Friday, December 4, 2009

Iron City Hot Dog Tour

Something that's been in the works for a few weeks now finally came about on my most recent trip to Pittsburgh. And while I'm on the subject here's my deal with Pittsburgh: I didn't like it at first, like not at all - but now I'm a huge fan. I didn't really know that you had to 'get the hang' of a city, but each time I've gone to Pittsburgh for work in the last year and a half or so (maybe 7 or 8 trips now) I like it more and more. It's all neighborhoods (sound familiar?), there's such cool stuff to do and there's some darn good food. They have a lot of traditions and unique touches which are definitely signs of a good city.

So one thing that people I talk to are surprised to hear is that Pittsburgh is a big Hot Dog town. My initial thought was that the six pack shops choose hot dogs to get past Pennsylvania laws regarding the sales of beer as singles and six packs. Easy to make, throw some tables in the joint and away we go. This is supported by hot dogs being found in some places with amazing beer selections - D's Sixpacks & Dogs in Swissvale and Three Sons in Wexford. But alas, the dogs and no beers joints popped up in conversation too. This is seriously a great town to eat hot dogs in.

Its tough, I mean I've been making major strides this year in eating better, yet my fondness for street food and simple food in general hasn't ebbed or waned or whathaveyinz. And really, who passes up an invitation to a hot dog tour?

So my tour guide & esteemed cohort prepared the proper document (and a batch of homemade bacon ice cream to commemorate the occasion) and before I knew it I was in Oakdale getting ready to take to the streets on a rainy afternoon into evening into the night. Mentally I was ready for this. Coming off of an 8 day vacation that revolved largely around eating, then Thanksgiving this seemed easy. And if you're sitting there wondering if we could handle it I will just spoil it for you right now: We made with ease.

When discussions began about this epic trip through the weinered underbelly began we weren't sure if we needed contraints to really make this a scientific look at these dogs or if we ordered the house specialty when available. Parts of us wanted to, sure, but really I think we approached it correctly using the 'just order what you want' mentality. This would hold true throughout the tour with the exception of our first stop.

The Brighton Hot Dog Shoppe has several locations in the Pittsburgh area. We hit the Green Tree location because it made the most sense for our route. Keep in mind there were some breaks in here, but the first two stops were something like 4 miles apart so it was a good and smart circuitous route, but the pace is what made all of this possible. So this stoppe (get that?) went against the grain in that I was told what to order. Certain places just have that thing that you've got to get and if you can't take a recommendation from your tour guide, who can you take one from?

We started off the tour with not only a chili cheese dog for each of us, but an order of chili cheese fries too. Because at Brighton, that's just what you're supposed to get.

A handbook was produced by the ever talented tour guide and we used it at each shop to rate and take notes on our dogs. There was a rating scale of 1 to 5 dogs across several categories. You'll notice the categories below as I show you my personal rating at each place.

Brighton Hot Dog Shoppe

Type of Dog Ordered: Chilli Cheese Dog

Dog Presentation: 3 Dogs
Dog Quality: 3.5 Dogs
Bun Quality: 4 Dogs
Toppings: 4 Dogs
Overall Dog Taste: 4.5 Dogs


Presentation wise, I believe that with dogs sloppy can be good. But you've got to go all the way if you're going that route. Could have been more onions and they could've been bigger. Chili & Cheese combo was divine. I've definitely had much less flavorful chili than this on a dog.

Overall Score = 18 dogs (out of a possible 25)

On to the second stop we went. As I said, just about 4 miles or so from stop to stop. This one was not only new to me, of course, but also new to my tour guide. I knew looking at the menu one trip wasn't going to do the trick, but man did it leave an impression.

The website-less Dormont Dogs was a cute little joint in the middle of a neighborhood setup with just four tables or so. I got the impression that it's mostly a takeout joint for locals. This was our first taste of the "gourmet-style" dog for the day.

I threw a dangerous curveball in the Dormont ordering line. After my guide ordered up her dog I audibled from my original plan and placed an order for two dogs. This sent a look of shock across both of our faces. Ask me about an impulse buy and I’ll tell the story of the Arkansas Ave. Dog, the daily special on the day of our visit. Only the second stop of the trip and I already can’t resist ordering us into the danger zone of stomach busting oblivion by piling the Arkansas on top of my Illinois Ave and her Memphis Ave Dog.

Hers was a combo of cheese, those fried onions (think green bean casserole), and bbq sauce (pictured solo, above) and mine were as follows (pictured in a pair, above):

Illinois Ave Dog - a pretty classic Chicago dog (as you can see) although instead of sport peppers the used ringed banana peppers. We would find an authentic Chicago style dog later on in the tour.

