Washington may be a two-party town, but when it comes to hamburgers and hot dogs — the perennial front-runners of American junk food — the District unabashedly supports patty fascism.
Just look around. Burger joints dominate our landscape: Shake Shack, Five Guys, Z-Burger, Bareburger, Good Stuff Eatery, Bobby’s Burger Palace, Ray’s Hell Burger, Holy Cow and countless other patty peddlers, large and small. These places may throw a bone to salad eaters — so to speak — but most customers who darken the meat markets have likely been daydreaming about hot, juicy beef for hours.
Who other than Joey Chestnut, that dog-eating machine, contemplates the frankfurter during regular working hours? Sure, you can find plenty of dogs worth hunting, but you can almost count on one hand the number of shops that base their business on the lowly link. Not even Ben’s Chili Bowl and Weenie Beenie trust their dogs enough to let them run the place.
Many, of course, have tried to put on the dog. The owners of Amsterdam Falafelshop opened M’Dawg Haute Dogs in Adams Morgan in 2007. The business didn’t survive two years. ChiDogO’s 14th Street location closed a year after debuting on the mean, burger-infested streets of Washington. Even the mighty Matchbox Food Group couldn’t keep all its dogs barking: The company recently shuttered its wiener-centric DC-3 on Barracks Row.
If anyone understands the difficulties of living a frank life, it’s Lionel Holmes, co-founder of Haute Dogs & Fries in Alexandria. Last fall, he and co-owner Pamela Swanson had to close down their original shop in Purcellville after lease renewal negotiations broke down. The landlord’s asking price was just too steep for Holmes and Swanson, partners in business and life, who fully understand that diners will pay only so much for a hot dog.
“The cost of the lease makes it very difficult to sell the hot dog at the price point that the general consumer is willing to pay,” Holmes says. It seems 7-Eleven — where those roller dogs perpetually spin in their grave — has set the ceiling on what consumers are willing to pay: about $2 per dog, give or take some spare change.
The only way to stretch consumers beyond their price comfort zone, Holmes and Swanson realized, was to create gourmet dogs. The owners started with the buns. They ditched the traditional squishy torpedo, which provides a soft, sweet landing zone for anything tucked into it. They didn’t bother with pretzel buns, either, a trendy roll that turns everything into a carny snack. They opted for top-split, New England-style buns, the kind with squared-off sides, perfect for slathering with butter and browning on a griddle. You know, the buns used for lobster rolls.
Every morning, Ottenberg’s Bakery drops off fresh top-split rolls at Haute Dogs. The buns make a strong first impression. Literally the first thing you taste — before sinking your teeth into the all-beef frank from the Fields of Athenry Farm in Purcellville (you can order chicken or veggie dogs, too) — is the buttery roll, at once soft and toasty. It provides the same pleasures that come from biting into a golden grilled cheese sandwich on Texas toast. You want to repeat that high forever, a junkie looking for his next fix of fat and crunch.
Fortunately, the pleasures are not skin deep. Holmes, a former front-of-the-house guy at various restaurants, has morphed into a kitchen rat. He has developed the menu, and his line of dogs ventures way beyond the classics. Holmes has engineered a dog that performs a neat trick: It impersonates a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich, or at least one that’ll pass inspection in Alexandria, if not Falls Church. The same goes for Holmes’s dog-based interpretations of a New York Reuben or a Peking duck wrapped in pancakes with hoisin sauce: The toppings hint at their inspirations, while providing an experience all their own.
Holmes struggles a bit on dogs that have no blueprint to follow. The District “D.C.” Dog is a yellow mustard-heavy bite with barbecue sauce buried deep within the bun. I thought it a bold — and borderline bizarre — choice to feature the sticky sauce on a dog named for the District, a town without a barbecue culture. Still, I chowed down on the sucker all the same. By contrast, I couldn’t finish the signature Haute Dog, its dark, acidified onion sauce too sweet for my palate. It also nearly bored through the roll.
Chicagoans may balk at the sight of their signature dog tucked into a New England-style roll, but you know what? I didn’t miss the poppy seed bun, with its nutty little nuggets forever playing hide and seek between my molars. Likewise, Texans may desire a few more alarms from the house-made chili atop the Tex-Mex Beef Bratwurst, but I liked its mild burn, as if it were the sausage equivalent of ground-beef enchiladas. I definitely wanted more spice with the shop’s half-smoke preparation, but even without it, the dog was a delight, as it rolled around in yellow mustard and onions.
Haute Dogs provides you the opportunity to go off leash, too: You can skip the hot dogs in favor of a market-priced lobster roll, an admirably underdressed specimen that would fare better with sweeter, less-wooden meat. Or you could try the cheeseburger sliders, these gooey mini-burgers topped with cheese and sauteed onions. They reminded me of why I used to love White Castle. Order them with the hand-cut, skin-on Idaho fries, which trade on their deep earthy flavor, not a double-fry crunch.
But, really, why go to a hot dog shop for sliders? It runs counter to the spirit and purpose of the place, which is dog-centric in more than one way. There are framed photos of family pooches along one wall: a profile of a hungry beagle (which is redundant, I know). A sweet portrait of a walleyed chihuahua. A silly snapshot of a dog in librarian’s glasses.
Yep, I’m going to say it: They’re so many good dogs here.
610 Montgomery St., Alexandria. 703-548-3891. hautedogsandfries.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Braddock Road, with a 0.8-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Hot dogs, sausages and other plates, $3.99-$10.75.