Hot dogs are on the Mount Rushmore of traditionally "American" foods, and for good reason. They're a product -- well, byproduct, maybe -- but definitely a triumph of the very fraught American industrial food system. They're meant to be eaten with one's hands, ideal in a country as obsessed with (or at with least the appearance of) get-up-and-go. And they're a glorious palette of meat, salt, and snap on which to paint any number of culinary or cultural flourishes.
Okay, I'll grant you that Blue Razz Pop-Rocks don't speak to any haute intentions of international cuisine, but the dudes in charge of Madison's Wiener Shop are clearly skilled at imbuing humble ingredients with purpose and intent. This is on no greater display than with this weekend's Stars and Stripes special, the Bottle Rocket.
Wiener Shop opened at the beginning of April and has been quietly putting itself out there on Twitter and Instagram, with rapidly rotating specials and lovingly staged close-ups. Owners Rex Arthur and Nate Chu are behind the counter doing the construction of these dogs, not just overseeing the operation. I've made Wiener Shop my de facto waiting room when I get downtown with too much lead time before my haircut appointments around the corner. It's not like I need a beard trim, so who cares if my breath smells like pickled wiener and blue cheese? My stylist is too polite to complain, if nothing else.
These specials, announced on Twitter and chalked up on the wall at the shop, are right in my wheelhouse. Rex is on my wavelength. I am, to paraphrase Fight Club, Rex's target demographic. Take the recent French Onion special, a hot dog topped with piped french onion dip, sweet onion jam, and crushed rippled potato chips. It's the experience of spooning up some dip and swirling it around in the dregs of a bag of chips, but on a hot dog! Rex and I shared a moment of nigh-conspiratorial brotherhood over this dog. This dog is me, to my core, and to my wife's eternal dismay.
Wiener Shop has shown a willingness to mix not only sweet and savory, but sausage and candy. (Note to self: pitch a Marcy Playground special concept to Rex.) The Windy City Disaster comes to mind: bacon-wrapped dog, cheese sauce, giardiniera, and caramel corn. The delicious bacon-wrapped dog has stuck around for the Bottle Rocket, but it's made at least one new impulse buy at the gas station checkout counter.
There's raspberry sriracha jam for a little bit of trendy heat-meets-sweet, and you definitely feel the burn. There's the fairly Wiener Shop-trademark piping of cream cheese, though this seemed sweeter than usual, almost as though it had been whipped with confectioner's sugar? Some fresh blueberries give the whole affair a flag torte look -- and then you hear that crackle. That snap. That pop, and I ain't talkin' Rice Krispies. No, it's a scattering of Blue Razz Pop Rocks over the whole thing, and I'm going to be honest: It's purely for comic value, and I love it. You get no flavor from them -- how could they compete with all the big flavors I just listed? -- but they're definitely Pop Rocks on a hot dog.
You've just got to laugh. If you can't, this hot dog -- and probably Wiener Shop, though the guys can do serious dogs too -- isn't for you. I think that overall, it's a great addition to a really interesting scene on Gilman. Order a dog, grab some counter space, and watch downtown goofballs run up and down the street with sparklers or whatever.
That's what I'm talking about when I talk about America.
Fun-Sized Fringe Foods won't necessarily always be junk food, but look for a new column any time I happen to find something fringey and worth discussing that doesn't necessarily merit 800 words.