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Few food issues will bring out an eater’s inner Idi Amin faster than discussing the “proper” way to top a hot dog. This totalitarian tendency seems to particularly affect those folks beholden to the Chicago-style dog, that all-beef frank lounging in a poppy-seed bun with a colorful harem of ingredients (save of course for that infidel, ketchup).
Just ask Arianne and Scott Bennett, co-owners of M’Dawg Haute Dogs, the mold-breaking Adams Morgan operation that didn’t set out to cater to America’s regional tastes in dogs.
“We thought, OK, we’ll bring the Chicago hot dog here, the meat, and we’ll bring the poppy bun….And we’ll put out tomatoes, and we’ll have sport peppers, and people will be thrilled,” says Arianne Bennett. “Then they were like, ‘No, we’re not thrilled. We want the chartreuse green relish, too, and we want the celery salt.’
“I don’t think we even really [were] aware of how strict people feel about the toppings from their…town,” she adds.
You won’t find every famous American frank on the menu at M’Dawg (which, by the way, is a contraction of “My Dawg,” y’all, not MmmDawg). There’s no Coney dog and no Vienna beef, but you can order a kraut-covered brat from Wisconsin, an honest-to-goodness D.C. half-smoke, and a New Jersey ripper. You can even come close to recreating other regional faves. Yet here’s the thing about M’Dawg: You can scratch your little localized itch all you want, but you’re never going to be satisfied with M’Dawg, and its semi-pricey products, until you surrender to the joint’s larger charms.
Perhaps this is easier for me. I grew up in suburban Omaha, where my family’s concept of a hot dog pretty much stopped at an Oscar Meyer wiener bubbled and charred on a hot summer grill. I carried no regional bias into my adult life. But you know what? Despite my frankfurter tabula rasa, I still found myself conforming to a different bias: building the kind of simple dogs peddled at ball games.
During an initial visit, I ordered “Da Pimp” (each dog or sausage here has its own cheesy moniker) and dressed the spicy Italian sausage with sweet relish, caramelized onions, and chopped tomatoes. The problem is, if you take away the ball game, all you have left is a link streaked with the familiar tangy and sweet flavors of youth. Baseball, it seems, adds its own unique flavor.
To get the full M’Dawg experience, you have to stretch your boundaries, perhaps even into areas that you regional dog squatters might consider enemy territory. Greggory Hill, chef at David Greggory in the West End, is a partner in M’Dawg, and his role is to put a fresh spin on traditional dog toppings.
Hill’s “Uptown” toppings bar—similar to the setup at the Bennetts’ other Adams Morgan operation, the Amsterdam Falafelshop—is divided into hot and cold sections. The former includes toppings such as sauerkraut, chili (meat and veg versions), apricot chutney, and mushrooms in garlic butter. The latter features even more options, including such seemingly dog-unfriendly condiments as harissa remoulade and wasabi aioli. And that’s not counting the collection of squeeze bottles filled with concoctions such as blackcurrant Dijon mustard and green peppercorn mustard.
The main contradiction about M’Dawg is not that it asks you to dress the lowly dog in fancy condiments, but that in order to enjoy the place, you must be willing to hate it. By that I mean you must be willing to experiment with your toppings—and therefore be willing to fail. The best bites I’ve consumed here have been experiments wholly concocted on the spot.
Perhaps you don’t want to hear that you will have to abandon the traditional passive role of a diner at M’Dawg or that you may create something that will feel like a complete waste of money. If that’s how you feel, fine. Go back to your regional straightjacket. You’ll be like the Carolinian who goes to the Texas barbecue house and orders pulled pork.
No matter where you start among the 12-plus dogs and sausages on the wall-mounted menu, you’ll likely start well; the owners have scoured the country for some of the best links, whether the Manger half-smoke (dubbed “The Chubby”) from Baltimore or the Italian sausages (“Da Pimp” and “The Lady”) from a small company in Virginia. The few clunkers include the Tofurky-brand veggie dogs—kielbasa, Italian, and bratwurst—which taste like cardboard. Even the $20 Wagyu beef link from Australia (“Kobe Bryant”) is a disappointment, which makes sense when you remember that hot dogs are rarely a pristine taste of any meat.
My awakening to the pleasures of M’Dawg occurred when I finally willed myself to experiment. I ordered the “Split Beefer,” a deep-fried beef-and-pork New Jersey ripper, which I stuffed into a whole wheat bun and doused in harissa remoulade, wasabi aioli, and brown mustard. The creaminess, the heat, the spice, and the vinegary tang transformed this ultra-meaty American link into something exotic.
From that moment on, I couldn’t wait to play at the condiment bar again. By way of example, I offer a short list of my creations and whether they worked: a dirty-water Chicago red hot (“Cheap Trick”) on whole wheat bun smothered with puréed spicy “dog slaw” and a regular creamy cole slaw (I could live on these cool-and-spicy dogs); a Thumann’s all-beef dog wrapped in black-pepper bacon (“The Glove”), which I turn into a BLT on potato bun by adding chopped tomatoes, shredded lettuce, and a squiggle of Dijon mustard because I couldn’t find any mayo (the Dijon scorches my nostrils and ruins the dog); and a house-made corn dog (“The Brokeback”) that I pair with four dipping sauces, including grape and blackcurrant mustards, and top with tiny dollops of creamy cole slaw (turned an average corn dog into a marvelous, multi-layered bite).
M’Dawg offers little by way of sides. You have your choice of tater tots, crinkle-cut fries, or crinkle-cut fries with cheese and a dense, powerful, powder-heavy chili. The kitchen can’t seem to maintain any consistency on its fries, one day churning out perfectly crispy spuds, the next serving up little mealy grub worms that have barely been passed through the deep fryer.
But the gooey mass of fried potatoes, cheese, and chili plays well to the after-hours set in Adams Morgan, which underscores M’Dawg’s final contradiction. The place’s attempt to bring the dog into alignment with adult tastes is all but lost on post-bar culinary brutes. “They’re not the people who are coming for the wasabi,” says Arianne Bennett. “They’re like, ‘Omigod, there’s bacon, and there’s a spoon, and you can have all you want!’ ”
Which makes them kind of like the regional dog purists blind to M’Dawg’s true genius: helping you find your genius at the toppings bar.
M’Dawg Haute Dogs, 2418 18th St. NW, (202) 328-8284.
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 466.