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April 20, 2012

Frank-ly my dear, I don't give a dawg

Yo dawg, I heard you like high-end cuisine but low-fuss dining, so I put fancy-ass toppings on your hot dog so you can leave your pinky out while you totally pig out.

OK, not exactly meme-worthy, and probably more cringe-worthy, but I can think of no better way to summarize the basic premise of Franks ‘n Dawgs up in Lincoln Park’s Ranch Triangle neighborhood. Opened up a little less than two years ago, it’s a hot dog joint where the terms seasonal and artisanal are applied more liberally than ketchup and mustard—not that you will find either anywhere on the premises. Most of the sausages are made in house, as are all the accoutrements (read in French accent for full effect), and if you’re beginning to think that this sounds suspiciously like Hot Doug’s up in Avondale, I would kindly ask you to keep calm and read on. While the latter definitely deserves its many, many accolades, Franks ‘n Dawgs is an entirely different feast. For starters, you can actually get in and eat without having to experience queues akin to a new iPhone release. And once you are inside, the 20-plus hot dog variations make Hot Doug’s selections seem about as exotic as going downtown to eat at the Cheesecake Factory. You know who you are.

My journey to the center of the bun, a New England-style roll as the default weapon of choice, began with the Brunch Dog: the overwhelming sign of things to come. The base was probably the best and least bastardized breakfast sausage you’ve tried, topped with, literally, a full brunch replete with sunny side egg, smoked bacon, and maple mayo. The only thing missing was a mimosa. That egg was all like jiggle, jiggle, jiggle, jiggle, jiggle, yeah! And then I broke it, and put an end to that nonsense. The yolk oozed all over the place, drenching the dog, and seeping into the bun. And it was glorious, though after that all I could really taste was the bacon and eggs. Ron Swanson would approve. Plus the glistening pool of yolk left over on the plate makes the perfect dipping sauce for a side of truffle fries…though they are “truffled” in the same way that a 14kt necklace on QVC is real gold.

Next batter up was The Southerner, another pork sausage, albeit with caramelized onions in the mix, “garnished” with cornbread, a sweet cherry BBQ sauce, and some scallions…in a failed attempt to mellow out the dish. Unfortunately this dawg did not have its day. The BBQ sauce might as well have been reduced Dr. Pepper, and the cornbread got soggy and crumbly—though it did add that nice nutty corn flavor to the mix, if for a fleeting moment. However, the Krazy Kimchi konkoktion helped Franks N’ Dawgs get some of its groove back. Starting with a spicy (-ish) beef sausage, topped with even more moo in the form of braised short ribs, what really set it off was the copious mound of kimchi atop this meat mountain. While a fairly mild variant of kimchi, it definitely helped keep the beefiness at a tolerable level. Apparently wild rice and turnips made cameo appearances, but they stood no chance in the shadow of the meat and kimchi colossus.

Yet my two favorite sausages were a study in contrasts. The Frank’n Stein was true to its name: a monstrous amalgamation of steak and foie gras in the sausage, topped with caramelized onions, fried shallots, and a beer mustard aioli. Rich in more ways than one, my mouth magically transformed into a late 19th-century steakhouse, with tiny little oil barons enjoying a postprandial cigar and a discourse on female skull size. This sausage was a chauvinist’s wet dream. Yet this masculine assault on my gustatory senses was surpassed by the shockingly simple elegance of Perenially Pork, a garlic (you had me at garlic) pork sausage with a cilantro crème fraiche and habanero relish. It sounds just as crazy as all the other dawgs, but the whole affair was remarkably clean and manageable.

There’s a good chance that you might have even seen or heard about Franks ‘n Dawgs before. God knows how many times it’s been featured on the Food Network and Travel Channel, or any other show requiring a wide-eyed host doing a triple-double-take upon hearing the ingredients that go into these hot dog (sorry, “haute dawg”) monstrosities. But that should really come as no surprise, as in many respects it is the perfect, made-for-TV food: over the top, absurd, and often excessively indulgent. But that last part may in fact be Franks ‘n Dawgs’ undoing. It’s all fun and games until somebody gets gout.

You see, the problem with fast food is not only the fast and careless preparation, but its even faster consumption. Franks N’ Dawgs circumvents the former through thoughtful cooking and ingredients, yet the latter issue seems unavoidable. It’s a blur of a meal, and not just because of gluttony on the part of yours truly: rather because no one just sits around contemplating a hot dog, no matter how “done-up” it may be. You eat it. You scarf it down. You power through it like Kobayashi. In fact, at no point during the meal does the hot dog leave your hand (especially if structural integrity is to be preserved). So before you realize it, everything is gone. What happened? Where am I? The only evidence of your crime is cholesterol-stained fingers and the sudden sensation that you are the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Florence says the dog days are over...but stumbling out on to North Clybourn…the dawg daze is just beginning.

The moral of this story may in fact be that no one man should have all that sausage. At the same time, Franks N’ Dawgs can possibly learn a lesson in humility, at least when it comes to their stated mission of “five-star dining on a bun”. They might be taking it just a little too literally—as in, not every flavor and ingredient has to actually fit within the confines of the squishy bread. The hallmark of a truly great kitchen is the ability to kill the ones you love most. If that means one less squirt of maple mayo or sacrificing some crispy shallots, then so be it. Yet in pretty much every hot dog I tried, there was just too much going on for my feeble taste buds to handle.

But the fundamentals are sound. So just take it down a notch, and let the truly well-made sausages shine just as brightly as the clever and often delicious toppings. At the moment, the two are not living side-by-side in harmony.

It’s more like they are visiting each other in jail doing that weird palm-to-palm shit through the glass. So close, yet so far. But when it comes to these dawgs, you really do wanna take that big bad bite and get every flavor to mix and mingle. You really, really do. But it just seems to be a physical impossibility. It makes you sad. And everyone knows there’s no crying in hot dogs.

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