Before a small army of Washington food trucks plotted a revolution in 2009, as if they were the street-eats embodiment of the new “Change We Can Believe In” president, locals had learned to live with the curbside snack that defined the city: the dirty-water hot dog.
It’s an emulsified frank, seemingly no different from the commercial wieners that can inspire New Yorkers to wax rhapsodic about their ’kraut-covered dogs. The familiar blue-and-yellow umbrellas that color our downtown streets would appear to advertise the dominant link found here — the Sabrett all-beef frankfurter in a natural casing for that satisfying, first-bite snap.
But as I’m standing in front of the cart near the corner of 14th and H streets NW, owner LemLem Merri tells me she hasn’t sold Sabrett franks for nearly 15 years.
The Eritrean native shows me the bright-yellow label from her package of dogs. In capital letters, the label reads: WASHINGTON FOOD VENDING BEEF FRANKFURTERS. They’re made by a Brooklyn company called Golden D Brand. The ingredient list starts well enough — beef, water and salt — but quickly ventures into chemistry-geek territory with terms such as sorbitol (a sugar substitute), isolated soy protein (a binder), hydrolyzed vegetable protein (a flavor enhancer), smoke flavoring (who needs a smoker?) and sodium nitrate (a preservative).
Merri says many District street carts sell these franks, which a quick call to the company confirms. Thousands of Golden D links are hawked on our streets monthly.
Over in Arlington, in a corner booth at Tallula restaurant, Nathan Anda has trotted out a couple of cutting boards loaded with his line of all-natural hot dogs, which he makes with cuts of locally raised beef and pork that he butchers in-house. He grinds the meat, emulsifies it with ice, seasons it, stuffs it into natural sheep casings and even tops the finished franks with his house-made condiments. Anda, in short, can rattle off every single ingredient in his dogs, and none of them comes from a chemical company.
“They’re all in the style of a hot dog, but different,” Anda says. “There are no nitrates or even anything that could be a substitute for it.”
Formerly chef at Tallula and EatBar, Anda is now the muscle-manipulating machine behind Red Apron Butchery, the cured-meat-and-sausage concept created by the Neighborhood Restaurant Group. Anda, 34, has produced hot dogs and half-smokes for two years, selling them at locations as diverse as the Penn Quarter FreshFarm Market and the Passenger bar near the Washington Convention Center. But since March, he’s been quietly developing a line of links that he officially debuted last week as part of NRG’s new Wharf Farmers Market on the Southwest Waterfront. Anda even has his own hot dog cart, with a branded name, which should be easy to remember. It’s “Frank.”
Anda sells five specialty dogs, each with a name that riffs off the cart’s brand. There’s the Franz, a Swiss-style brat stuffed with cheddar cheese and covered in a tangle of onions braised in a milk stout from Colorado’s Left Hand Brewing; the Yo Frankie!, a version of the Coney Island dog with yellow mustard, diced onions and Anda’s own sweetened chili for better balance; the Francisco, a chorizo link lounging in a cheddar cheese sauce (Anda’s fresh take on Cheez Whiz, because he has a “hard time opening a can and using it”) and topped with a smoked jalapeno and onion relish.
And then there is Anda’s masterwork, the modestly named Frankie Jr. It’s one of Anda’s standard hot dogs (about 60 percent beef and 40 percent pork fat) surrounded by the chef’s smoked, steamed and shredded brisket, topped with a red-cabbage slaw and sprinkled with house-made pork rinds. It’s a big, savory, mouth-stretching bite that delivers something that few, if any, hot dogs can: a spicy, crackling crunch.
The secret to Anda’s dogs — well, other than their meticulous preparation — is the pork fat. It comes from a hybrid pig, a combination of Ossabaw and Red Wattle, which is raised in the comfortable, organic confines of Bev Eggleston’s EcoFriendly farms in the Shenandoah Valley.
“The fat is so different from anything you’ve had before,” says JohnPaul Damato, director of Red Apron. “I think it compares to Iberico.” If anyone could fairly make the comparison to the iconic Spanish pigs, it’s Damato; the former chef spent many years in the employ of Jose Andres, the man who introduced Iberico to Washington.
Damato is also the guy who performs a different kind of dirty work for the wiener cart: He secures permits and makes sure the unit meets health codes. The $9,000 Frank cart varies considerably from its weathered cousins that clutter downtown Washington, those compact metallic pods (which can cost $10,000 or more when new) with their ramshackle food preparation areas that theoretically protect the operator from the elements. The Frank cart is more like a portable grill station, with a built-in refrigerator, hand sink and small griddle for browning those pre-poached dogs to order. It’s not the type of unit you’d use in the dead of winter; the open-air cart, as such, will go into mothballs during the colder months.
The cart, though, will do something that none of the four-wheeled, more fully equipped trucks in Washington has attempted. It will raise the level of our hot-dog culture by a factor of a thousand, unscientifically speaking. The only thing that Anda won’t make himself are the split buns.
“We’ve tried just about every single bakery that makes buns in the city,” Anda says, before deciding on the New England-style rolls made with challah bread by Uptown Bakers in Hyattsville. All these upgrades, of course, will cost you. Frank’s specialty dogs run $8 or $9 apiece, a steep increase over the $1.50 you’ll shell out for a link from the old-school vendors.
“The hot dog stand is such a piece of Americana. It’s just omnipresent in city after city,” says NRG co-owner Michael Babin. “But the product you get in them is usually pretty awful. The fun part of this project is taking something that has the appeal [of a hot dog] . . . and giving it a new lease on life.”
Down on the waterfront last week, while Anda was discovering that his new cart’s holding units were further cooking his prepared sauces, customers Zev and Renee Feder knocked back a couple of franks from Frank. Zev ordered the Frankie Jr., while Renee was devouring the Franz. The native New Yorkers consider themselves frankfurter connoisseurs, although Renee claims she’s perfectly happy with a plain old roller dog at the ballpark. She deemed Anda’s links “fancy” without managing to sound disparaging. “These are good hot dogs,” Renee said.
Zev was more enthusiastic about his brisket-smothered dog. He liked it so much, he said he’d eat it “with just the brisket.” He also appreciated that the dogs were fresh, prepared without preservatives or mystery meats. “These are like health-food hot dogs,” he said.
“That’s just a rationalization,” Renee chimed in.
The Frank cart will sell dogs from 5 to 8 p.m. every Thursday at the Wharf Farmers Market, Seventh and Water streets SW, and it will appear Sundays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Market Square, 301 King St., Alexandria.