The hot dog is the ultimate local food, and having one named for your city is when you know you’ve arrived.
Chicago has the Chicago Dog; Detroit, the Detroit Coney. New York has Coney Island and Nathan’s Famous Coney Islands -- though true locals prefer the Gray’s Papaya “recession special.” There’s the Annapolis Dog, the Dubuque Dog, and so on, or so Wikipedia tells me.
But Minneapolis, St. Paul, and heck, the entire state of Minnesota do not fare well when it comes to hot dog nomenclature. No offense to the region’s great sausage purveyors -- Nate’s Dogs, the Weinery, and the Gopher Bar spring to mind -- but Minnesotans tend to be shy about hot dog improvisation. We dwell more comfortably in the realm of appropriation, not wanting to venture forth and put our name on things, for Pete’s sake. We don’t want to make a fuss. We’ll have a Chicago Dog, and that’ll be just fine, thanks.
Enter the MPLS Dog.
When I first heard of it, I knew the stakes were high. Naming a hot dog after your city, you have to get it right. Is it worthy of the name? Does it taste OK? Can it sweep the nation by storm? I had to find out.
First off: What is the so-called “Minneapolis dog”?
According to Ingredient, the slick “food marketing and branding” firm that came up with the idea in the first place, the MPLS Dog goes like this: Butter bun and toast face down on a hot griddle. Slice hot dog almost in half lengthwise. Cook hot dog cut side down on a hot griddle for about two minutes. Flip hot dog and cook the other side for about two minutes more. In a large skillet, cook ground beef with salt and pepper, about seven minutes. Add the soup, frozen vegetables, and onion. Cook until heated through. Place hot dog in toasted bun, top with hot dish, Cheez Whiz, deep-fried tater tots, and ketchup.
Yes, you read that correctly. It said hot dish and tots.
A simpler recipe is posted on the side of the pop machine at Uncle Franky’s, which is the only place you can find a MPLS Dog in the wild:
IT, 4 TOTS,
(Q: Is “Wiz It” the same as “Cheese Wiz”? I think so, but cannot be sure.)
For those who don’t know, Uncle Franky’s in northeast Minneapolis is a famous Chicago-style hole-in-the-wall in the middle of the industrial/arts area. The small, one-story bunker rests on un-crossable Broadway Avenue like a boulder on a precipice, and it’s as close as you can get to being in the Windy City without driving for seven hours.
The thing that separates Uncle Franky’s from the rest of local Chicago ex-pat joints is its atmosphere. At lunchtime, the cozy space fills with people standing around, waiting for dogs. During a rush, it might take 15 minutes. At slow moments, you’ll get your dog in under five. If you have to wait, it’s not that bad, because you can pass the time staring at other people eating.
The other main attraction, though, is the short order cook, who calls out orders in a thick accent as he completes each dog. Sporting a greasy Uncle Franky’s T-shirt (the motto on the back: “relish your wiener, always use a condiment”) and a well-worn Vienna Beef apron, he pauses his balletic multi-tasking only to sip his hibiscus tea. His voice is both soporific and demanding, made richer by the perpetual motion of flipping, massaging, and garnishing the items on the grill, plating to-go food, and entertaining the salivating masses whose chins rest on the yellowing counter.
This is the kind of performance one looks for in a proper diner, and while joints like this are common in Chicago, there are precious few in Minnesota these days. It's the proper setting for a unique hot dog.
So. The dog.
The first time I ordered a MPLS Dog, I was surprised when someone else was eating one at the table next to me. As I sat there, failing to inure to the announcements of the short-order cook, I found myself chatting with Jackie as she worked her way through the hot dish-topped wiener.
“What’s that you’re eating?”
“It’s called the Minneapolis Dog. It’s got hot dish on it.”
“Um, wow. Is it any good?”
It turned out that she liked it.
“It’s really good. Tastes like grandma’s hot dish,” Jackie said. She worked at Norseman down the street, and had come back for a lunchtime dog a few times. “The Cheese Whiz adds a nice sweetness that balances the flavor.”
For me, it was a slightly different story. Eating the MPLS Dog seems feels like moving to the area from another city: Everyone raves about how special it is, but then you’re faced with the disappointing average-ness of the situation, and your entire experience is defined by a forced nostalgia. It’s a combination of things that perhaps need not be, like a Sven and Ole joke that goes on too long.
That’s not to say that it’s bad. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the dog. Here’s a breakdown.
The bun: Like all of Uncle Franky’s buns, it’s great -- riddled with sesame seeds, light, fresh, and perfectly sized.
The hot dog: Small, beefy, snappy. One of the premises of the “Chicago dog” concept is the tension between simplicity and excess. Heaping every condiment you can find onto a hot dog would be too much if you insisted on a large, ungainly wiener at the center, but Uncle Franky’s smaller sausage is the perfect size.
The cheese: Yellow, melted, cloying. Reminiscent of the wiz on a proper Philly Cheesesteak. I want to hate it but cannot. Jackie was right.
The ketchup: The hint of red is a nice garnish, but why is this here? You can’t taste it. Ketchup on a hot dog is dumb anyway.
The tater tots: Initially weird. At this point, “tater tot hot dish” is a worn-out Minnesota cliché. But to make a proper tater tot hot dish, in my experience, you need to properly bake it so the top layer of tots crisps into a crust. The surface should be thin and fragile, and the gooey cream of the hot dish should occasionally bubble up, like a half-frozen lake you shouldn’t have walked on. These are just some tots thrown onto a dog, so it’s not really the same thing. And yet, who doesn’t enjoy extraneous tots?
The bonus here is that your number of tots will vary. According to the pop machine recipe, there are only supposed to be four (4) per dog, but I’ve received both six and seven tots, depending on the mood of the cook. The tot count gives you all the excitement of pulling a pull tab.
The hot dish: The one thing on which the success of the MPLS Dog depends. The hot dish tastes like Garrison Keillor’s voice. Green Beans, sweet corn, onion: It’s everything a good Coney sauce is not. Because of its cream of mushroom soup foundation, the beefy hot dish is soupier, with a lower viscosity than chili, and it gets all over the place.
The verdict: The idea seems forced, like a State Fair food that was obviously created just to appear in a KARE 11 fluff piece. But the result is complex, mostly balanced, and certainly an adventure. If you’re into hot dish and hot dogs, this might work for you.
Maybe we all get the hot dogs we deserve, and after generations of self-satisfied in-jokes, the MPLS Dog is where we find ourselves. We are forced to have our smug cake and eat it too, and as I find myself licking the hot dish dripping from my fingers, I should feel ashamed. But I don’t.
As a true Minnesotan might say, “Well, that’s interesting. Not too bad, and it could be worse, don’cha know.”