Houston has never been much of a hot dog town, and that’s always been fine by me.
Like my fellow citizens, I am far more fixated on burgers. I’ve never been much of a hot dog person, except for a peculiar adolescent phase when I decided eggs were gross and would only eat a hot dog for breakfast. Every single day, with ballpark mustard and sweet relish, for about a year.
Then the spell broke and hot dogs vanished from my diet. That’s the way it’s been ever since, with an occasional can’t-help-myself detour for a James Coney Island, where the attraction for me has always been the runny chili and the heap of sweated, finely minced onion rather than the actual tube steak itself.
But there’s been a sudden bloom in the hot dog arts around town, as my colleague Syd Kearney wrote about recently, and I decided it was time to expand my hot dog horizons. The adventure proved to be more fun than I had anticipated — because hot dogs in Houston are still, for the most part, relegated to the fringe of the food scene, that unconventional or mobile underground that feels juicier and more relaxed than traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants.
My first stop was the Moon Tower Inn, a shambling converted taqueria on an industrial stretch of Canal Street, just east of downtown. Moon Tower is a curious universe unto itself, set on a big fenced lot with all-outdoor seating. The covered patio offers vintage concrete table-and-bench sets; ranged out back on the grass, amid horseshoe rigs and a Port-a-Can wreathed in white lights and a small basketball court, crouch a bunch of picnic tables.
Moon Tower is a strangely beautiful scene at twilight, when the heat fades and people start to queue up at the counter. Edward Hopper, bard of achingly austere American urban landscapes, might like to have painted the motorcycles and cars lined up on the lonely street, with customers silhouetted against the counter’s glow, waiting for their bottled craft beers and pondering which of the many toppings to put on which exotic game hot dog.
For these are not conventional hot dogs by a long stretch. They are more mannered sausage sandwiches, the meat ordered from a local supplier in a range of textures and flavors.
You have to look on the counter’s whiteboard to see which dogs are available. There were just a scant handful the night I was there, all priced at a standard six bucks; it turned out they’d been cleaned out the night before by a horde of folks who wanted to be part of filming by the Food Network. O tempora, o mores.
“Piggie Smalls,” a wild boar dog, turned out to be coarse ground and suitably piggy-tasting, with enough snap to the casing to register even in the context of the chewy Slow Dough pretzel bun and the welter of toppings I chose. I admit to being somewhat flummoxed by all the choices, and I don’t think I ended up with best possible combination, which is a danger for newbies here.
I loved the long, slim spears of fresh-cut jalapenos, which added a nice vegetal heat to the dog. Coarse-chopped onion was a must. So was the house-made black-pepper ketchup, which stood up to the boar sausage and exploded on the tongue. I wished I had skipped the sambal-flavored mayo (I know, I know), which wasn’t as frisky as I had hoped and ended up just kind of getting in the way. Next time I’ll do Dijon or country mustard, and maybe some dill relish, the better to get an acid pop.
I cadged some bites of the Ghetto Bird dog ordered by one of the folks at my table, and found that I like the silky, hot-dog-like mildness of its ground pheasant very much, mostly because it finished with a clear, true note of cognac. Cilantro and jalapeno turned it into a Houston experience; and I was left wondering what condiments I would add when I come back and order it myself. I’m still wondering what would suit, exactly.
And there you have my one real sorrow about Moon Tower: the build-your-own hot dog ethos gives me no sense of the three young bad-boy owners’ aesthetic vision for their wares. Yes, they stand for good-quality parts; but how do they see those parts fitting together?
I found myself wishing they’d develop some specialty dogs, well-thought-through and taste-tested for what they consider to be maximum effect. Perhaps that would seem too rigid, too top-down, for a crew who started out last year grilling dogs on the basketball court, without so much as an enclosed kitchen (let alone official sanction) to call their own. Hot dogs famously took forever to get made back then, but nowadays there are vibrating alarms that call patrons to the counter in fairly short order.
Already Moon Tower’s avid young regulars, many of them from the food and beverage industry or the reawakening neighborhoods on the East End, are bemoaning the loss of their late-night paradise, fretting about the length of the line and the effects of Food Network attention.
But on a velvety summer night, drinking a $2 Red Irish Ale pulled from a cooler under the Russian Roulette “you-get-the-craft-beer-you-get” proposition, gossiping and contemplating the “Kill all yuppies” imprecation carved into the picnic table before me, I felt happier and more relaxed than I had all month.
Next up on my hot dog trail was the nifty little Good Dog Hot Dogs truck, trimmed in robin’s-egg blue and adorned front-and-back with the slogan “Eat Well and Live Long.” That’s a clue to the all-natural hot dogs and house-made condiments used by owners Daniel Caballero and Amelia Pferd. They prowl the Heights, usually, posting their locations on Twitter, and often setting up shop at Antidote Coffee or, on the weekends, a shaded drive inside Buchanan’s nursery, where I caught up with them on a Sunday afternoon.
Of the two dogs I ordered, I was captivated by the Ol’ Zapata, an inspired assemblage of crumbled bacon, caramelized onion, grated white cheese, jalapeno relish and a tumble of chopped tomato, all squiggled with just enough ketchup and mayo to meld the flavors and textures rather than squelching them.
Clasped in a soft, buttery toasted bun, this dog tasted like pure Houston genius to me. I was particularly impressed by the use of bacon, which often throws a burger out of whack, but here gave the dog a deep, savory conviction without sending it over the falls.
I was less taken by the Chicago-style dog from Good Dogs: partly because its poppy-seeded bun was less fresh and soft than the Zapata’s; and partly because the ingredients didn’t seem to mesh as well as the best versions I tried in Chicago a couple of years back.
Yes, the thin, longitudinal slices of dill pickle lent snap and subtlety. The sweet-and-sour jalapeno wheels were an interesting local spin on the usual sport peppers. The traditional celery salt was present and accounted for, as were the tomatoes and mustard, and the soft, steamed texture of the dog itself. But as a sandwich, it paled beside the Ol’ Zapata.
I’ve got to say that the truck-made potato chips were lovely, crisp specimens, although perhaps a bit too salty to go along with the truck’s bold hot-dog combos. I drank a whole bottle of water (the only choice beside a surprisingly uninspired selection of Coke, Diet Coke and Sprite), and still needed more.
Part of the appeal of seeking Good Dog Hot Dogs out at their Buchanan’s location is the opportunity to eat in the shade on various forms of fanciful garden furniture, with a verdant view and the sound of fountains gurgling. There’s even a child-sized set of filigreed table and chairs stationed right near the truck, within sight of a stone frog and a Chippendale-style wooden bench.
Brick and mortar? Air conditioning in July? On my own personal hot dog crawl, I found, to my pleasure, that I don’t need them.
WHERE TO FIND
Moon Tower Inn