Walking in a Wiener Wonderland

The Wienery
414 Cedar Ave., Mpls.; 333-5798

Joey D's Chicago Style Eatery
3101 E. 42nd St., Mpls.; 729-5507

Paws Dogs
7920 France Ave. S., Bloomington; 831-8188

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The Wienery

414 Cedar Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55454

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

It happened at one of those ultra-fancy, ultra-foodie events--one of those things where every raspberry comes fitted in a miniature reproduction of the QE2 handcrafted by an Alsatian master out of mint leaves and fragments of the true cross. A publicist with those telltale silicone-emboldened cheekbones and frightening Stairmaster-built calves introduced herself.

"I've been dying to meet you," she lied, bending down over my shoulder so that her diamond chef's toque pendant thunked me in the ear. "You're the one that likes those little places. The strange little places." She spoke with that odd combination of wet, open sympathy and stern discipline usually reserved for oafs in china shops. "How do you ever find them? I'll be calling you to see what we can do." Then she patted me on the head, right in front of the caterers and everything, pulled her diamond toque out of my ear, and disappeared. It felt like the foodie equivalent of a horsehead-in-the-bedsheets. There was nothing left for me to do but run home to sob into my copy of John Mariani's Dictionary of American Food and Drink.

It's a book that guides me through good times and bad, not the least because it proves that Americans eat 80 hot dogs (and 150 hamburgers) each year, while anecdotal evidence suggests we consume decidedly fewer orders of anything drizzled with white truffle oil or served on blanched escarole. Hot dogs are a big part of our culinary lives, a touchstone of grade-school cafeteria lunches, family cookouts, happy ballpark afternoons, and the entire city of Chicago. Real Chicago red hots are Vienna beef dogs served in a poppy-seed bun and topped with yellow mustard, grass-green relish, slices of crisp kosher-dill-style pickles, fresh onions, fresh ripe tomatoes, a brownish dusting of celery salt, and (optional) pickled peppers.

Real Chicago-style hot dogs can be found in a few places in the Twin Cities, establishments that are invariably patronized by people who feel as passionately about their food as anyone who buys olive oil at perfume prices. Jerry Petermeier, owner and chef at the Wienery, is a self-described classically trained chef who decided that serving good food to a lot of loyal clients for not much money was a more appealing calling than serving fewer people more delicately and charging them more. He also likes the challenge of cooking for Chicago dog fans: "If they don't like it, they'll take it outside and step on it and bring it back in so you can see what they thought of it," he says. "One bite is all they need. Chicago hot dog eaters are real particular."

The Wienery cooks up dogs in perfect Chicago style, but it also offers seven other varieties, including a great "Manhattan" smothered under some kicky homemade chili, a "Warsaw" served deli-style with grainy mustard and hot sauerkraut, a "Maxwell Street" that comes with sweet sautéed onions and fried green peppers, and a "Tasmanian Devil," a chili dog with habanero peppers. (Prices depend on your choice of size and style of the sausage: A large, skin-on, natural-casing wiener goes for $2.25, a small skinless wiener $1.75, a footlong $3.29, a smoked bratwurst $2.49, a spicy Italian sausage $2.49, and a Polish sausage $2.35.)

Petermeier's French fries are absolutely fantastic, standing head-to-head with any I've had anywhere, even in Belgium, where frietjes are a national obsession. He credits this triumph to his use of aged Idaho russets; the aging, he says, forces out some of the water and makes them sweeter. "The cheapest potatoes you can buy are the ones that just came out of the ground," says Petermeier. "They're all water, and if there's too much water in a potato when it hits the oil, it'll burn and foam and won't cook right." He also cuts the potatoes fresh throughout the day rather than doing one big batch in the morning and storing it all day in a vinegar-water bath, a common fast-food practice that results in watery fries with a funny texture from the corrosive quality of the vinegar. Fries at the Wienery, which come in two sizes (89 cents for one potato's worth, $1.39 for a potato and a half), have that indescribable perfect-fry synthesis of succulent, sweet earthy centers wrapped by a crisp, shimmery, caramel-tinged skin.

Fries are one of those simple things that are deceptively difficult: If they're cooked in oil that's too hot, they burn outside and don't fully cook inside, so their middles are filled with those icky uncooked starch granules. If, on the other hand, the oil isn't hot enough, the outsides don't sear quickly enough, so they end up soggy and greasy. If the oil isn't changed frequently, it develops impurities that give the fries an off taste. Petermeier replaces his oil daily. In his floppy toque and scruffy beard, he doesn't look like a man who's overly concerned with the subtleties of oil temperature and purity, but the food he sets down in front of you proves he is.

The Wienery's ambience is a substantial part of its charm. Gray light filtering under the low front awning, dull chrome, the peculiar reflective quality of old mirrors, and seventeen years' worth of fries have created a silvery patina on every surface. Sitting on one of the old-fashioned stools that face the counter and waiting for Petermeier to work his simple wonders feels so natural and cozy that it's hard to imagine an America without hot-dog stands--even though Mariani's Dictionary tells us it was once so. In fact, the author writes, the very term "hot dog" was a derogatory statement made about Eastern European immigrants in the early 1900s, implying that the immigrant's beloved sausages contained dog meat. Given the number of times people have told me how they heard this or that Asian restaurant serves pet meat, I see a beautiful continuity in the American experience.

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