The Inventive Frankfurters at Good Dog Houston Think Outside the Bun
Go behind the scenes of this week's review in our slideshow, "A Closer Look at Good Dog Houston."
There's something about hot dogs that has always seemed unappetizing to me. It has to do, I think, with my childhood, when my mother told me that you never know what ends up inside the hot dog casing. Snouts, feet, ears, entrails. It's all ground up together and squeezed into a tube, then boiled and served with hopefully enough condiments to mask any unpleasant flavors or textures that might slip in.
I once caught a "How It's Made" segment on the Discovery Channel that focused on hot dogs. It showed liquefied beef and pork trimmings mixed with water, high-fructose corn syrup, flavoring and, often, mechanically recovered chicken. Whatever that is. I swore a long time ago that I would never eat mass-produced hot dogs.
So it was with a good deal of trepidation that I visited Good Dog Houston for the first time. It's a new restaurant in the Heights, and the brick-and-mortar location of the successful Good Dog Houston food truck. Reluctantly, I sat at the bar and ordered a Guac-A-Dog, hoping the creamy green avocado topping would make the ground bits of animal carcass go down a bit more smoothly. Hesitantly, I held the over-filled bun up to my mouth, opened wide, took a bite and chewed. And then I chewed a little faster, as the smoky flavors of bacon and grilled hamburger invaded my senses.
This is not rubbery, I thought to myself. This isn't flavorless or gritty or gag-inducing. In fact, it's delicious. It snaps when you bite, rather than dissolving into mush. It's dynamic—more like a sausage than the gelatinous ballpark franks of my youth. If these were the type of hot dogs I had been served at childhood birthday parties and sporting events, I daresay I would not have been the awkward child toting tofu dogs to cookouts.
Even the tofu dogs at Good Dog are tasty, though I'd suggest you go for the real thing unless health or lifestyle don't allow you to. The 85 percent beef/15 percent pork dogs are larger than what you buy in packages at the grocery store, and they're made just for Good Dog by a secret purveyor in east Texas. In fact, Good Dog prides itself on using and selling Texas-made products, from the Slow Dough buns to the great selection of craft beer.
But really, what Good Dog is all about is hot dogs. Plain and simple. Or not so plain, in the case of the Ol' Zapata, a standard from the food-truck days that includes a signature frank topped with tomatoes, caramelized onions, Muenster cheese, bacon, tangy jalapeño relish, and homemade ketchup and mayo. This is not a pick-up-and-bite kind of hot dog, unless you're able to unhinge your jaw, reticulated-python-style. No, the Ol' Zapata, like many of the dogs on the menu, is fork-and-knife-worthy, though the buttered and toasted Slow Dough bun puts forth a valiant effort to maintain the heft.
The Ol' Zapata was a mainstay on the food truck, and it has remained popular at the new restaurant, where it's easier to sit down and dig into the many toppings. The shredded Muenster melts a little and coats the caramelized onions and the hot dog, while crumbled bacon adds an extra dose of meat and the fresh diced tomatoes and jalapeño relish give each forkful acid and heat.
The entire time I was basking in the glow of the Ol' Zapata for the first time, I kept waffling back and forth, trying to decide which element of the dish I liked best. It's the lightly buttered and slightly sweet buns, I thought to myself. But wait! What about the jalapeño relish, just spicy enough to make me reach for my refreshing glass of fizzy mint lemonade between each bite? Or the bacon...bacon makes everything better. But so does cheese, and there's a lot of cheese stuffed in that bun. Oh, and the hot dog itself, so firm and fresh and wonderfully beefy! Perhaps, I finally realized, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, even though those parts are mighty fine.
That became my working theory during that meal. But just to be sure, I ordered another.
It wasn't an easy road to go from a food truck to a brand-new storefront in a cute bungalow in the Heights. Owners Daniel Caballero and Amalia Pferd met while waiting tables at Chatter's Cafe and Bistro and started dating. Together, they adopted a dachshund named Olive Oyl and harbored a mutual dream of one day opening a gourmet hot dog truck.
The couple got in on the Houston food-truck scene early when they purchased a $15,000 van that was advertised on Craigslist and turned it into Good Dog Hot Dogs, a mobile hot dog vendor, in 2011. Things were going well, and people were noticing the one-of-a-kind hot dogs and friendly duo behind the concept. Then, in late 2012, Good Dog Hot Dogs nearly vanished from the Internet. Their Facebook page was deleted, their website was taken down and their Twitter name was changed. It seems that a Colorado company had sent a cease-and-desist letter to Good Dog Hot Dogs claiming the Houston company had stolen a trademarked name.
