Hot Dog Doc Delivers Hunger Pangs
A couple of weeks ago we got an email at the blog–email us at thehotdogiate (at) gmail (dot) com–from Mark Kotlinski. Mark’s a fellow hot dog enthusiast who has joined with the likes of Rick Sebak by lovingly crafting a hot dog documentary. Rather than taking a State-wide scope he’s decided to focus just on Connecticut hot dogs. I guess there’s something I’ve never noticed, and it’s that New England has a ton of really good hot dog joints (HDJ)–and Connecticut in particular is home to some of the best. I’ve had people who get a beatific expression on their face when describing Blackie’s relish and I’ve experienced a deep sense of disappointment, bordering on depression, when I get to Super Duper Weenie just after it closes. I’ve long ignored Connecticut’s hot dogs, however, in favor of more local haunts–and for this I should be ashamed. Mark’s documentary (which you can, and should, buy here) is going to become a guide book of sorts for me and for any encased meat enthusiast who will reverently tick off each HDJ as a religious pilgrim does shrines. I would hope it’s already been picked up by local PBS stations, because judging by the amount of success Sebak’s had with his perennial classic, there’s plenty of people out there who can’t get enough of one of the most quintessential bits of Americana–the hot dog.
Mark hits all the right notes with A Connecticut Hot Dog Tour: he lets the nostalgia of decades-long-running stands shine, demonstrates the quirkiness of hot dog enthusiasts (who else would have a strong opinion of natural casing over no case franks?), and causes you to salivate at each dog that’s showcased. Case in point–his documentary has such sway that, the day after receiving my copy in the mail, I ended up hitting up the first two HDJ’s in the doc the day after while driving through Connecticut.
The Dawg House is one of those really good HDJ’s that were continuing a tradition and now have one of their loyal fans who stepped forward and bought the stand when it went up for sale. The stand’s popularity is based largely on its coney-like sauce, called the Strand Chili, which originated from the Strand Lunch (see Michael Stern’s Roadfood page) and have been serving Strand Lunch Hot Dogs to feed the nostalgia-driven.
Sam & I got there just around dinner, so we were ready to settle down to some serious eating. When I got there I had a bit of a dilemma because there were many more options beyond the Strand Dog but I stuck to my guns and ordered the original–and even persuaded Sam to do the same. She almost got me to order the frito pie, which I now regret passing up, but we mutually agreed on the potato wedges smothered in cheese and bacon bits.
It was just a one-man grill operation that night, which was dark, rainy, and cold–not exactly hot dog weather. That must have had its impact on business, but the grill was busy with a steady stream of orders while Sam & I ate ours.
All praise goes to Sam for convincing me to add the potato wedges to our order. Honestly, I steer well clear of the fake bright-yellow “cheese” that gets dumped on fries, tortilla chips, and potato bacon bombs. If it hadn’t had been for the spicy potato wedges and the crisp bacon bits, the “cheese” would have fallen flat, like a fat man doing a belly flop in the kiddie pool. Instead, we had some of the best fries we’ve eaten at a HDJ.
The Strand Dogs were everything a nostalgic dog should be–the flavor was well-honed, with a chili sauce that is very much like the Greek sauces I’ve had before. The dogs are split down the middle and grilled on both sides to give a nice meaty snap and help hold the condiments. The buns are potato rolls, which add sweetness to the spicy and hot chili sauce. Add chopped raw onions and yellow mustard and you have yourself the Strand Dog!
One thing I did notice in retrospect is that the two HDJ’s I visited on this outing serve what deceptively look like the same hot dog–all-meat chili sauce, raw onions and mustard–but the flavors are almost total opposites of each other. Another thing you’ll notice in the picture below is that I have a very dangerous method of eating messy hot dogs: because I use two hands to deliver the dog to my gob, I end up putting my finger in mortal danger of being bitten every time. Finger, look out!
After finishing up at The Dawg House, Sam and I drove a mile down the road into what I took to be New Britain’s city center and hit up Capitol Lunch. I guess the name is a bit of a tradition of the New Britain area–that the hot dog stands were named with Lunch at the end–and Capitol Lunch has withstood the test of time, remaining open for over 80 years.
The Capitol Lunch was classic–the furnishings were holdovers from the last renovation, probably done in the 70’s, and the only decorations were two walls full of pictures from rock ‘n rollers a local professional took, alongside the accolades, letters of thanks, and pictures of the crew from the Cappy over the years. A lone Ms. Pac Man video game table sat in the corner and brought it all together.
But you don’t come to a place that serves classic dogs for the ambiance, you come to eat the same hot dog that your grandfather’s father ate. One look at Cappy’s told me to trust in the process and just order a dog with the works–and the works is the same for all coney dogs: mustard, chopped raw onions, and an all-meat chili sauce. The sauce at the Capitol Lunch looks unlike any other I’d had, however–rather than being a fire-engine red like most others it’s a dark, nutty brown. That should have been the first indication to me that this wasn’t going to be a typical hot dog experience.
After the very kind woman who was prepping my dogs got the few orders ahead of me ready, she began the methodical and time-tested construction of my dog: a quick whip of mustard from the condiment stick, a handful of onions chucked on top, and a few heaping spoonfuls of the sauce.
Put it on a styrofoam plate and you’ve got yourself a classic dog! While talking with Gus, the owner, I tried to verbalize why I was so excited at seeing a mess of a dog handed to me. It’s difficult to get the explanation right but to me a hot dog that’s given such a nonchalant preparation–almost like it’s been rushed, but the woman prepping it certainly wasn’t in anything of the like–is indicative of a dog that’s been so well perfected over the years that it’s almost like being served up the last dog that the palsied and geriatric hand of its inventor prepared before he gave up the ghost. It’s the height of perfection, a hot dog that’s all taste with no pretensions–after all, how can a tube filled with pureed fourth-cut meats put on airs?
Sam took the easy way out and went with a burger but it was her favorite kind, the thin-as-a-dollar-bill beef patty on a sesame seed bun. Gus later told us some people get it with the sauce on top, which I would have liked to try but Sam was already well finished at that point.
Again with the finger! At least this time it was far enough out of the way that I didn’t feel my molars brush past as my finger survived yet another brush with certain destruction. But what about that sauce? It has one of the most original and unique sauce I’ve had on a dog–the flavor certainly came as a surprise to me when I took the first bite. Where the overall flavor of the Strand dog was sweet & spicy, the first bite of the Cappy dog was savory goodness. Gus asked me what I thought the flavor was, and Sam & I both agreed it was clove–though he wouldn’t tell us exactly what it is, Gus told us that’s what everybody thinks and that they’re all wrong. Gus said that, best as he can approximate the flavor, the closest to the famous Cappy’s sauce is the filling in Greek lasagna (pastitsio) that his grandmother made. He gave us a bit of background on Cappy’s history and said the uniqueness of the sauce might have to do with the fact that the previous Greek owners had roots in the Middle East, which would make sense given the play of savory spices. I’m still trying to guess the combination–cinnamon? or perhaps nutmeg, maybe even cardamom?
Gus was a really great guy, and is obviously an owner who takes pride in the tradition and his HDJ. Thanks for taking your time and talking with a hot dog enthusiast, Gus, and a big thanks also to Mark for making a documentary that opened my eyes to all the great hot dog joints spread throughout Connecticut–you’ve given me plenty to aspire to, both in terms of writing about hot dogs and places to visit!