Man Bites Dog
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 Ballas and 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:
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's and 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's in L.A., Superdawg, Nathan's Famous, Papaya King in 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 Deli at 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 Famous brand hot dog promotion, which I briefly noted in that April 20 column -- to those at Steve's. He was wrong, but then I got another letter 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."
My anonymous tipster -- whom I will call Soggy Weiner from here on out -- then went on (and on and on and on) about a horrible experience he'd recently had at "the original and mother Heidi's location" at 3130 Lowell Boulevard during an attempt to procure one of the chain's Nathan's Famous dogs, witnessing "a young punk in chef pants" take a hot dog out of a cooler, put the dog in the microwave, plant it on a cold bun and then hand over the dog with some ketchup and mustard in packets.
After making my way through Soggy Weiner's saga, I had to check Heidi's new dogs out for myself -- and at the Lowell store beheld the exact same process of warming and prepping the dog: cooler, microwave, the whole nine. And Soggy Weiner was also correct in saying that this is a terrible way to treat a good hot dog.
The next day, I called the store's manager and asked if that was the standard prep. In a very proud voice, he said that a whole packet of "heating and cooking instructions" (including the microwave cookery) had been sent out from Heidi's corporate at the beginning of the Nathan's promotion, and at the original location, they were being followed to a T. "We make everything to order," he said, as if somehow throwing a dog in the nuker was American haute cuisine.
But then he mentioned that prior to the coming of Nathan's Famous, the shops had all been selling Sabretts. These dogs, he said, had been cooked in water -- boiled, essentially, which is the way that God intended all intestinally jacketed rendered pork-and-beef sausage products to be treated. "Some of them might still be doing that," he added, "but I don't know for sure."
Luckily for me (and all the rest of you New York weiner freaks out there), I found a Heidi's that is doing just that. The brand-new location, at Southlands Plaza (24291 East Orchard Road, in Aurora), is bucking corporate convention and holding its Nathan's all-beef dogs in a deep insert shoved into an old soup warmer. The staffers microwave the buns, slap on the mustard by hand, lay down the dog, then wrap the whole thing in foil so it gets all mushy. It's not the best dog in the world, but it's passable -- which is more than I can say for the chain's terrible chicken-parm sandwiches, hollow cannoli and "Philly cheesesteaks" that are really just hot roast beef sandwiches with a lot of crap on 'em.
But hey, what do I know? I'm just another ass puppet corporate shill trying to make a living by kicking around the family of the most famous clown ever to come out of Denver.
Still, I think it only fitting to announce that Steve's Snappin' Dogs (which opened back in February) will celebrate its official grand opening on Sunday, May 7, with a semi-private affair for friends and neighbors and some of the local glitterati. "Basically, it's just going to be a party," Steve Ballas told me.
At a hot dog stand. But more changes are in store at Steve's. Come summer, Ballas plans to move to a seven-day schedule, adding Sundays to the lineup. He's also revamping the kids' menu to offer more choices for the rugrats, changing up the fries for less water-heavy shoestrings (which won't drive down the fryer temps so quickly, thereby keeping them hot for when those orders of green beans go in for a nine-second bath), doing all-beef corn dogs (which will absolutely get me back) and becoming an indispensable one-stop shop for all things hot-dog-tastic. Corn dogs and shoestrings, lemonade and balloons for the kids: Ballas is in this one for keeps, and he's not going to stop until he has the hot dog stand of his dreams.
"All we want is a fighting chance," he said. "You know, we just want people to come down and taste for themselves. We want to be everyone's neighborhood hot dog place."
Leftovers: While we're on the topic of people who think I'm a total idiot, more mail has come in from people disappointed by other Best of Denver picks. Paige Rance wrote about a bad experience at Z Cuisine (my choice for Best New Restaurant) -- but at least Z Cuisine is still open. Over the past four years, better than half the restaurants I've named Best New Restaurant have closed (Adega, Brasserie Rouge, Kabul Kabob). And while Frasca (2005) and Z Cuisine are doing just fine, I've seen dozens and dozens of other award-winners go under (or turn to shit) within weeks of their receiving an award in that year's Best of Denver.
Now here's a new wrinkle: Last year, I gave Pablo Torres at Mezcal a bump for being Denver's Best Tequila Ambassador, and the number-one go-to guy for all things mezcal-rific. But then Pablo vanished, heading south of the border to hang with a bunch of crazy mezcaleros down Oaxaca way. He was supposed to be gone for just a couple of weeks, but a couple of weeks turned into a few months -- and a lot of people who knew Pablo figured he was never coming home.
So imagine my surprise when I snuck into the Cuervo tasting at La Rumba last week and ran into...Pablo. He was tan, he was smiling, he was chatting up some young lovely about something (no doubt how much Cuervo sucks), and he'd been back in town for all of maybe 24 hours -- having returned broke, hungry and absolutely brimming over with stories about spiritual experiences among the master distillers of Mexico. He's not yet sure exactly what he's going to be doing with himself now that he's back in Los Estados, but odds are good it's going to have something to do with booze. Odds are good it's going to have everything to do with booze.
But then I heard that this year's Best Tequila Ambassador, Ryan Halbert of Lola (now up and running at 1575 Boulder Street) is running off to New Zealand with buddy (and Kiwi citizen) Aaron Brown, general manager of Boulder's West End Tavern, another Dave Query restaurant. Now Halbert and Brown are planning to open a restaurant of their own -- "a kind of Mexican, tapas-style cafe," according to Halbert -- in Tauranga, two hours south of Auckland. By the time this issue hits the stands, both of them will be long, long gone. Brian Selbitcshka, former bar manager and tequila expert at Zolo Grill (also a Query joint), will be taking over Halbert's post at Lola.
Halbert told me that he was ready to try something of his own, that New Zealand was in need of some decent Mexican food. "Being on the beach in a little surf town isn't exactly a detriment, either," he added. "I've been landlocked up here in the mountains for a long time. I figured it was time to try a little beach living."
After last week's hot dog controversy, it sounds pretty good to me, too.
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