Arkansas Ave Dog - A really surprising dog. Sounded on good on a chalkboard, appearance made me feel as though I may encounter 'the buyer's remorse', but it completely won me over by being absolutely delicious. It was a dog with melted cheddar, bacon, horseradish sauce, and green onions. Visually I was made nervous by the melted cheese slice (if you're gonna do a hot dog tour you're signing up for heart attack cheese and when you don't get it it's kind of a let down) and minor amount of creamy horseradish sauce, but I've gotta say this was a near perfect dog. Each bite was better and better. The combo (and proportions) of ingredients were just perfect for this dog.

Dormont Dogs - 2911 Glenmore Avenue, Pittsburgh

Type of Dog Ordered: Illinois Ave

Dog Presentation: 5 Dogs
Dog Quality: 4.5 Dogs
Bun Quality: 3.5 Dogs
Toppings: 4.5 Dogs
Overall Dog Taste: 4.75 Dogs


Pretty darn close to a Chicago dog. Mustard was on point - peppers were yellow banana peppers though. My fear confirmed: fancy dog = fancy bun. Bun was good, there was just too much of it. Took away from the great things going on with the dog itself.

Overall Score: 22.25 Dogs

Type of Dog Ordered: Arkansas Ave

Dog Presentation: 4.5 Dogs
Dog Quality: 4.25 Dogs
Bun Quality: 4 Dogs
Toppings: 4.75 Dogs
Overall Dog Taste: 4.75 Dogs


Wow! Sleeper. Had a lot working against it on the plate, but everything worked together perfectly. Bun vs. Ingredients battle was better here, got to taste more dog and toppings than bread.

Overall Score: 22.25 Dogs

From Dormont we had to make a sort of a mad dash. Our next stop was closing soon and was in the heart of downtown. They've got plenty of seating, but finding parking and getting served might not both be able to happen. It was crucial that we got our dogs, so we prioritized. We hit the loading zone and threw on some 4 Ways, I ran in and had the task of ordering.

The Franktuary has a pretty awesome menu. Full of highlights, full of local and organic ingredients, and for those not clicking on the link I'll just tell you:

"The Colossus

A flaming volcano of franks! Served on a bed of spinach, stuffed with kettle chips, and topped with every condiment!

Small - four franks - $15 or Large - eight franks - $28"

The Colossus did not lend itself to a hot dog tour with two more stops after this one nor did it seem like a fitting choice to be eaten in the car. So I went two dogs that my guide and I would share:

The Pittsburgh (for obvious reasons) and the Polumalanesian (which I think is a Steelers thing). The latter was the daily special.

The Pittsburgh (above) is a dog with "smushed" pierogies and coleslaw. It was a fun dog, that met mixed reviews and would be the catalyst for Hot Dog Tour controversy. The scoring of this dog can be a bit perplexing, but in my mind it all makes perfect sense. This work of the Franktuary had a lot going for it: Presentation was stellar, they had my favorite buns of the day, everything was top rate. The problem I ran into was this dog was quite un-harmonious. The slaw was good, the pierogies were good, the dog itself was good, the bun was good...but the sum of all the parts did not make for a good dog. It wasn't the meshing of pork two ways, cheddar, horseradish, and scallions that I'd experienced with the Arkansas Ave Dog. Still though, when all the parts are top notch the tale of the tape tells the story:


Type of Dog Ordered: The Pittsburgh

Dog Presentation: 5 Dogs
Dog Quality: 4.5 Dogs
Bun Quality: 4.75 Dogs
Toppings: 4.75 Dogs
Overall Dog Taste: 3.75 Dogs


All toppings were great, dog and bun were great, everything together was not in harmony. Fun texture though.

Overall Score: 22.75 Dogs

So as you can see (below) we've got a bit of a problem with topping distribution on the Polumalanesian. We were very excited by the combination of ingredients here: onions, mango salsa...again, a dog with a lot going for it.

Unfortunately, this one fell flat on two counts. Not enough toppings and it really needed another element to it. Possibly some heat to go with that sweet? Something was missing from this one.

Type of Dog Ordered: The P.......

Dog Presentation: 2 Dogs
Dog Quality: 4.75 Dogs
Bun Quality: 4.75 Dogs
Toppings: 3.5 Dogs
Overall Dog Taste: 3.5 Dogs


Needed a lot more mango salsa...needed another element, it was just 1 + 2, nothing more.

