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John and Boy Hit The Family Dog

June 11, 2010

It’s an odd position to be in. I would like to see The Family Dog in Mansfield, MA, succeed–as I would any new Hot Dog Joint–while at the same time knowing it could cause me financial ruin and wreak havoc on my neverending-yet-pointless battle to keep my fat, hot-dog-lovin’ butt under the 230 mark.

The Family Dog, North Main St., Mansfield MA

Boy lives in Mansfield, you see. I’m down there twice a week and by the time I leave to head home, I’m ravenous. My salvation, such as it is, has always been the questionable choice of one of the four Dollar Menus lined up along my 20-mile drive. I justify this by pretending I’m a discerning eater. Oh, what shall it be this evening? The Spicy Chik’n Crisp con fromaggio? Perhaps Le Stack Doublé? The rodeo cheeseburger, its smoky flavor redolent of the storied American West? Oh, such choices!

A mere half of the possibilities.

And now, a few scant minutes from my take-off point, there’s a hot dog joint with a menu boasting 30 pre-created and creative toppings combos. Good-bye, dinner a dollar at a time. Maybe. Circumstance clearly dictated that I take Boy there to find out if The Family Dog has what it takes to be our mainstay local HDJ.

Okay, a confession: I made an initial foray without him. He had an orthodontist’s appointment, I was starving and come on–smack in the middle of my route was a joint so new the first time I drove by they were polishing their sign. This I’m supposed to pass up in the name of being a good dad? I ain’t that good, friends.

I guess I want the rest of the world to share the joy we hot dog fanatics feel when we discover a new place. We’re like roller coaster enthusiasts with a new ride, except we keep our lunches down. Most of the time. So I admit I was a little taken aback when, at 6 pm or so on a Thursday night, The Family Dog wasn’t busy. In fact, there was only one other person. But, again, it’s very new. On their Facebook page they have more than 250 friends, so they must be getting some business. The times I’ve gone–both during dinner hours it’s been pretty quiet. But they’re open til midnight and they’re across the street from one bar and a short stagger from another, so maybe they do a good later-night business.

On to our impressions of The Family Dog. First, if you go, pay the extra two bucks for the “gourmet” dog. It’s an impressively chunky quarter-pound beef dog that Boy said was juicy and a little sweet.

Boy Meets Dog

Boy meets dog...and is a little intimidated by its size.

Boy eats dog

...and yet assails the foe with gusto.

They’re good dogs and they’re served in (wait for it) “gourmet rolls.” This was the reply I got when I asked what kind of roll they were using because they’re clearly not your standard bun. Pressing a little further, I was told they’re like Portuguese sweet bread rolls. It’s a nice touch that sets Family Dog’s offerings apart from other joints, and the bread does carry a nice hint of sugar and honey. Some might think it’s too much bread. I like it.

I ordered a pair of dogs. One was named the “Rhode Island Weena.” Classically, the Hot Weiner is a Coney-style/Greek-sauce dog that’s not much different than its scattered relatives. It’s topped with a meat sauce with a predominant allspice seasoning. Naturally it varies from place to place, each claiming to have the “real” hot weiner sauce–if not claiming to be the ones who created it. A true hot weiner (also known by the less charming name “gagger”) isn’t a beef hot dog but a skinny “meat” dog with some filler. They’re typically served with mustard and onions and a shot of celery salt on a steamed roll and eaten by the half-dozen. At least that’s the way I do it.

At the Family Dog they skip the mustard (I should have asked for it) and you get that luscious sweet bread roll but everything else is in place. On my first visit, I noticed the sauce was ladled out of a crock pot. This made me a little sad. To my mind, it’s got to come out of the steam table where it’s been sitting for God knows how long but constantly bathing in moisture and deepening the flavor. While the batch on my second trip seemed a little better, that first round was salty and disappointingly dry–and I may have scorched the roof of my mouth in my haste. (I have a powerful weakness for Rhodey-style dogs that overrides reason.) Second trip, the flavor was better but I’m trying to remember if it had to be microwaved. Plus, I had a roll malfunction. A blowout, mid-dog! Clearly whether it was crockpotted or microwaved didn’t matter to me then, since I immediately took up my fork and shoveled the stuff into my mouth to make sure none if it survived the accident.

Dad's Dogs

Top to bottom: the "Stryk Nine" dog and the "Rhode Island Weena"

I ordered the second dog because I am a sick, sick man with a masochistic streak a mile wide that makes me unable to say no to anything with the word “habanero” in it. Folks, I make brownies with habanero sauce in them. Honestly. The “Stryk Nine” dog features habanero cheddar, bacon and Frank’s Red Hot Sauce. The server, bless her heart, had the goodness to ask, “Do you want jalapenos on it?” Of course I do, miss. I have an illness.

She didn’t mention that there are also little bits of chopped raw habanero pepper scattered in there. I found out with the first tongue-searing bite.


John gets the burn for which he yearns.

Honestly, I’d recommend you not go near this thing unless you’re serious about heat. Between the Red Hot sauce and the raw habaneros on this, I ended up with a nice bit of lip-burn and the requisite endorphin rush. I was diggin’ it–but folks who think your average buffalo wing is too much will cry for mercy on this one. The bacon didn’t really come into play, by the by. It was there but it was more of a bystander.

There were a couple of downsides to our visit. The rolls and dogs are steamed, but it threw me that they’re steamed in the kind of small, half-dozen-at-a-time steamer you’d normally find on the counter at a 7-11. Not to be a jerk but if I wanted a convenience store hot dog, there’s a place around the corner. It just gave me that “Hmm, how long have these been sitting here?” feeling. If the joint was jumping, I’d be less concerned. And while I suppose my proclaimed appreciation for grey-water dogs sort of contradicts this, even with a busy cart you can let yourself pretend they just threw new dogs into the murk a few minutes before. It’s all perception. On another note, even though you’re wearing rubber gloves, could you please not lift my dog out of the 7-11 steamer with your fingers? All I’m asking for here is a pair of tongs.

