All right, I’ll be honest. I heard about Crif Dogs from the second episode of Anthony Bourdain‘s The Layover, during which Bourdain spends a day or two eating and drinking in his native New York. I wasn’t all that impressed with the episode—I mean, he wouldn’t stop raving about Shake Shack and Papaya King, which I just can’t get behind as the city’s best cheap eats—but that’s beside the point.
The point is that he and David Chang (of Momofuku) went to Crif Dogs, and I drooled profusely as I watched the pair down a few scallion-topped hot dogs. I have a lot of weaknesses, I know—but scallions are way up there. Seriously: I’m embarrassed by how much I love them. And as if the scallions alone weren’t enough to reel me in, the dogs’ buns were spread with cream cheese, and the whole shebang was topped with everything bagel seasoning.
Figuring my odds were pretty good, I decided to call Crif Dogs the next day. It’s a relatively simple hot dog joint; what need could they have for nuts? None. They have no need for nuts, and they don’t use any nuts or nut products in anything they sell. And their buns are made in a nut- and peanut-free facility. What better news was there to receive? (I guess they could’ve told me they were nut-free in the vendor-vetting sense, but it’s all right that they didn’t. I was very pleased with their level of allergy-friendliness, even though I can’t quite categorize them as “truly nut-free.”)
I should mention, though, that Crif Dogs does use peanut butter (Skippy, which is made in a peanut-only facility) for one of their signature dogs. And although guy I spoke with told me that the peanut butter’s kept separate and that those with peanut allergies shouldn’t have any trouble eating at Crif Dogs, I figured its presence was something worth noting.
It was good news all around, and I was very, very excited. But I was a little apprehensive, too. I didn’t want to get my hopes up—what if Crif Dogs turned out to be on par with your average Papaya King (or worse yet, your average Papaya King imitator)?
Well, it didn’t. Crif Dogs is way, way better than Papaya King—which doesn’t mean all that much, I guess, given how mediocre Papaya King tends to be these days. Let me try again, then: The hot dogs at Crif Dogs are really, really good—the best I’ve eaten in a long time, for sure—and…well, go eat one (or three or six) and see for yourself.
Naturally, I started with the John-John Deragon (pictured at the top of this post—and spelled “John-John” on some menus and “Jon-Jon” on others, which drives me a little insane), the everything bagel–inspired hot dog that Bourdain and Chang put me onto. I didn’t know what to expect, really, because the thing sounds simultaneously sacrilegious and delectable. (In fact, the sacrilege is literal. As Bourdain remarked, “there’s a whole Jewish–pork violation there, which actually is kind of a turn on.”)
Taste-wise, though, there’s no sacrilege here. This hot dog is delicious. The scallions are plentiful, the everything seasoning is spot-on (though a bit too salty), and the cream cheese isn’t off-putting in the slightest; in fact, it’s a rather nice touch. All the ingredients come together perfectly, and the first time I tried this dog, I was one happy camper. The best part is definitely the hot dog itself—the perfect thickness, with a satisfyingly firm casing—but each and every component is solid in its own right.
And the John-John isn’t even the weirdest thing on the menu. There’s a bacon-wrapped dog topped with avocado and sour cream. There’s a bacon-wrapped dog topped with teriyaki sauce, pineapple, and green onions. There’s a bacon-wrapped dog topped with peanut butter, pickles, and crushed potato chips. (Yeah, they love their bacon at Crif Dogs. I don’t—at all—but I’ll live.) There’s a cream cheese schmear dog. There’s a B.L.T. dog. There’s even a dog-substitute for vegetarians. In short: Crif Dogs sells a lot of shit, and it all intrigues me.
Of course, they have their fair share of standard offerings, too: ketchup, mustard, sauerkraut, sautéed onions, relish, raw onions, chili cheese, baked beans…you get the gist. And though I haven’t yet had a chance to try each and every thing I’ve been eyeing, the things I have tried have been pretty damn tasty. Truthfully, it seems hard to go wrong at Crif Dogs—unless you don’t like hot dogs, in which case I’d recommend going somewhere else. (Or, you know, reevaluating.)
And honestly, I’d still frequent this place if their atmosphere sucked—but it doesn’t. It’s small and darkish with inoffensive music and laid-back employees, and there are plenty of retro arcade games to fiddle with while you wait for your food. (Oh, and Crif Dogs is also home to the phone booth that doubles as the “secret” entrance to speakeasy Please Don’t Tell, which serves hot dogs, too.)
Find the Crif Dogs I’ve written about at 113 St. Marks Place, between 1st Avenue and Avenue A. Or check out their other locations—there’s one in the West Village (120 Macdougal, between Bleecker and 3rd) and one in Williamsburg (555 Driggs, between North 6th and North 7th). Bonus: Thursday through Saturday, they’re open till 4am. Go wild.
(Oh, and for a complete list of the bars and restaurants Bourdain visited on the New York City episode of The Layover, see this Travel Channel summary.)
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