Buffalo, New York, sometime in the mid-'90s.
I was briefly between jobs — having just told one owner (of a ginormous Irish restaurant/pub/banquet hall/ hotel operation) that he could go fuck himself and his nine dollars an hour if he thought I was going to run his entire floundering food operation myself in the sudden absence of his chef, sous chef, chef de partie and bar manager, and not yet re-employed. But my girlfriend at the time was working enough to cover the rent on our un-air-conditioned, un-ventilated, un-lovely apartment off Hertel Avenue, which left me responsible for covering beer, gyros from the diner, food for the cats and bar tabs.
For whatever reason, that summer our group of friends had taken to drinking at a fairly skeevy, dim and dank bowling alley called Voelker's that attracted a mostly geriatric clientele of hard-core bowling enthusiasts, shaky winos and old-neighborhood Polacks who fought for their turf of stools on one side of the bar like this was the Falaise Gap and the war was still on. The bartenders would crack an egg in your beer if you asked, pulled drafts into old, wide-mouthed, footed goblets like the kind Archie drank from on All in the Family and stocked the worst cactus juice known to man: Tequila Rose, a kind of fruity, cream tequila that my girlfriend drank like it was strawberry milk until she'd had enough to start smacking those (usually me) who made fun of her for it.
Anyway, I loved this joint. The normal order of business would be for all of us (me and the girlfriend, Gracie, Brett, Nick, Liam and Sarah, assorted hangers-on) to gather in the parking lot, walk through the door in a tight pack and start drinking fast the minute we hit the bar. Usually, we could put two or three rounds behind us before the regulars started getting openly hostile, at which point we would order a couple buckets of beer, settle up and dodge out through the narrow door/hallway that led to the bowling alleys proper. There, for like two bucks a game, we could spend the rest of the night getting epically hammered, throwing balls around and making loud, boisterous assholes of ourselves without anyone caring. Gracie and I would sometimes bring micro-recorders so that we could make tapes of our evenings out — the grumble of balls, crash of pins, raised voices, arguments, jokes, occasional splashing of piss on ceramic when we forgot to take the recorders out of our pockets when we went to the men's room, occasional worse things when we forgot to take them out of our pockets when we headed for the alley out back.
These nights would run late. Bars in Buffalo shout out last call at around a quarter to four, and I can say with authority that finding yourself staggering drunk long after midnight in an otherwise deserted bowling alley is not just discomfiting, but straight-up Twilight Zone creepy. No matter the hour, leaving Voelker's always felt to me like escaping something — as though some ancient horror living behind the pin-setting machinery was just beginning to stir hungrily and that we'd made it out in the nick of time.
I don't recall whether or not Voelker's served food. I imagine it probably did, but I know we never ate there. Instead, we hit the diners, the neon-lit after-hours places and takeout joints that did more than half their daily business between the hours of 3 and 5 a.m. We'd go visit the Greeks at Tom's or the Olympic for souvlaki and bricks of fried onion rings (the hangover preventer and/or cure I swore by at the time, washed down with a pot of coffee and two white crosses). Sometimes we'd stop in at ETS for what passed for a burrito in those days, in that place. But every now and then, somebody would mention having a taste for hot dogs, and we'd be off in search of 4 a.m. street dogs wherever we could find them, not stopping until we were satiated — because once you get a hankering for a tubesteak with slivered onions and mustard, maybe a squirt of Ted's dog sauce, nothing else will do. And woe be to they who reached for the ketchup in my presence. I had very particular ideas of what constituted a good dog, and ketchup played no part in the equation. Depending where I was on the spectrum between happy, singing Irish drunk and sour, miserable, foul-tempered prick on the come-down, that kind of thing would either get you a roaring, slurred, befuddled lecture on the preparation of a proper hot dog or a punch in the neck.
Hanging out at the Wazee last week (see review) got me thinking about my good old days back at Voelker's — of the long nights, the smell of sour beer, the tricky physics involved in bowling while intoxicated and, most important, the hot dogs. As noted in my review, I love cheeseburgers with a strong and pure-hearted passion, and love a great cheeseburger bar (like the Wazee and My Brother's Bar, which I visited for this week's Second Helping) the way I do my own home. My infatuation with hot dogs, though? That comes from a somewhat darker and dirtier place, a midnight enthusiasm for quick, satisfying and somewhat sketchy nourishment of the same sort that drives me to all-night diners and taquerías, guys who sell burritos in doorways and places where I can get pigs' ears or barbecue at three in the morning. The hot dog is a cuisine of both desperation and obsession, the thing you pick up on the run when you're hungry and in a hurry, but also the thing you fixate on when you want one very badly and there are none near at hand.
So with the summer winding down and my appetite whetted by memory, I decided to take a few days and do a mini-tour of some of Denver's best (and oddest) purveyors of hot dogs. The result is not a comprehensive list, by any means — just an interesting one.
