Friday, October 23, 2009

Meat in Tube Form

So this all starts with my friend Jeff.   One year, I told him that I would take him out for his birthday (as it's customary to do), and asked him where he wanted to go.   I told him that we could go anywhere he wanted.  Nice steak place.  Manly rib place.  Stuff yourself silly buffet.   What did he choose?   He said he wanted to go eat hot dogs.   Naturally, I was of the mindset that, well...  you could certainly go for something better than hot dogs for your birthday, right?   But he said he saw on some travel program this awesome new gourmet hot dog place in town, and that he really wanted to go.    So this piqued my curiosity a little.   Gourmet hot dogs?   What's so gourmet about a hot dog?   So we went over to Hank's Haute Dogs in Kakaako.

Hank's really does offer gourmet hot dogs.   Specifically, they're a restaurant specializing in all different kinds of sausages.   Every day of the week, they've got a different exotic sausage for you to try.   Alligator.  Rabbit & Veal.  Buffalo.  Lobster.  Even Duck and Fois Gras.  Even their regular menu boasts a variety from churizo to bratwurst to andouille, and since we're in Hawaii gotta add Portuguese sausage to that list.  As it was Jeff's birthday, we decided to splurge and try a whole different variety of the hot dogs.   I gotta tell you that each one really tasted different.

Fat Boy at Hank's Haute Dogs
My favorite hot dog there, was the appropriately named Fat Boy.    This polish sausage is wrapped in bacon and deep fried.  Then covered with mayo, lettuce and tomato.   Do I really need to describe for you how this thing tastes?   It's everything that you imagine it to be.   Fatty, salty, crunchy, terribly bad for you delicious.  

French Fries at Hank's Haute Dogs
As an intermission, Hank's had probably one of the tastiest french fries on the island.  You know how when you go to McDonald's or wherever, and you order the fries, the best one is always the very thin, very tiny, super crunchy fry all the way at the bottom of the box?   Well at Hank's, all of the fries taste that way.   None of them are the thick, plump, potatoey fries you get at other places.   At Hank's, each one is a scrawny, kinda thin, somewhat limp, uber salty, uber oily, delicious bad bad for you thing.   If you're feeling really indulgent, then go on Saturday, and you can order the special fries that are fried in pure, unadulterated, unashamed, rendered duck fat.   Seriously.   And to top it all off, you get to dip them in some really awesome garlic aioli or wasabi tobiko dipping sauces.   That's literally icing on the cake, but they're fabulous.

Chicago Dog at Hank's Haute Dogs
The most classic hot dog at Hank's though, has to be their Chicago Dog.   This is done in authentic Chicago style.   It's uses real Vienna Beef.   So it has that extra "snap" when you bite through the casing.  It's also done with the classic Chicago toppings, yellow mustard, neon green relish, a pickle spear, some chopped onions, a slice or 2 of tomato, and the essential celery salt.   In Chicago, they call it being "dragged through the garden".  It's like having a hot dog with a small salad on top.  It's done absolutely authentically.

It's no surprise that the Chicago Dog should be their most classic item.   That's because Hank is originally from Chicago and he borrowed the idea (and menu) from a very famous Chicago institution, Hot Doug's Sausage Superstore.  Hank used to be a star chef in Chicago, helming a famous restaurant called Trio.  But he decided to retire from Chicago, and come to the islands, where his parents were from and owned a hot dog stand in Kapiolani Park in the 40's.   Everything about the place is really gourmet, even the macaroni and cheese has truffles in it.   The question is, are his hot dogs unique enough that people are willing to spend $6 to $12 per hot dog, when they can get one that is twice the size (over a foot long) along with a drink from Costco for only $1.50?   That's a seriously hard question, because Costco's dogs really are premium quality meat too.  We'll just have to wait and see if Chicago's style can take roots here in Honolulu.

Actually, Anthony Bourdain visited (and raved about) Hot Doug's, when he was in Chicago.   Being from New York, the rivalry between New York dogs and Chicago dogs is famous.  It's second only to the rivalry between New York style pizza and Chicago deep dish pizza.   If you've ever watched Bourdain's show, you'll know that he absolutely loves sausages (or meat in tube form as he calls it).  No matter where he goes around the world he seeks out the local unique variation of the hot dog.  He's had Gray's Papaya in New York, Pink's in L.A., a ripper from New Jersey, a tunnebrod rulleor in Sweden, a Bæjarins beztu in Iceland, a currywurst in Berlin, just to name a few.  

So what did Bourdain enjoy when he came to Hawaii?   Well, he went to Puka Dog.  If you haven't heard of it, that's because it's originally from Kauai, and the only location on Oahu is in Waikiki where most locals would never go.   Their gimick, is this truly medieval looking burner that toasts the inside of the cup-like bun, which the dog then slides into and the dressings like mango or guava relish won't drip out from.   I have to admit, the burner is ingenious.  Their bun is a very soft, spongy bun.   But the burner toasts the inside of the bun where the dog is, so the softness is accented with a crunchy toasted layer.   The sweetness of the mango relish goes very well with the saltiness of the hot dog, but then a lot of our various cuisines have discovered how well that combination of flavors works.   My only gripe, is that while their hot dog is tasty, it isn't very iconic of Hawaii. Maybe if they moved out of Waikiki and more locals got to try it, or if they are able to last another 20 or 30 years and establish some legacy, that would change.  But for now, there are so many more representative sausages that he could've sampled while he was here.  While Hank's dogs are awesome, their flavor is that of Chicago, and not our local fare either.  

Lup Cheong Manapua from 7-Eleven
If Bourdain had truly wanted a taste of Hawaii's hot dog variations, he should've started with the uniquely Hawaii version of the hot dog.  You know the bright red, salty one that Redondo's makes?   Or he could've tapped into our Portuguese heritage and tasted some of our own linguica or Portuguese sausage.   He could've stopped by an okazu-ya and had some good shoyu hot dogs.  He could've gone Chinese style, and gotten a smokey, sweet, lup cheong manapua.  Heck, he could've even stopped into 7-Eleven to try a hot dog musubi.  You can't get more local than that.    Any one of these would've made a much more, accurate representation of local tastes than what he encountered.  

Hot Dog Musubi from 7-Eleven
For my money though, the one hot dog that was the most iconic of all of Hawaii's hot dogs, was the waffle dog at KC Drive Inn.   For decades, they were the light at the end of Kapahulu.   They were the line, where you knew you were no longer in tourist territory, but firmly back on kama'aina ground.   They were one of the last drive inns that actually featured drive-in car side service. Almost all of us, have childhood memories of the crunchy sweetness of the waffle that surrounded the savory hot dog in the middle.   And of course, you absolute had to wash it down with a thick, creamy, ono-ono peanut butter shake.   The waffle hot dog and the peanut butter shake were the ultimate combination together too.   The sweetness vs. the saltiness, the crunchiness vs. the creaminess, they just worked so well together.    Sadly, like so many other Hawaii institutions, KC Drive Inn closed a few years ago.   But thankfully, the Asato family still makes their fantastic waffle dogs for fundraisers and special events.    The last time I had one was on the beach, from their little event booth, watching the Dragon Boat Races.   From the very first bite, I was flooded with memories of childhood. If Bourdain REALLY wanted to taste what local hot dogs are like, he should've found a KC waffle dog.

KC Waffle Dog from Panini Grill
20 to 30 years from now, we may look back and think about Hank's or Puka Dog the same way as KC Drive Inn.  Who knows how our culture and tastes will evolve.   If a simple street food can be transformed to something gourmet, or something so embedded into history, anything can happen.

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