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By Nate Hemmert
Wow. Seriously, wow. You readers never fail to surprise me. I can talk about foie gras and caviar, confess to thoughts of whizzing on a restaurant's carpet -- and it's just another day in the life. But I start talking about hot dogs, and all of a sudden the discussion gets very heated. Just look at this week's Letters section if you don't believe me: It's a nice literary boot party with yours truly as the guest of honor, and all because of my April 20 Bite Me item on Steve's Snappin' Dogs -- the new hot dog emporium at 3525 East Colfax Avenue that's owned and operated by Steve Ballasand his wife, Linda, daughter of Denver's own Blinky the Clown.
I've been called a lot of things in my time at Westword, but Fletcher Neeley came up with a new one when he labeled me an "ass puppet" in his letter. So he gets the honor of being the first person I'll respond to here. In short:
3525 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, CO 80206
Region: Central Denver
Not for disagreeing with me, Fletcher -- that's cool, and that's what the Letters section is for. You feel hurt, you feel slighted, you feel like I'm stomping all over your childhood because you were on Blinky's Fun Club when you were a kid. But don't for a second think I took a shot at Steve's because it doesn't advertise in Westword. I don't know if Steve's advertises or not, and it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter to me if a restaurant threatens to stop advertising because of something I write, or if a restaurateur sends me two hookers and a bucket of ice cream in hopes of making nice. I have laid into more regular advertisers than I can count, and on the flip side, I've lauded joints that barely had two nickels to rub together -- and would never rub them here at any rate. I have criticized friends and praised enemies. I'm not for sale, and neither are my opinions. I am not, never have been, and never will be answerable to anyone on the advertising side of the building. They do their job, I do mine. I'm not advertising's ass puppet.
What confuses me about the critical letters (an equal number wrote to defend me) is that never once in that Bite Me column did I say that I didn't like the dogs at Steve's. As a matter of fact, I said that I did like them. Quite a bit. True, I said they were expensive (which they are). And yes, I was less than crazy about some of the toppings. I even brought in outside experts to judge the namesake dogs of their home towns, which were confusing, at best, and -- in the case of the Chicago dog served with spicy mustard -- enough to inspire inchoate rage from a Chicagoland purist who lives and dies by the dogs at Portillo'sand Superdawg.
What I didn't like at Steve's were the sides. The fried green beans, fried carrots and the french fries had all been cooked in a fryer with the temperature set too low. Hence, I didn't get "fried" anything: I got potatoes and vegetables barely blistered by the heat, served in a slick of grease and salted like they'd said something nasty about the cook's mother.
In his very long letter (condensed in the Letters column), Jack Barreca laid out an impressive resumé of twenty years of hot dog adventuring, of sampling the best of the best across the country: Pink'sin L.A., Superdawg, Nathan's Famous, Papaya Kingin New York (also one of my favorites). This is a man who knows what he's talking about, and he obviously loves Steve's -- as do many other Denverites, because the place is usually very busy. But like Jack, I'm an aficionado of dogs -- and as two well-traveled, well-fed men, we're just going to have to disagree on this one. I am a dollar-hot-dog-cart kind of guy, a shameless fan of the dirty-water dog, the plain white bun from the steam table and mustard from a pump. I like Steve's just fine for a plain dog with mustard and nothin', and am even willing to pay the extra money because the Ballases are importing Thumann's natural-casing dogs from Jersey, which are a serious contender when it comes to hometown faves.
But in a straight-up, head-to-head competition between hot dog stands (not carts) in this town, the crown still goes to the Sahlen's dogs with Weber mustard, hot sauce and onions served at the Old Fashioned Italian Deliat 395 West Littleton Boulevard in Littleton. They won the Best Hot Dog award in the Best of Denver 2006 for one reason: In my opinion, they're the best.
Barreca was also under the mistaken impression that I preferred the dogs at Heidi's Brooklyn Deli -- a homegrown chain that recently started a billboard campaign hyping its new Nathan's Famousbrand hot dog promotion, which I briefly noted in that April 20 column -- to those at Steve's. He was wrong, but then I got anotherletter about hot dogs, this one from some amateur culinary deep throat who absolutely refused, under any circumstances, to allow me to use his name. It began, "Sorry for writing you anonymously in this letter, but I would rather not get involved publicly. I write this letter as one hot dog expert to another.... As someone that seeks out a good hot dog once in a while, I just had to share my feelings with you."