First I stopped by Heidi's Brooklyn Deli as a way to zero-out my wiener meter. By no stretch is Heidi's a great place for hot dogs, but it can be a decent option of last resort, because there are at least thirty Heidi's locations spread across Colorado, and every one of them serves Nathan's Famous dogs done with varying levels of expertise and ineptitude. Ask for one, mustard and nothin', and then watch the help carefully. If you see someone grab your dog and head for the microwave, walk away. But when done right — straight out of the water, onto a bun and across the counter — Nathan's Famous is a decent dog. Along with the street-side, dirty-water Sabrett, it is (or should be, anyway) the baseline against which all other dogs are judged.
Taking a cue from Iron Chef, I decided to rate those dogs in three categories: taste, environment and presentation. Taste would count for six points out of a possible ten, because a nasty hot dog is still a nasty hot dog no matter how you gussy it up or how cool your restaurant is. Environment was good for three and covered not just the dining room (when there was one), but also the counter, the kitchen, the way the countermen dressed, the general vibe of the service and any hot dog-related chatchkes displayed. Presentation? One point, automatically given and only taken away for flagrant violations of my own admittedly lax standards of food safety and handling. Tepid dog water? Lose a point. Drop my wiener on the ground and serve it anyway? Lose a point. Screw up my order or put ketchup on my dog? A penalty point. Plus, you might get punched.
Under this scoring system, Heidi's got five points. The hot dog at My Brother's got four because it was pretty much inedible (tough, sweaty, too beefy, wrapped in a bun that was way too thick and served split down the middle, which I hate), but served in a great environment and presented atop a very cool caddy of toppings (onions, pickles, relish, peppers, mustard, ketchup, salt and pepper). And the snack bar at the 88 Drive-In (8780 Rosemary Street, Commerce City) managed to squeak through with six points for its bagel dog, because while it didn't taste so great (two points), it was presented well (wrapped in foil and handed straight from the warmer for one point), and there's almost no better environment for a hot dog than the drive-in (three points). I love bagel dogs — a fairly rare and bizarre cross-cultural fusion of a boiled hot dog with cheese wrapped inside a bagel shell — and don't know of any other place in the city that serves them.
The Old Fashioned Italian Deli (395 West Littleton Boulevard, Littleton) got a better-than-perfect score of eighteen points out of a possible ten because I gave it a bonus ten points just for having owners from Buffalo who were genius enough to bring a serious East Coast Italian deli this far west. Here, the dogs are Sahlen's brand, done boiled, served a beautiful ruddy pink on a simple bun, with a little twist of casing that makes a tail at both ends. The standard at the Old Fashioned is "flying with everything," which means topped with a whole bunch of stuff, from Buffalo's own Weber's horseradish mustard and dog sauce to jalapeños, then wrapped to go in a box. I prefer two simpler versions: either naked with just a shot of Weber's (the Apollonian ideal of hot-doggery, as far as I'm concerned) or dirty with hot sauce and slivered onions. Either is excellent. Service is quick and friendly, and the place itself — with its slightly grungy and well-used look, walls covered with pictures of Marilyn Monroe, mismatched tablecloths and tables and shelves loaded down with Italian dry goods — is so reminiscent of home for me that sitting here for an hour is almost as good as a vacation. (On a side note, for those of you exiled to Denver from the same area codes as me, the Old Fashioned is also serving liverwurst and swiss sammys on good rye bread and the only beef on weck in town: sliced top round, horseradish and a little gravy on salted kimmelwick. It's a killer sandwich, almost as good as anything you used to be able to get down at the union hall or at those basement church suppers in Blackhawk.)
After the Old Fashioned, I hit one of the city's more controversial wiener joints: Steve's Snappin' Dogs, at 3525 East Colfax Avenue. Owner Steve Ballas is a born huckster, a guy so convinced of his own success in bringing the best hot dog to Denver that his exuberance sometimes drowns out all debate. And I respect that. In the fifteen minutes I spent in his presence last week, I watched him give out a dozen samples, engage two different waiting customers (one was me) in a spirited hot dog debate, turn twice to the grills himself to bail out his swamped cooks, and just generally comport himself like a carnival sideshow barker roping in the rubes. He loves his dogs — Thumann's brand, the snappiest of the majors, hence the name of Ballas's joint — and he'll do his best to make you love them, too.
And while I still don't love the dogs here, Steve's finished a solid second to the Old Fashioned. For taste, the Thumann's dog (even though it was done on the flat grill) got a snappy five out of six, elevated slightly by the good, toasted buns and the fact that when I asked for a dog with just spicy mustard, Ballas agreed that this is the very best way to eat them and that you should never use ketchup. In terms of environment, Steve's maxes out the meter. There is more hot dog-related shlock crammed into this little space than should be physically possible. And as for presentation, his pup was all to the good: laid in one of those little hot dog envelopes, wrapped in waxed paper and bagged to roll. A nine out of ten — not too shabby.
And that's it for Jason "Dirty Water" Sheehan's Super Colossal Big Wiener Roundup this week. Check out next week's Bite Me for some suggestions for hot dog carts (in particular, the one run by Biker Jim Pittenger, a hot dog hero of the first order). If you've got a favorite place that didn't get mentioned here, or you take umbrage at one of my choices, e-mail me and I may include it in that column. In the meantime, if you need me, I'll be down at the Old Fashioned getting a little taste of home.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.