As I mentioned, I think the meat sauce got a ride in the microwave, which is understandable. It was when I saw them microwave the solitary slice of bacon for my Stryk Nine, however, that I winced a bit and may have wept a single tear. I am pretty sure that in some religions you go to hell for microwaving bacon. At the very least, the bacon priests will look at you funny. This is just a no-no. The more things I see go into the microwave, the less I want to eat there. I can microwave stuff at home. Cook some bacon ahead of time, keep it covered on the countertop. It won’t go bad anytime soon, and room-temperature bacon doesn’t taste any different from recently cooked/microwaved bacon once you drop a warm hot dog on it.

The french fries we ordered as sides were thin, floppy slabs of potato. Like bulky potato chips subjected to a strong dose of humidity. I can’t tell if they do them on premises or if they’re frozen. Whichever it was, the long strand of hair I found in mine didn’t help my opinion. (Other sides are chili and baked beans, presumably without hair.)

So where do boy and I stand on The Family Dog?

The judges come to a split decision...with some indecision involved.

Boy liked it. But he puts ketchup on hot dogs. For him, the gourmet dog was a belly-loader and he enjoyed the different roll.

As for me…I want these folks to succeed. It’s a decent start. The 50’s theme with the juke box and memorabilia is quaint enough, the place is clean and the people working there have been very pleasant the two times I’ve gone. The location is iffy–downtown Mansfield has been a sort of black hole for businesses for years. A weird traffic configuration causes people to actually only see about half the business in the center as they drive through. Family Dog is in what could be considered the better part of it, but Boy and I still had to circle around to park because of the way we approached it.

I just get hung up on the steamer thing. The owners clearly love the idea of the Real Good Dog, but beyond the array of toppings and the cute names for the dogs, the preparation doesn’t really shout out that these dogs should be considered something special. (Read the Hopkinton entry again, or Speed’s–those are dogs that deserve attention!)

I may not hurry back to The Family Dog, but I know I’ll go there again. They’re off to a decent start, they’re right there as I start my drive home, my concerns are admittedly petty and hey– I still have 28 more dogs to try.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2010 12:31 pm

    I’m right there with you about the 7-11 hot dog rollers. When I see those I figure the owner’s heart just isn’t in delivering a RGD. After all, rollers mean that you don’t need to actually cook anything, so you can just hire some high schoolers and hope that they don’t spit loogies into the chili vat when you’re not around. Give me a stand where the owner is the same guy (or gal) making your Greek sauce and grilling the dogs and I’ll make sure to come back.

  2. playwrightguy permalink*
    June 12, 2010 2:51 pm

    I should clarify–it’s not the rollers. It’s a metal box with a grated/perforated bottom and a “basin” under. Water goes in, heat goes on, steam comes up, dogs take a sauna and cook. A convenience store I worked at years ago had one at what was sort of a self-service lunch area. Maybe that’s why it triggers the “how long?’ for me–I know how long I left ’em steaming!

  3. Milkbone permalink*
    June 14, 2010 7:49 am

    Fair and balanced. Woodward meets Oscar Meyer. I hope this kind of write up gets linked to their FB page. If I ran that place I’d want to know how to improve. This falls firmly into the realm of constructive criticism in the quest for a perfect HDJ…thank you for your public service John, you’re a credit to the tubed meat community.

    • playwrightguy permalink*
      June 14, 2010 8:09 am

      This is actually an edited version of what I originally wrote. I went a little deeper, then decided I’d gone too deep for a hot dog joint review. I finished writing it around 1 am and then at 8 am was frantically cutting my snark before anyone (theoretically) read it. I’m just picky, really. Too picky.

      It’s a nice little place, and I hope they do well. I know I’ll head back for a second opinion.

  4. playwrightguy permalink*
    July 29, 2010 8:49 pm

    Update: Boy and I made a return trip this evening. I didn’t think it was worth an entire blog post. Suffice to say we won’t be headed back. It was an absolute microwave fest.

    We ordered. The woman behind the counter told the guy in the “kitchen” that she needed three. Out they came, sitting in a plastic serving tray. Not sure where they came from. They looked at least somewhat cooked–but they still ended up going in the microwave. What was more disconcerting, however, was the amount of time they sat in the plastic container on the counter while the server prepped the dogs. Which is to say, two of the dogs sat there while she microwaved Boy’s roll, slit it, put the dog in, ketchupped it up and passed it over. None of which happened at blistering speed. Repeat for the next two.

    I can’t say it fired up my appetite when I watched her SCRAPE my Rhode Island Weena sauce out of the bottom of a Tupperware container. Honestly–scraped it out like 3-day-old chili, which is probably a fair assessment. And into the microwave. And how do you melt cheese on a hot dog here? Yep. Microwave.

    I told Boy that he was going into the kitchen for me. “Are you serious?” he asked. Yep. At the back of the restaurant, kitchen door is to the right, bathroom to the left. I told him to go down and take a right. Look around, I said to him. Tell me if you see anything that even suggests they’re cooking the hot dogs back there. Then give a “Sorry, I was looking for the bathroom” and get out. It worked. Boy’s report: a refrigerator and a kitchen stove. Stove had bacon cooking on it. No sign of dogs. They may have been in the stove, but….

    To my way of thinking, these folks are doing the dog thang because there’s a killer markup on the goods. It’s just not a hot dog joint when there’s no effort to make it seem like it matters.

    We won’t be back, Family Dog. There are much better hot dog places around.

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