Los Angeles is no stranger to fine purveyors of encased meats. There’s Pink’s, of course, and Dodger Dogs, and Vicious Dogs, and The Stand and Wurstküche* and several others discussed at length on Off-Ramp with John Rabe, Kevin Ferguson, and the esteemed Colleen Dunn Bates. Right here in Pasadena there’s Slaw Dogs, and Big City Dogs, where we have yet to eat, and Dog Haus, where we have eaten several times and which we are, nominally, reviewing presently. Nominally, because our, ah, “research” for this piece took us all the way to Chicago, a sausage mecca with one hell (probably several hells) of a hot dog place: Hot Doug’s, the encased meat emporium. Doug and his meats will prefigure, perhaps unfairly, our discussion of Dog Haus.
Los Angeles is a world city. We, its inhabitants, like to believe that everything under the sun is available to our mouths, from Russian caviar to Laotian tripe. There’s more than a little truth to this, of course, but we (or I) tend to forget that what Los Angeles has in breadth, it does not always necessarily have in depth (though it often does)—that it’s hard, even for LA, to compete with the regional specialties of sedentary populations. So it is with sausage in Chicago.
After spending a frantic 48 hours in Chicago trying to recreate as many scenes as possible from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, we ventured to a quiet street in the northwestern part of the city—California Avenue, in fact. A ridiculous line snaked out of an unassuming brick building, but the daily specials posted on the website convinced us to stay: Chardonnay and Jalapeno Rattlesnake Sausage with Roasted Yellow Pepper Mayonnaise and Morbier Cheese! Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Aioli, Foie Gras Mousse and Fleur de Sel! Exotic and wonderful combinations.
Could it be worth it? Would we ever get inside? It rained some. I put on gloves. After 45 minutes we crossed into the vestibule. Fifteen more and we placed our order: one (1) Jamaican Jerk Pork Sausage with Prickly Pear Mayonnaise, Chipotle Cheddar Cheese and Fried Plantains, one (1) Mountain Man Sausage (“a damn tasty combination of Elk, Antelope, Venison and Buffalo”) with Cherry-Citrus Mustard and Sheep’s Milk Baskeriu Cheese, one (1) The Dog°, one (1) Keira Knightley**, and one (1) order of duck-fat French fries.
It was worth the wait. The Jamaican Jerk pork sausage is perhaps the best sausage I have ever eaten. I was deliriously hungry, yes, but the first bite of the Jerk was stabilizing. Like the better house creations at Slaw Dogs, Hot Doug’s combinations, despite the eye-catching ingredients, are subtle and harmonious rather than pushy and ostentatious. Hot dogs can do all kinds of things, but the fancy ones seem to be about balance.
Indeed, the whole Hot Doug’s experience, once you’re in the door, is one of effortless ease. You’d expect a room full of people who have waited an hour for a stinking hot dog to radiate tension, but the calm in the room is overwhelming. People order, sit, wait, eat in peace, and leave happy. No one is allowed to sit down until they’ve placed an order; somehow, this rule magically ensures that there is never a seating shortage. Hot Doug himself takes the orders. He’s very nice, as is his staff. In LA, they would be too nice, too attentive, but in Chicago it just works. That’s the Midwest for you.
Chicago may have a reputation for sausage, but, as far as we know, it has no ancestral advantage when it comes to, to borrow a phrase, the “creative hot dog garnish,” a current trend of unknown heredity—though one as likely to have originated in Los Angeles as anywhere. Which makes Hot Doug’s besting of both Slaw Dogs and Dog Haus all the more total. There’s more to say about that Doug, so much more, but we are, after all, supposed to be talking about restaurants one can try without getting on a plane. Let us finally consider, then, Dog Haus; we will do our best, going forward, to ignore the long shadow of Chicago.
An unfair review indeed.
A boxy structure jutting out of the southwest corner of Union and Hill, Dog Haus makes no bones about its stylistic inspirations. It’s a clean, spare space, all right angles, stools and slatted tables. They make overloaded specialty Haus Dogs with names like El Mariachi and Reservoir Dog, as well as regular old Stray Dogs that you are free to top as you wish—all of them a quarter pound, all-beef, and skinless. Most of the dogs, as well as the prefab burgers, are served on grilled King’s Hawaiian bread, sweet and puffy. The exceptions to the skinless beef and the Hawaiian bread are the “Best of the Würst,” an assortment of traditional sausages (brats, andouille, etc) served on a French roll with some combination of sauerkraut, peppers, and onions.
Unlike both Slaw Dogs and Hot Doug’s, whose entries into the world of creative hot dog toppings have an air of refinement about them, Dog Haus’s Haus Dogs are heavy and in your face, with a fairly traditional selection of condiments. Seven of the ten have either bacon or chili on them (though none have both—clearly an oversight). We’ve tried the grilled onions, peppers, pickled jalapeños, and melted white American cheese of El Mariachi; an andouille Best of the Würst with spicy peppers and caramelized onions, and the B.L.A.S.T., which was the best of the bunch: a BLT on a dog with avocado and Serrano peppers.
The layer of melted cheese over El Mariachi has the unfortunate side effect of trapping in enough heat to burn the tongue, even after a three-day waiting period. Worse, it sticks to the roof of the mouth, like Starburst. The jalapeños are indistinguishable from the mass of vanilla veggies. El Mariachi, it must be said, is less than the sum of its parts.
The andouille with onions and hot peppers (Serranos again) was better, a plump, juicy sausage with a sweet and spicy crunch of condiments, snuggled in a crusty roll. Better than the Best of the Würst, though, was the B.L.A.S.T: good bacon (though oddly distributed), a delightful interplay of flavors and textures, and a real kick in the face from those Serranos.
Dog Haus’s fixed variables—the Hawaiian bread, the skinless all beef dog—are solid. The bread in particular is a nice touch, an interesting component in and of itself that somehow complements all the nasty°° toppings without overwhelming or being overwhelmed by them, a square peg in a square hole. The dog is just a fine piece of meat, cooked appropriately, very dependable.
The sides are what you’d expect: fries, fries with cheese, fries with cheese and chili, chili, frito chili pies, sweet potato fries, onion rings. The standouts, sort of, are the tater tots, which are pleasantly crispy, creamy on the inside, and go nicely with a squirt of curry ketchup. The chili cheese fries come with a pool of oil on top, which, who knows, maybe that’s your thing. They’re good, if a little bland.
So on balance, really, it’s a good place. If find yourself craving a hot mess in a bun and can’t make it to mecca, you’re not going to do any better in Pasadena than Dog Haus. And we hear the burgers are amazing.
105 N. Hill S., Pasadena, 626.577.4287, doghausdogs.com. L & D daily. No booze. $
* Wurstküche does not serve hot dogs, but intuitively is still relevant to any discussion about the restaurants that serve them. What distinguishes a hot dog from a sausage, or a hot dog place from a sausage place? They are like squares and rectangles, sure, but beyond that? Is it a matter of the bun, or the casing, or the condiments, or the coarseness of the grind? The use of the word “dog”? The precise distinction is elusive, i.e. cannot be readily found on the first page of the Google. Having noted the ambivalence, we will now proceed as though it does not exist.
° A Chicago-Style hot dog with “everything,” where “everything” is mustard, caramelized onions, relish, tomatoes, celery salt, and a pickle.
** The Dog, but hot.
°° Nasty in a good way.