Hot Dogs With Bite

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 1, 2007

There's a National Hot Dog & Sausage Council. It's on Connecticut Avenue NW between L and M streets. Really.

And why shouldn't there be a council devoted to hot dogs? Americans eat 7 billion during peak season, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. That's 818 hot dogs per second. Picture that. Nearly 6,000 were consumed in the time it's taken you to read this far.

Washington, while known on the elongated meat circuit for its cultivation and refinement of the half-smoke, has a notable hold on the national hot dog market. Residents of Baltimore and Washington spent a combined $46 million on hot dogs last year, making the region third in dog consumption after New York and Los Angeles. RFK Stadium and Camden Yards placed eighth and 10th, respectively, in the council's 2007 survey of the most passionate hot dog fans in Major League Baseball ballparks (New York's Shea Stadium was No. 1). The Fourth of July is the zenith of summer's hot dog eating period: Americans will scarf down 150 million of them that day alone.

So to gird your stomach lining, we called the council to ask for their recommendations for the best places to go in the area for a dog.

We got the president on the phone. She's Janet Riley, the self-proclaimed Queen of Wien. She and the council came up with seven places, including Ben's Chili Bowl (obviously) in the District (1213 U St. NW, 202-667-0909, http://www.benschilibowl.com), Foster's Grille (10 locations in Virginia and one in Edgewater, Md., http://www.fostersgrille.com) and fancy-schmancy M'Dawg Haute Dogs in Adams Morgan, where you can get a Chicago Red Hot for $4 and a Kobe beef hot dog for $20 (2418 18th St. NW, 202-328-8284, http://www.m-dawg.com).

We wanted to try the less obvious places on the list. Before we set out to visit them, we asked Riley about alternative hot dogs. Like veggie dogs or tofu dogs or . . .

"If it doesn't have meat, it's not a hot dog," Riley says firmly. "A hot dog contains meat or poultry. The USDA has standards of identity. It might be called a tofu pup, but it's not a hot dog." So here are spots with the real deal:

Hard Times Cafe

The general manager of the flagship Alexandria restaurant has something to say about a hot dog that is steamed, not grilled.

"If I was starving and it was the last thing on Earth, I wouldn't touch it," Rachel Atlow says. "I would die."

We sit intently in a booth as emancipated schoolteachers celebrate the start of summer at the bar. In front of us are two authentic Coney Dogs (of the Nathan's variety) topped with Cincinnati chili, shredded cheddar and onions, plus homemade fries and a pickle (all for $6.99). The dogs are grilled behind the bar, in full view. They smack of smoke, lending heft to the overall taste bouquet. These dogs have seen fire, not murky vats of hot water.

Also on the menu are the Hard Times Chili Dog (a quarter pound of all-beef Berks hot dog for $6.99) and the foot-long chili cheese dog (same deal and price, except longer). The dogs are yummy themselves, but they're really just a canvas for Hard Times' four specialty chilis: veggie (made with soy flakes, mushrooms, peppers, peanuts), Cincinnati (tomato-based, dashed with cinnamon), Texas (heartened with coarse ground beef) and Terlingua (red in color, spicy in kick).

Thirteen locations in Maryland and Virginia, including the flagship cafe in Old Town Alexandria (1404 King St., 703-837-0050), http://www.hardtimes.com.


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