But unlike the burger, its more popular cousin among all-American foodstuffs, the hot dog has struggled to secure a place on opposite ends of the country’s dining scene: as the anchor dish for national chains (Nathan’s Famous notwithstanding) and as an object of affection for fancy-pants chefs, whose embrace of the burger is legendary. The reasons for this are probably too many, and too complex, to list here, but they include some obvious ones: The dog’s unfortunate reputation as the repository of animals parts too unspeakable to mention and a consumer’s unwillingness to pay top dollar for said Franken-furter.
For every Haute Dogs and Fries in Alexandria, there must be a half-dozen dusty storefronts where a gourmet dog joint went belly up. The economics are tough, especially in markets where landlords think every restaurant owner has pockets deeper than a circus clown.
Recently, two entrepreneurs started giving the people want they want — dogs with pedigree — without worrying that, one day, they’ll show up to work and find a foreclosure notice on their door. One is operating a mobile cart, but not the kind of dirty-water-dog carts that used to adorn the sidewalks of downtown Washington, pre-pandemic. The other is a ghost kitchen, part of a larger operation that sells many other foods, all of which take the pressure off the dogs to be best in show.
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Chris Van Jura used to manage some of Washington’s better dining rooms. His résumé includes stints as assistant manager at Fiola Mare in Georgetown and general manager of Casolare, the former Michael Schlow restaurant in Glover Park. The pressure of running these places — maintaining wine inventories, training front-of-the-house employees, making VIPs feel like, well, VIPs — would sometimes inspire Van Jura to daydream about simpler ways to make a living.
“There were many, many, many shifts through the years at different restaurants, where at the end of it, I would either say out loud, audibly, or just to myself, ‘I just want to open a hot dog truck,’” Van Jura tells me. “And this isn’t just pandering for the media. This is the truth.”
The pandemic would grant Van Jura’s wish. When he was furloughed — for a second time — as general manager at Via Sophia, Van Jura turned his attention toward his dream job. He raised a little more than $25,000 on GoFundMe, bought a used cart, rebranded it and jumped headfirst into the mobile vending business with Catalyst Hot Dogs. (Check out Catalyst’s calendar for locations.)
You don’t have to look hard to understand why Van Jura loves dogs. He’s a native of New Jersey, where hot dogs are not just summer traditions or ballpark staples, but foods deeply rooted in the culture. He was born and raised in Bergen County, with easy access to Rutt’s Hut (“home of the Ripper”), Hot Grill (home of the “world’s tastiest Texas weiners,” yes, that’s how the menu spells it), Hank’s Franks (home to both Texas wieners and Italian hot dogs, another Jersey staple) and other stops along a “murderer’s row of some of the best hot dog joints in the country,” Van Jura says.
Catalyst specializes in Texas wieners (which, despite its name, originates in Jersey), although Van Jura grills his all-beef dogs instead of deep-frying them per the tradition at Rutt’s Hut and Hot Grill. He then tops the dogs with a housemade chili — a fine ground-beef mixture with no beans because, duh, Texas — inspired by the classic Jersey meat sauce said to be rooted in Greek spaghetti sauce. The best way to enjoy the dog is to order it “all the way,” in which the Roseda Farm link is tucked into a Martin’s potato roll and topped with chili, brown mustard and raw onions.
Van Jura also sells a couple of dogs that venture further afield. His Lincoln Logs is a butterflied frank layered with cream cheese, a version that sort of splits the difference between the classic sandwich and a Seattle dog. He also offers a Capital Dog, which comes loaded with coarsely chopped raw onions and a generous drizzle of Capital City mambo sauce. I ordered both and, at Van Jura’s suggestion, I added his homemade relish, both hot and sweet versions, to the Lincoln Logs, a wise move to cut the richness.
Then I found a shady section of grass near the Home Depot in Silver Spring, where Van Jura frequently vends (2900 Broadbirch Dr.). A few day workers were already on the grass, enjoying their lunch, including Jorge from Guatemala. We talked travel and politics in a mix of Spanish and English. He was taking pulls from a Heineken tall boy. I was eating Catalyst dogs — and wishing I had a Heineken to wash them down. It was a lunch as pleasurable as any I’ve had at the more sumptuous restaurants on Van Jura’s résumé.
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Like Catalyst, Route 66 Haute Dogs doesn’t really have a home. It’s a ghost kitchen inside Miss Mabel’s, a fried chicken joint that occupies the same free-standing structure that used to house a location of Gus’s Fried Chicken. (5810 Greenbelt Rd., Greenbelt, Md., route66hautedogs.com.) Mark Dawejko used to be the franchisee of that Gus’s outlet. Now he’s a partner in something far more ambitious: a multi-concept culinary enterprise that will be the blueprint for virtual food halls in Philadelphia, Washington and other locations.
Eight concepts are listed under Tomlinson Brands, the company that Dawejko founded last year as the restaurant industry was desperately trying to revamp the way it does business. Dawejko calls Tomlinson an engineering and technology company, because of the high-tech systems that undergird the business, but what Tomlinson sells is food. Lots and lots of food. Beignets, Nashville hot chicken, gourmet burgers, wings, breakfast sandwiches, sweet and savory croissants, hot dogs and more, all prepared in the same Greenbelt kitchen.
If this project sounds awfully ambitious for a guy who made his bones in venture capital and real estate investments, consider this: Dawejko has hired a talented roster of chefs and cooks for Tomlinson. At the top of his roster are Stephen McRae, former executive chef of Rustico for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, and Peter Smith, the former Vidalia chef de cuisine who later created the ambitious PS7′s in Chinatown. McRae focuses more on the technology side, while Smith helps train cooks on the many different menus.
McRae and Dawejko developed the menu for Route 66, with assists from Smith who joined Tomlinson just weeks ago. Pedro Romero is tasked with executing the menu during the day, while Robert Costenbader, the chef who oversees the kitchen at Greenbelt, handles the dogs at night. The hardest part of their jobs has to be memorizing all the toppings, many housemade, that grace these regional dogs.
The menu draws inspiration from all parts of the country: Chicago, New York, Boston, Seattle, D.C. and other places where dogs have developed a unique character, although Dawejko will be the first to tell you that the kitchen takes a few liberties with recipes. At risk of alienating my friends in the Windy City, I’m not a stickler for the many rules that accompany some dogs, but I do wish the New England-style brioche bun (no poppy seeds!) that Route 66 uses for its Chicago dog would hold up better to the wet garnishes. You can end up with a Chicago dog bread salad.
The culinary team at Tomlinson worked with MeatCrafters to develop a custom link for Route 66. It’s an all-beef frank, built with meat and fat from the chuck roll, and it’s the dog you’ll find buried at the bottom of each regional style, save for the D.C. half smoke, the New Orleans chicken andouille and the Amarillo cowboy sausage. (The other links, coincidentally, are also sourced from MeatCrafters.) The battle is half over when you start with links this good, though I must admit I have favorites: the New Orleans with its bracing rémoulade sauce; the Boston with a chunky application of peach, bacon and habanero baked beans, its balance impeccable; and the D.C. with its housemade chili, so thick and funky.
If the Greenbelt location of Route 66 is too far off the beaten path for you, don’t sweat it. Dawejko plans to open a virtual Tomlinson Hall in Ivy City late this year or early next year. It will include, among other options, these terrific dogs.