Flash-forward, and the name of the venture has been changed to Good Dog Houston. The food truck was so successful that the couple was able to open the new restaurant and take the truck out only for catering or special events. And with an expanded kitchen no longer on wheels, Caballero and Pferd are able to flex their culinary muscles even more.
The secret to the company's success, in my opinion, is the wonderful hot dogs that are really more like a sausage/hot dog hybrid than the things you buy vacuum-packed at the grocery store. The recipe was an original family one used by the purveyor, but Caballero and Pferd tweaked it, adding some spice to make it their own private Good Dog label. The products are minimally processed and contain only high-quality shoulder meat. No ears or entrails or preservatives here. They're even available for purchase, along with Slow Dough buns, should you want to come up with your own creations at home.
In addition to hot dogs, the restaurant's menu features a roast beef deli sandwich to rival those wonderfully beefy franks, a couple of unique salads and the best beer cheese soup you'll find outside of the Midwest. Still, it's the hot dogs that I find myself craving. Even the simple ones, like the New Yorker with beer-braised sauerkraut and spicy mustard, is drool-worthy, while the more complex ones, such as the Picnic Dog, which features warm chorizo and beef chili, cool potato salad (light on the mayo) and a vinegary pickle slice, visit me in my dreams.
The only hot dog I found mildly disappointing (though I ate the whole thing) was the Guac-A-Dog with avocado, pico de gallo and cilantro, and, supposedly, lime and aioli (which were barely there). The whole thing was too mild, too avocado-y. It needed a big dose of lime juice and spice to truly evoke the guacamole flavor in the name.
Perhaps that was just an off-dog, though, because other dishes—like the Curryous Frank—are perfectly balanced. It features onion relish mixed with curry powder and a spicy-sweet cilantro chutney atop thin, crisp sweet potato chips. For heat and acid there's a generous squirt of Sriracha ketchup, and the whole thing is mellowed a bit by rich, creamy roasted garlic aioli.
The Deli Dog is simpler but just as carefully devised. Melted provolone cheese is wrapped around a hot dog, then stuffed into the soft, buttery bun and topped with greens, tomatoes, mustard and Pferd's own recipe for spicy giardiniera, which is heavy on the crunchy carrots. There's a strong pickle flavor to the Deli Dog, but touches of sweet tomato and grassy greens also come through, complementing the smoky hot dog.
Even though the frankfurters are the stars at Good Dog Houston, the milkshakes are worth saving just a little room for. They're made right in front of you on a mint-green 1957-vintage Hamilton Beach mixer. Choose from three regular flavors that use ice cream from Fat Cat Creamery (not far from Good Dog if somehow you're still hungry) and special flavors like Thin Mint that come out and play every once in a while.
Every day there's a new hot dog flavor as well, as if the 12 dogs on the menu didn't already send me into a tizzy. When Pferd, a graduate of Culinary Institute LeNôtre here in town, gets into the kitchen, she dreams up dogs like the Good Fella, which includes ricotta, tomato sauce and bright-green fried basil. Or the recently created banh mi dog, which features pickled daikon and carrots, as well as cucumber kimchi, jalapeños, Sriracha and celery salt.
In the past few years, a number of food trucks in Houston have made the leap to brick-and-mortar. Eatsie Boys opened in late 2012. Bernie's Burger Bus nabbed a concession counter inside Reliant Stadium in time for the 2013 Texans season, and now the gourmet burger joint is working on opening three restaurants in the next five years. Fusion Taco became a full-fledged eatery last July, and the truck remains available for catering and events.
Good Dog Houston is the latest truck to retire its wheels (at least temporarily) in favor of a storefront, and the fact that Houston can provide the support to allow these small ventures to grow is exciting. It used to be that you had to work your way up in the business or go all-in on a family restaurant and pray it wouldn't fail. These days, entrepreneurs like Caballero and Pferd can build the customer base to support a restaurant before a restaurant is even built.
Of course, the fact that Pferd has a penchant for hot dogs and pickling and Caballero has a business background certainly hasn't hurt. I feel sure that as long as the two want to keep inventing creative toppings for their signature dogs, the demand will follow. If you can put it on a hot dog, the folks over at Good Dog Houston probably will. And it probably will be better than good.
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