citizens Bank Park (though they can end up wrapped in miserable steamy, foil shrouds by the late innings).

Still, hereabouts it's the Polish kielbasa smokers (Czerw's, Swiacki's and Krakus) in working-class Port Richmond, and the Italian sausage makers (the venerable Fiorella Bros. and the game-sausage master, Sonny D'Angelo) that have passionate followings in the city.

The best of the true German hot dog makers tend to be smaller-time and farther flung: Ilg's in Chalfont and Rieker's Meats in Fox Chase, which cranks out beautifully seasoned, authentic German wursts and wieners.

That's not to say that common dogs haven't provided the canvas for a gritty creativity. There's the hot dog (or hot sausage) combo with a fish cake and pepper hash; the relatively new Tuscan Tony at Paesano's, the Girard Avenue lunch counter, split and fried with salami, then doused with rich bolognese; and at Varga Bar at 10th and Spruce, a Kobe dog (well, it's really an Australian Wagyu) with Wagyu chili in a sheet of melted cheese oddly reminiscent of a juicier version of Taylor Pork Roll.

But it is at Supper (10th and South) and MidAtlantic (38th and Market) that the deeper reengineering is going down, starting from scratch and making not only the toppings but recasting the interior of the hot dog itself. Maybe it's because both dabble in charcuterie. Maybe they stay in touch with trends flowing from the Big Apple: Star chef Daniel Boulud now offers a house-made, all-beef hot dog at his hip DBGB Kitchen in the Bowery.

Whatever, Stern's magnificent Pennsylvania German-ish dog at MidAtlantic starts with cuts of beef neck and shoulder and kidney fat, some of the meaty filling left coarsely ground for texture, giving it a hearty bratwurst-esque cast. It's seasoned with smoked paprika, fenugreek, and cayenne pepper. The bun is unsweetened doughnut dough, deep-fried, then top-split and grilled in the New England style, the whole deal - two come on a $16 platter as a Wednesday night special - topped with savory sauerkraut, fresh horseradish, and warm potato chips. (Condiments include a celery-root ketchup and horseradish mustard.)

At Supper, chef Mitch Prensky worked for two months to perfect his succulent 100 percent pork shoulder dog, finally stuffing it in a hog casing, boiling it, wrapping it in bacon, and deep frying it before tucking it in a bun cut from a large-crumb loaf of Parker House-style bread that's buttered and griddled. The $9 dog is crowned with kraut, barbecued onion, and beer mustard . . . buttermilk fried sweet pickles (they're actually pretty darn good) on the side.

While we fixated on the burgers, these were the links (who knew they were even possible?) - that were missing. That we were missing.


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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