About this blog...

Food has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Food and the festivities surrounding its arrival to the table has always been a focal point in our family. For many years I have been amassing the cookbooks, recipe cards, cooking journals, diaries, manuscripts and clipping files of our once extensive family.

Personally, I’ve been professionally involved with food for over 40 years in numerous and varied culinary capacities across the country so I also have the collected stories, as well as current and on-going food-related experiences from my own life I’d like to share.

My idea has long been that someday I would bring all of this marvelous raw material together into a culinary journey through our family’s heritage. This journal is the beginnings of that journey.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Dog Days of Connecticut - Hot-Doggin' it, day 2 (part 3)

July 29 2011, Day two of  "The Great 2011 CT Hot Dog Tour"  continued...
Harry's Place
It's about 11:45am,  nearly 30 hours since I  left the Ranch. and we have finally made it to our first hot dog stand of the trip.  We've arrived at Harry's Place in Colchester.
We wandered over to the menu board to initiate our attack. 
In discussing the plan previously, we had decided that we want to give each place it's fair shot at impressing us.  Pre-trip research has revealed that most of the dog stands have a specialty of the house, and that most of these specialties feature a dog that includes some kind of "meat sauce" on them.  I've never been that big of a fan of meat sauces, chilis etc on my hot dogs but maybe that's because I've never had a great one. 
My personal standard for the perfect hot dog goes something like this: natural skin dog (any length), cooked so the dog has a nice "snap".  This pretty much eliminates steamed and boiled dogs but leaves the field wide open for grilling, griddling, frying etc.  The dog should be presented in an appropriate-to-dog-sized New England-style bun (2 flat sides with a slit down the middle for the dog), that has been nicely toasted in a little butter.  Condiments of choice: spicy brown mustard, pickle relish, and sauerkraut.
I've decided that the only reasonable thing to do is to order two dogs at each place.  One "house special" , and one "David-style".
Looking at Harry's menu I find myself curiously uninspired.  It's been nearly 5 hours since that amazing breakfast at O'Rourke's but only about 20 minutes since we finished a generous tasting about 8 different cheeses at Cato Farm.  Nothing to do but "Man-Up" (a phrase that would come up repeatedly over the next 2 days), and order.
At the window we could see a platoon of hotdogs lined up for inspection on the grill inside, lookin' good, but not quite good enough to make me truly hungry yet.
 Fortunately for me, when asked what was the house special dog, the counterman said "Well, pretty much anything you like.  They're all good."  Off the hook on my first outing, I ordered just one David-style dog.
I picked up the dog at the next window when my order was announced, as did Cynthia and Jim who would be splitting a single plain dog (light-weights!), and we all proceeded over to one of conveniently-located picnic tables out front near the road.  There were also several  tables on the side of the building in a very pretty grassy area but we decided to stay and watch the action at the counter.

Well, it wasn't a NE-style bun and it wasn't toasted.  Too bad because the dog inside was pretty good.  Well-browned on the griddle, it had a nice moderate "snap" to the casing. Harry's also got some bonus points because they put on a brown mustard automatically, with out my having to asked specifically for it. Unfortunately that wasn't enough to counter the problem with the kraut.  While flavorful, it had not been drained sufficiently and by the time we'd gotten to our seats, the juice had already sogged it's way through the bun and was pooling in the paper tray.
A hot dog is supposed to be hand-held food but every attempt to pick this dog up was fruitless.  The kraut juice soaked bun wouldn't hold its shape, the dog slipped out onto the paper tray as the rest disintegrated into a less-than-appetizing pile with a resounding "plop" . This is one of the problems with typical steamed buns.  Sure, they're soft and fluffy, but they are so saturated with moisture coming out the that there isn't any absorbency left to them.
Cynthia and Jim faired better.  Without any added wetness, their minimalist dog was much easier to eat.
My score: 6 out of 10. Great ambiance (for a hot dog stand, of course), and a pretty good dog but regardless how good the underlying meat is, if it's impossible to eat the whole as intended, how can it possibly score well overall?
I'm sure I will be subjected to the wrath of Harry's fans for "dissing" their joint.  Hot dog fans are fiercely loyal and notoriously outspoken about their favorite stands. 
My druthers would be to go back to all of these places a couple more times to get a better feel for if the dogs I'm eating there are typical or aberrations of some sort. On the other hand, it's HOT DOGS, not rocket science and if they can't get it right each and every time then do they really deserve repeat business?  There are literally dozens of these stands just a short drive from every other one so, I guess, my answer would be "No", they don't.
A short drive up the road from Harry's was our next stop: Scotties Frozen Custard, Colchester.
Made on-premise, Scotties offers three flavors of custard (Vanilla, Chocolate, and flavor of the day) and  an impressive list of Sundaes, Special Sundaes, and toppings as well as shakes malts and floats.
C&J went for a "small" vanilla cone and I had a chocolate.  Small was certainly relative in this case because the cones were huge.
After a few bites (we hadn't even left the porch yet), the owner ("Scottie", I assume) stuck his head out and asked Cynthia, "So, that's good, You like that? I just made it fresh this morning!"
It was good and so was my chocolate.  We wandered out back to he picnic tables where Cynthia got friendly with another Scottie.
My score: 9 out of 10.  I don't really have a solid reason to not to give it a 10.  There was not a single thing wrong with Scotties  but I figure while very good in all respects, a 10 deserves something more, something exceptional. Jim gave it a slightly lesser score. He had apparently had the gold standard of frozen custards many (MANY) years ago and has been trying to recapture that magic moment ever since.  Cynthia suggested that perhaps his memory was a bit idealized but he stuck to his guns, giving it an 8.
Top Dog
So, back on the road again (I feel a Willie Nelson song coming on).  Next stop: Top Dog in Portland.  Top Dog is one of those places that EVERYBODY says you HAVE to go to, but nobody says "because they have the best hot dogs".
This is Top Dog...

