Ten months and 3,000 miles ago, I was privy to an outrageous culinary experiment. In a fit of lunacy, my fellow diners at BLT Burger attempted to combine a corn dog with ice cream. What name was given to this deranged concoction, you ask? The Dogcream. It was pretty good. Someday, perhaps, it will be on the menu at The Slaw Dogs, Pasadena’s very own “International Hot Dog Hub Pub.”
The first solo venture from Ray Byrne (Il Fornaio, Sunset), Slaw Dogs uses cased meat as a vehicle for an eating experience that is both excitingly elaborate and pleasingly, wholesomely simple. The concept is straightforward: Take a link and pile it high with quality ingredients. Except there are eleven different links, each of which you can get steamed, charbroiled or rippered (deep fried until it splits open) — that’s 33 ways to order a link. Oh, and there are 55 (yes, 55) toppings. Up to three of the 23 standard toppings come free with any link, with extras available at 39¢ each, and premium toppings (all 22 of them) for 99¢ each. The mind boggles.
Somewhere, somehow, I will find room in this post to list this mammoth array of toppings. In this reviewer’s humble opinion, however, designing your own dog is not the main attraction. No, that honor belongs to Byrne’s signature creations, the ten eponymous “Slaw Dogs.” West Virginia may have figured out a long time ago that cole slaw goes good on a hot dog, but here in California it’s a revelation. And Byrne’s slaw is really good. A friend described it as a “Southwest slaw,” sweet and tangy and crisp, a perfect textural counterpoint to the inevitable slop of a fully loaded bun.
This harmony — dare I say delicacy? — of link and toppings is a surprise, and Slaw Dogs’ great strength. The hot dog is not exactly known for its subtlety, especially when stacked to the heavens with loud flavors; a junkyard dog is supposed to be in your face, overpowering, emasculating. Byrnes’ approach is different. It begins with, of all things, salad. In his most successful creations, what you are eating, basically, is a really good salad on top of a pretty good sausage. Condensed into a bun, every bite becomes the perfect bite, the ingredients playing off each other like a jazz combo. It’s hard to pick a best example. Maybe it’s #4, the Caesar Dog: chicken sausage, chopped romaine, roast garlic, garlic crouton, parmesan, and Caesar dressing. Maybe it’s #8, the Thai Slaw Dog: spicy peanut-coconut satay dressing, cilantro-carrot slaw, crushed peanuts and Sriracha aioli. Maybe it’s #3, the Picnic Dog: a charbroiled Vienna all-beef link, barbecue sauce, onion rings, potato salad and a pickle. Yeah, the Picnic Dog: The sauce bleeds into the salad, the crunch of the onion ring balances the softness of the potato. Is it an unusual combination that seems obvious, or an obvious combination that seems unusual? Who cares! You’ll scarf it down in three minutes flat.
You are free, of course, to go the other route, to create your own smelly beast of a dog. I’ve tried that, too: a spicy Italian sausage, charbroiled, with horseradish mustard, garlic salsa verde, habanero-pickled onions, and kimchi. It was good and loud, but not that loud, and I found myself wishing I had a Picnic Dog instead. Or one of Byrne’s daily specials, like the Olympics-inspired Vancouver dog: wasabi mayo, pickled carrot and daikon slaw, nori, and bonito flakes.
There are other things to eat at Slaw Dogs besides links. If for whatever reason you arrive and decide you don’t feel like a hot dog, there are burgers, ground in-house, and salads, which come topped with your choice of meat, butterflied and grilled. Unless you get seven or eight toppings on your hot dog, the salads, at $7.99, are the most expensive thing on the menu — and topped with meat, they’re basically dogs that have been given the Atkins treatment: no bun, more greenery. They’re probably excellent — but I’ll probably never find out.
More importantly, there are also sides: Belgian-style fries, chili cheese fries, sweet potato fries, onion rings, potato salad, garden salad and, of course, slaws. The onion rings are king here, almost as good by themselves as on the Picnic Dog. The fries, both Belgian and sweet potato, are crisp and not the least bit oily, though they could stand a little more seasoning. There are fry specials too, the most common being the Belgians topped with Parmesan, truffle oil and garlic. These, too, are surprisingly underseasoned: the garlic and Parmesan don’t always stick to the fries, instead clumping in the bottom of the basket. I’d wager, though, that this issue will be corrected in the coming weeks.
For your thirst: just soft drinks, for the time being. As you would expect, there is variety here as well: my father was delighted to find Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda. A beer and wine license is in the works—two months, optimistically. Byrne plans to serve microbrews both local and international, as befits Slaw Dog’s international slant.
Business seems like it’s off to a robust start for Byrne; before long, he will no doubt be known as The Sausage King of Pasadena. And here, without further ado, are 55 of the reasons why: sauerkraut, relish, pickle chips, dill pickle spear, sport peppers, jalapeños, pepperoncini, diced tomato, diced onions, grilled onions, barbecue sauce, curry ketchup, chipotle mayo, celery salt, spicy sesame mayo, lettuce, horseradish mustard, roast garlic mayo, pico de gallo, garlic salsa verde, habañero-pickled onion, hp sauce, ranch dressing… and now the premium toppings: guacamole, bacon, jalapeño bacon, pastrami, beer chili, Parmesan, cheddar, feta, Swiss, blue, pepper jack, nacho cheese, goat cheese, roasted garlic, kimchi, olive mix, truffle oil, ground peef, roasted pasilla peppers, coleslaw, Thai slaw and, drum roll please… fried egg!
720 N. Lake Ave., #8, Pasadena, 626.808.9779, theslawdogs.com. L & D daily. Beer & wine on the way. $.