When life gives you lemons, make lemonade; A lesson in Gastro Tourism.
You know GastroBoy. You know I travel. As a business traveler and avid diner I dream of quality gastronomic destinations. Unfortunately, it’s more often a dream than a reality. For every meeting in Southern Cal there's four trips to suburban Iowa. Bleh.
You can imagine my excitement when I recently learned that I'd be in New York City for two days. Now imagine my equally stunning disappointment when I learned there wouldn't be time for a propper meal. Flight schedules and evening commitments would force us to grab food on the run. Scandalous!
Determined to expereince at least one Gastronomic landmark in NYC I found a small hole in the schedule; ninty minutes mid-day in the lower east Villlage. It was fate. Literally days before, a reader reccommended a Hot Dog Joint called Crif Dog. Where is Crif Dog? That’s right, the East Village. A perfect afternoon snack.
Doing research I quickly learned of another noteworth dog joint just a few blocks west (Japadog). Now things were getting exciting. I would use my scarse free time to sample two seemingly polar, still highly regarded weiner temples. To motivate my travel companion I quickly cooked up a theme, referring to our outing as a "DOG FIGHT." It worked. Within minutes we were marching down the street like protesters pursuing a moral imperative.
FIRST STOP: CRIF DOG
You need to appreciate that the Lower East Side was once a working-class Jewish neighborhood. In recent history however, the East Village was invaded by Hipsters. They brought new galleries, shops and bars. Unfortunately, true hipsters are like nomads or Irish Gypsies. As soon as anyone discovers their encampment they move on. The East Village hipsters are in the process of existing, many seeking refuge in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. In their wake, East Village is experiencing a phenomena we refer to as “post-hipster gentrification.” It takes a keen eye, but skilled sociologists will recognize that what presents as unique and charming is actually over-engineered commercial-irony. Welcome to Crif Dog.
Exhibit A: Just inside Crift Dog you'll notice a wooden accordian door that appears to be an old phone booth. Once explored you'll find it's actually a false front leading to thee stairway entrance of an intentionally un-named "speakeasy." Cleaver, but a bit contrived for my taste. That speaks volumes for my experience; cleaver, but a bit short of the genuine article.
Exhibit B: Drinks menu…PBR on tap, RC Cola and Diet Rite. Really? REALLY? All three cultural Icons remain in brand only, long since sold-off, reformulated and mass distributed by tier-two beverage companies exploiting the retro-chic movement. It smacks of ”trying too hard.”
FOOD At first glance the menu is fairly creative. Choosing just one dog was a challenge, but I knew we had a second stop. Ultimately I ordered the Chihuahua Dog – a bacon wrapped dog served with Avocado and Sour Cream. The bun was room temperature, and on the brink of stale. The Dog was underwhelming and overly-deep-fried. The bacon was beyond crisp. The sour cream and avocado was an interesting combo, but when joined with the dog and bun they made for an in-cohesive bite. My buddy tried the ‘Good Morning Dog’, a bacon-wrapped dog covered with melted cheese and a fried egg. It too under delivered on the dream.
In yet another attempt to be too-cool-for-school Crif offers tots, not fries, to accompany their dogs. It’s a choice quickly spreading the nation (see WURST BAR). And while I love the idea, Crif’s execution was a downer. Clearly from a freezer and not made in-house, they were relatively tasteless and dripping in oil.
VERDICT: Meh… Crif Dog is a great “joint.” I can imagine it would be amazing around 2:00 AM. At 2:00 PM, it lacks substance. If you’re out in a group it would definitely make for good conversation. If you’re looking for the best dogs in New York keep on moving.
NEXT STOP: JAPADOG
The Crif Dog experience left me cautious. I was suspicious of falling pray to another gimmick. My apprehension intensified when we found JapaDog. Before you even enter the restaurant you're greeted with a giant "Wall of Fame." The front entrance is plasterred with immaterial press accolades and celebrity photos. Justin Bieber and Anthony Bourdain eating at JapDog. While that may impress some, I don’t trust the partnership of Celebrity and food. The two have only recently met and their young courtship often result in heartburn (remember Rick Bayless pitching Burger King?!??!).
Prepare for an immediate mood change… Japadog allays all fear from the first step inside.
Backstory: Before I go on I think it’s important to know the history of Japdog. Essentially a young Japanese couple migrates to Vancouver, BC with nothing more than a dream. In short order they turn a hot dog cart into a local institution. Everything is made from scratch. They order custom blends of meat for their dogs. The buns are self-defining. While the format is Hot Dog Stand, the flavors are entirely Japanese. In 2011 they decide to make the quantum jump from 5 carts in Vancouver to an actual storefront. If that wasn’t significant enough, they choose New York City, 3,000 miles away as the home of their first store; pretty ambitious. Was it justified? Me thinks so…
From the moment you confront the menu you realize you’re in for something different. Japadog offers eight versions of the hot dogs….and I’m not talking about toppings, I’m talking about custom blends of sausage. Beef, Pork, Turkey, Three Cheese, Edamame, Veggie, Arabiki (a sausage made from coarse ground pork) and Kurobuta (kurobuta pork sausage). Once you come to terms with that selection you have to choose from one of their original and impressive topping combination.
After a long debate I landed on the Terimayo (Teriyaki sauce, mayo and seaweed) on a Kurobuta Dog. I can’t thing of an appropriate adjective to describe this dog. It was Ja-Mazing. I’m a grown man. I’m fairly well traveled. I can’t remember the last time I experienced something so new, unconventional and so delicious. The sausage, and I need to call it sausage, was large and juicy, with a perfectly snappy casing. All of their sausages are cut along the bias like a French bread loaf. The result allows for easier biting. More importantly, though, it allows for the toppings to better mingle with the sausage. The sweet Teriyaki was in perfect harmony with the savory pork. The mayo and seaweed danced in texture against the coarse meat. And finally, the bun. It was a perhaps the best part of the dog – and that’s a high bar to reach. The bun, or roll, was buttered brioche with perfectly textured crust and a light, soft, sweet center.
Sweet Baby Jesus!
But wait – there’s more. Japadog pairs their hot dogs with “Shaked Fried.” Essentially this is a fresh cut Yukon gold French fry placed in a wax bags, sprinkled with your choice of seasoning and shaken to distribute the seasoning. Again, the flavor choices are paralyzing in their multiple appeal (Curry, Black Pepper, Wasabi, Aonori, Teriyaki, Shichimi & Garlic and Butter & Shoyu). I’m a wasabi fan so this choice was fairly easy. The result was fantastic. It’s simplicity made me wonder why more folks don’t get creative with French fry flavoring. I was
VERDICT: Almost in unison my buddy and I acknowledged how happy we were that Japadog was our second stop. Following this meal with Crif Dog would have been a disastrous let down. There was not contest. Japadog handily won the DOG FIGHT. And then just like that, we hailed a cab and left for LaGuardia. Forty minutes later I was sipping a Bloody Mary at the Delta Sky Club trying to imagine how long it would take for Japadog to take over the nation. When I sat down to draft this piece I could still conjur up a flavor memory of Japadog. At the same time, I had to check my notes to remember what I ate at Crif Dog. Enough said.
Do you have an idea for GastroBoy to explore? Click comments and share.