Yup, that's a custom-converted food trailer in the shape of big ol' wienie and bun, complete with cheese, mustard (yellow), relish and onions. It gets towed around by and old Checker cab that includes several sportily-clad mannequins waving out the windows. 
I have a "thing" for Checker cabs so this is quite cool to me.  My very first car, back in the 1970's was an old retired NYC Checker cab.  The thing had 80 gazillion miles on it and had even been th star of a kid's movie (Santiago's America, if you're interested), but it only cost $200 and was the perfect vehicle for a teenage boy with a brand new driver's licence. The thing was a tank and you could run into almost anything with out hurting it our yourself, and I did exactly that for about 4 years through high school and on into college until it finally gave up on me. I was heart broken.
Back to Top Dog.  I approached the window the lone woman who was squeezed into the small space with all the cooking equipment, food and piles of paper plates etc greeted me.  "What can I get you?"
"What's your best dog?"
"Hmmmm, depend on what you like".  I was not going to give up quite so easily this time.
"What's your personal favorite dog?"
"I like them all".  She was not going to make this easy on me, was she?.
"OK, If I were the food critic from the New York Times, what dog would you want me to eat"?
Realizing that I wasn't going to order without some kind of answer she said "The Cajun Dog, I guess.  That's what were best known for".  Finally.  Was that so hard?
"I'll take one of those and one kraut dog with mustard and relish".
"You want that Cajun Dog real spicy?"
The Cajun dog was described as a hot dog, a slice of Pepper Jack cheese, some special Cajun sweet-hot relish, topped with a grind meat chili sauce. 
Within a couple of moments, my order was ready.
The dogs again sat in boring steamed standard (non New England-style) buns so, it was no big surprise when both dogs experienced catastrophic failure upon trying to be lifted from the paper tray on which they were served.
What was surprising was the dog itself.  I managed to get one end of the kraut dog sandwich to my mouth and even get a small get a bite before it totally collapsed.  That dog was GOOD!  It appeared to be steamed but, in addition to being plump and juicy, the skin was nice and taught with a surprising snap.  I might have to re-think my steamed dog prejudices.  The meat itself was well seasoned, standing up well to all the accoutrements pied on it.
Unfortunately, that was the only whole bite I got. The kraut had, again not been drained turning the rest of the bun into mush in a few seconds. The "Cajun dog" was even worse.  Not only did all the moisture from the meat sauce disintegrate the bun but it did something weird to the gluten in the bread, making it (for lack of a better descriptor) "snotty".  It was definitely not the cheese as it had never melted (see pic above) and I'd pulled it out of the dog pile by this point anyway. I could actually grab a piece of the bun and pull it out several inches. I've never seen anything quite like it.
Stranger yet was that the Cajun Dog, as a whole, was under seasoned.  Yes it had a little spice to it but it was lacking in... salt?!  I thought that maybe my taste buds had gone on strike at the sight of that bun muck so I asked both C & J to try it.  Both got puzzled looks on their faces and Cynthia said,  "You know there is something very wrong when a hotdog needs more salt".
One other note: the mustard was some tasteless yellow kind, no brown mustard offered.
My score: 4 out of 10.  Despite being completely disgusted by what was left on my plate when I was done, the wieners themselves were very good and the ambiance was excellent, saving Top Dog from being what would have otherwise been an even lower score.

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