Bowery's Bogus Dogs
It was bound to happen. Dallas has been elevating the burger ever since The Mansion on Turtle Creek started topping beef patties with rare blue cheese that tasted of gym socks and serving them alongside fries dressed in truffle oil. Now every bar with pretensions of grandeur charges at least $10, sometimes twice that, for organic beef patties on fresh-baked buns, meat that weeps a puddle of juices deep enough to drown a pickle slice (a locally grown, house-brined cucumber, of course).
Booze was next. The folks at Bolsa mixed up a decent drink from the start, but when Eddy Campbell arrived, the cocktail program was invigorated with his personality as much as his creations. Now bars and restaurants without $12 cocktails boasting herbal infusions or medicine droppers of obscure bitters seem as boring as your Aunt Clara's vodka and cranberry. Mixologists all over Dallas are talking about "taking things to the next level" with their ultra-refined cocktails. They're charging for it too.
So, hot dogs were prime candidates to rise from the ranks of pedestrian cookery. Restaurants in New York, Washington, Chicago and other cities have been topping dogs with duck liver and onion marmalade for years and charging upwards of $10 for the delicacy. In an obscure and perhaps extreme example, Guinness lists an 18-inch Chicago-style frank topped with whole-grain mustard and Swedish moose cheese that sells for $145.49 in Sacramento, California. The guys manning the hot-roller operations at your local convenience store appear to be leaving a little something on the table.
Richard Ellman saw the potential. He and wife Tiffanee had occasional hot dog cravings, but restaurants like Wild About Harry's on Knox Street and Chicago Hot Dog in East Dallas were too casual to spend much time in. The couple is well known for opening Oak, the celebrated ode to world cuisine that rules the Design District dining scene, but before they conquered fine dining they quietly longed for links.
When they met John Paul Valverde, their idea began to take root. Valverde, who owns the recently shuttered Campo and moonlights in restaurant design, assisted contractors on the build-out of Oak. When he met Richard Ellman the two talked restaurant aesthetics, partnership and tube steaks. Less than a year later, Bowery was born.
McKinney Avenue's newest hot dog restaurant occupies the small space that used to house a dumpling shop, and Valverde's excellent eye for design shines throughout. Hardwoods cover the floor and knotty pine boards line the walls in a warm, sleek space that feels more like a pub than a place where you can buy a bratwurst topped with onions and kraut. A wraparound porch offers outdoor seating., Inside, televisions play local sports and a bar serves imaginative and sweet cocktails made from Champagne and beer.
The beef hot dogs themselves are more J. Roget than the Veuve Clicquot that's advertised on a wax pencil board at the back of the dining room, though. The molded, processed links lack the hearty snap and natural casings of more pedigreed hot dogs. While Bowery's dogs are juicy, the steamed links that end up in many paper-lined baskets are ultimately forgettable. Dogs that spend some extra time on the grill get some char and subsequently more flavor, but the only thing even remotely gourmet with the beef franks served here are the adornments.
Some of the flavor combinations work well. The banh mi pairs a house-made pork sausage with daikon, carrots, scallions, hoisin and paper-thin slices of cucumber folded into cascading, translucent ribbons. The sausage is quietly flavored with lemongrass and could use a little salt, but it's rich, juicy and ultimately delicious. Other house-made sausages are harder to gush about.
Lamb merguez is dry and mealy, and though a harisa slaw is spicy and full of crunch, it hides the timid apricot salsa in the bun beneath. A duck sausage has similar texture and consistency issues, and while seared foie gras generally elevates everything it touches, the duck liver doesn't quite carry the blueberry-jam-topped "Duo of Duck" as high as its $18 price might suggest.
The light menu may relieve those worried about calories and cholesterol, but the healthier dishes sacrifice flavor. The Tribeca Club makes use of thin, dry strips of chicken breast that tastes like Sysco; a SoHo Cobb means well, but sliced hot dogs on a bed of lettuce recall recipes clipped from Woman's Day Magazine, circa 1972. The turkey dog may be nice, but it often goes missing because of high demand. (It was unavailable when I ordered it two separate times.)
The rest of the dogs cover every hot dog breed known to man. There's the Chicago dog decked out in sport peppers, pickles and pickle relish. The Mac is topped with Velveeta mac and cheese and tiny bits of bacon and chives like micro confetti. The Croque Madam comes with ham, bechamel, bland Swiss and — praise the hot dog gods — an egg fried sunny side up. There's a chili dog, an Italian dog and a nearly fantastic corn dog, but all of these are hampered by an unattractive frank, the cornerstone of any gourmet hot dog stand.
The buns don't help, either. While the capable Empire Bakery, which supplies the bread, usually turns out impeccable baked loaves, the white rolls here are dense and bland with a soft and waxy crust. Wheat rolls are dry, and the size of all the buns only amplifies the problem. Picture a quarter-pound hot dog in a catcher's mitt. It's like eating a sack of saltines.
The good news is that Bowery has a fantastic space, a great idea and a fix that could be made in a single day. If they'd invest in a dog with character, as they should if they're going to charge $5.50 for a plain version, the links might shine through the glitzy toppings they heap on in glorious excess. Dogs from Rudolph's or Kuby's are just two examples with more snap, flavor and zing. They're even local businesses to boot.
The bread's an even easier fix: They just need to buy regular hot dog buns instead of hoagie rolls.
The finished hot dogs in their baskets look beautiful, but that beauty is only skin deep. What they're serving will undoubtedly resonate with a drunken, late night, McKinney Avenue crowd, but the rest of us are better off somewhere else — a place where the hot dogs are celebrated first, and all the glamorous toppings and condiments provide subtle support.
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