All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their history while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
On Dec. 12, 2016, the hot dog joint became an endangered species in Dallas.
That’s the date that Luscher’s Red Hots, the Chicago-style joint that housed Brian C. Luscher’s custom, coarse-ground red hot blend — a beautiful snapping beef tube that was delicious from bun to casing — closed abruptly. Over in Lakewood, a few months earlier, Jerry’s Wood-Fired Dogs shut its doors, citing rising rent as the cause. The same year, Samson's Gourmet Hot Dogs shuttered its Oak Lawn location and went back to the food truck.
We’ve seen more hot dogs come and go over the years: Hoffman Hots shut down for a major relocation (it has not reopened), and in North Dallas, a simple and wonderful 13-year old hot dog spot, The Dog Stop, closed in 2015. Big D Dogs, one of chef Luscher’s favorite hot dog joints, closed in 2008.
“If Big D Dogs couldn’t make it …” Luscher says, pausing in thought. “Their buns were perfect. The hot dogs were hot. The fries were addictive. It felt like the closest thing to a hot dog joint.”
So, are we missing the hot dog joint love in Dallas? “It’s just not in the DNA," Luscher says. “Wild About Harry’s is the only game in town.”
In 1996, Harry Coley opened up a space on Knox Street where you could grab a cone of his mother’s frozen custard. Coley was a frequent traveler to New York and Chicago and was in love with one of life’s great food joys: grabbing a quick, dirty hot dog — brown mustard-swiped in New York and sport peppers and celery salt (and everything else) in Chicago — then devouring it on a city street.
For Coley, a simple hot dog was the perfect snack. So to balance the frozen custard, he added 100 percent Vienna beef dogs, the gold standard, to the menu at Wild About Harry’s. In 2014, Coley passed away.
Sydney Coley-Berglund, his daughter and current owner of Harry’s, says the hot dog business shares equal success with the frozen custard. Their Dallas Dog comes lined with mustard, a little column of neon green relish, and scatters of onions and shredded yellow cheese. With some crinkle-cut fries, it’s a great guilty pleasure. It’s certainly a snack that's taken for granted in a city with so few places to get it.
“It’s not just an ice cream business. It is a hot dog and ice cream shop,” Coley-Berglund says. “And I never expected that. It’s just not what Harry intended, but people loved it.”
On a recent visit, I’m diving into a Dallas and a Chicago dog. The store-bought bun is warm and soft, and the relish is as green as St. Patrick’s Day. Sport peppers and a thin pickle spear are key. The only thing missing is a cold beer. A chocolate custard works just fine; it tastes like a Texas summer. It’s food that’s tailor-made to make you feel like a kid again.
In 2015, surfing the wave of restaurant openings in Deep Ellum, Harry’s opened up a new location at a corner of Hall Street. Business at that location isn't quite as robust as Knox, Coley-Berglund says, but it's still chugging along.
“It’s slower, but it takes time," she says. "We haven’t been there 20 years like we’ve been there at Knox.”
The flagship Knox location continues to perform well, and they get third- and fourth-generation customers. So, what works for Wild About Harry’s?
“It still amazes me today that kids and parents and families keep coming," Coley-Berglund says. "It’s just an easy, fun thing. I think it has to do with familiarity, and it’s just a memory.”
The price is also at a sweet spot. There’s a narrow barrier for entry when it comes to what customers will pay for a hot dog, Coley-Berglund admits. At Harry’s, a couple of hot dogs will keep you under 10 bucks. They hold their prices low, even though Vienna beef raises their prices once a year. The cost issue, it seems, is one of the toughest things about holding onto a hot dog joint in Dallas right now.
“I don’t see us rising ... we just can’t right now. I don’t want to,” she says. “After the election, things got really tight in November. How many restaurants, not just hot dog restaurants, went bankrupt in Dallas? There were just a lot in my neighborhood that went out.”
For now, Wild About Harry’s is holding on, serving a dose of nostalgia sandwiched between a fluffy bun.
Wild About Harry's, 111 S. Hall St. and 3113 Knox St.
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