Overall Score: 18.5 Dogs

It seemed as though we didn't experience Franktuary at their best. Their menu is too impressive to let this stand as our sole impression of the place. We have vowed to go back when we've got time to sit down and try a few things and get the full on Franktuary experience.

So now it was finally time to get down and dirty. And I'm talking about The "O".

The Original Hot Dog Shop in Oakland has quite a bit of fan fare and legend surrounding it. I'm not going to pretend to know any of it, because I don't. But Timothy McNulty does.

The O reminds me of Jim's Steaks a bit. It was pretty slow when we were there, but at peak time it's the kind of joint where it seems like walking in and being in line are one motion. The hot dog operation is seperate from burgers, fries, etc. So that tells me these guys crank out some serious dogs. We both went pretty classic here at the O: I with a dog, spicy mustard, raw onions, and sauerkraut. She with a straight up cheese dog.

You can't see me, but I just shook my head. This trip had all the makings of a classic, mouthwatering, greasy, warm, perfect hot dog experience. But alas, not hitting an peak time did not see the O in its finest hour. Our dogs seemed to have been done and were just warming on the flat top for a while. Her cheese was said to have been a delight. My mustard was the highlight.

Type of Dog Ordered: Dog w/ kraut, spicy mustard, raw onions

Dog Presentation: 4 Dogs
Dog Quality: 3.5 Dogs
Bun Quality: 4 Dogs
Toppings: 2.5 Dogs
Overall Dog Taste: 3.5 Dogs


Finally someone did sloppy right. The dog was piled high with kraut and a liberal spread of mustard. Two things held this dog back from the greatness that I expect could be found at the O: the kraut was cold and kind of dry. There's nothing better than piping hot kraut on a dog and the bun getting just a little soggy from the juice (I realize that's going to sound like the opposite of awesome to lots of people) and the aforementioned issue of the dog being done and just kept warm. This could have been a highlight of the tour.

Overall Score: 17.5 Dogs

With one stop to go we were both feeling pretty darn good about finishing out the tour with no major problems of combustion or any CPR needs. The finish line was another Pittsburgh dog joint with some acclaim to its name. I was very excited to get to D's Six Pax & Dogz while they were serving food. I'd missed food service by like 10 minutes earlier this fall after the Steel City Big Pour. This was a night that led to quite a few beers at their bar, an 80's dance party, and the most miserable hailing of a taxi cab of my entire life. Note to all travellers...Pittsburgh's cab situation is not like the situation you have at home.

So D's has got a pretty good name for itself in the hot dog game and their menu is a testament to their reputation. A lot of creative dog options greet you at D's as does their enormous selection of great beers.

I went with the Big Ben (above, left) while Ms. Tour Guide went with the Chicago Dog. The Chicago (above, right) was pretty darn authentic: A Vienna dog, sport peppers, celery salt, pickle spear, mustard, relish = the realness. It looked delicious. I think I may have taken a bite? I know that I was at least offered one.

The Big Ben was a fun creation that followed the theme of Pittsburgh's stuffed-full-o-stuff food items that are popular around town. Big Ben had good 'ol fashion heart attack cheese, cole slaw, and french fries jammed on top of the dog. Underneath all those toppings was a nice, big juicy hot dog that bursting with a ton of flavor on its own.

D's Six Pax & Dogz

Type of Dog Ordered: The Big Ben

Dog Presentation: 4.75 Dogs
Dog Quality: 4.75 Dogs
Bun Quality: 4 Dogs
Toppings: 4.5 Dogs
Overall Dog Taste: 4.5 Dogs


Piled high in a small tray that gives a sense of urgency to keep the sloppiness contained. First bite was all toppings, I didnt even hit the dog (BIG POINTS). Harmony of the toppings was spectacular, best actual hot dog of the day too.

Overall Score: 22.50

My first hot dog tour of the Iron City was a huge success. It's great to know that there will be a part 2 with other locations and most likely a return to Franktuary, possibly to tackle the Colossus.

Before I finally let you away from the tale of this adventure it's only fitting that I share the results in all categories.


Best Bun:

Best Dog Quality:

Best Toppings:
(tie) Dormont & D's

Best Presentation:
Dormont (Illinois Ave Dog)

Best Overall Dog Taste: (tie) D's for Big Ben & Dormont for Illinois Ave Dog

The Underdog Award:
The Arkansas Ave Dog (Dormont Dogs)

Best In Show: Big Ben (D's Six Pax & Dogz)

Expect more food tour coverage in the year of 20 & 10.

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