Tag Archives: hot dogs

Hank’s Juicy Beef

A quarter-pound Italian beef sandwich from Hank's Juicy Beef

If I’m anything at all, then I’m certainly a creature of habit. And while in Chicago, I formed one hell of an Italian beef habit. (It was an Al’s habit, really—and I formed it not because of the Italian beef itself, but because of those chili-cheese fries, to which I haven’t yet found a local alternative.) I just kept eating Italian beef after goddamn Italian beef—and so I guess it’s not all that surprising that I ended up spending most of my ride home from the airport plumbing Googling for a local alternative.

It’s not that I think Italian beef is worth missing. It’s not even that missed it. I just don’t like having foods taken from me—especially the foods I’ve gone through the trouble of verifying as safe, and double-especially the foods I haven’t yet had my fill of. If I’d lost McDonald’s right after my third McDonald’s meal, I would’ve been one grief-laden four-year-old. But am I saddened by any of those recent articles whining about how McDonald’s might soon start rolling out a few menu items that call for nuts that aren’t pre-packaged, thus (likely) rendering the whole stupid-ass chain unsafe for me? Uh, not really. I’m saturated.

And fortunately, it looks like I’m going to be able to get saturated on Italian beef, too—thanks to Hank’s Juicy Beef, a mini-menued restaurant that’s evidently been doing business in my neighborhood for a whole year now. There are no tree nut (or peanut) products in the kitchen, and the bread, which comes from Turano Baking Company, should be totally safe, too. (According to the representative I spoke with, Turano’s bread doesn’t share equipment with anything nutty, and if there are nuts in the same facility, they’re nowhere near the bread. I think Hank’s uses these particular rolls, but I’m not 100% sure. All that’s good enough for me—and though I understand everyone’s standards, etc., are different, I’d venture to say it’s probably good enough for most.)

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Now. Contrary to what anyone trailing me would’ve had to conclude, I was rather unimpressed with the various Italian beef sandwiches I ate in Chicago. I didn’t dislike them—how could I have, given my unchecked love for the combination of bread and meat?—but if I didn’t always insist on writing home about each and every food I ate, they wouldn’t have been anything to write home about. Each time, I came away with the same complaints: The watery, flavorless gravy didn’t do enough to make up for the ultra-mushy bread—and despite all that wetness, the beef somehow still managed to tend dry. Plus, all that overbearing, soggy giardiniera? No, thanks.

Of course, I didn’t stop eating Italian beef. I didn’t even consider it—partially because I saw potential in it, partially because I half-liked it as it was, and partially because, uh, When In Chicago. I just kept eating (and eating, and eating) it. And then there I found myself, in the backseat, Googling. On a mission.

Once I got to Hank’s, it took me all of two bites to decide that my search needn’t continue. Hank’s isn’t as good as any Midwestern Italian beefery, nor does it wish it were; it’s at least three times as better (just click it), which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Owner Hank Tibensky—born and raised in Chicago, of course—insists on using only the highest-quality (grass-fed, pasture-raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free) beef, and honestly, it shows. That beef’s good, man. And the jus is plenty flavorful, too, which really helps the sandwich as a whole.

What’s more, the bread’s not half bad, either. I’m always skeptical of that sort of crustless “French” roll, but Turano’s actually have some structural integrity to them. Sure, they aren’t crusty; but they’re dense enough and rather chewy, and they do manage to hold their own against the wetness of the ingredients they sandwich. (Some of the best bites of a Hank’s sandwich are what I’ve come to call the “sweaty armpits”: the soggy crooks of bread on one side of the sandwich or the other where the jus has pooled and turned everything to pudding. Sounds gross. Isn’t. The bread’s just tough enough to withstand the assault, and those wet, sloppy bites are mighty satisfying. The name stays.)

The giardiniera’s fine—it’s firm and snappy, and it even adds to the sandwich, flavor-wise (!)—but it’s just too salty, so I usually end up going without. Instead, I add provolone, which gives the whole sandwich a cheesesteaky vibe. It’s good. Surprisingly good. And formidably filling, too. (Plus, for an extra $4—hardly a deal, I know—you can make it a meal with fries and a drink. Not any old fries, but curly fries. Fresh, crisp curly fries: residents of my dreams, fixtures of my heart. Or, uh, steak fries, if that’s what you’re into. But if that’s what you’re into, we probably wouldn’t get along.)

A hot dog from Hank's Juicy Beef

I’m also somewhat of a fan of the hot dog, which actually managed to startle me with how undeniably decent it was. I absolutely loathed Chicago’s Chicago dogs—the dogs themselves had such a dreary texture, and their flavor was nowhere near strong enough to handle the absurd, insecure, attention-needy checklist of (very fucking overbearing) toppings they went ahead and attempted to handle nonetheless—but I must say: the Hank’s version is all right. Yes, the dog itself is boiled/steamed (don’t know which, but it doesn’t matter either way), and yes, it tastes like it’s been boiled/steamed. But it doesn’t taste like dog-boil (so there’s that), and its texture is passable, at least. Plus, the bun’s fluffy enough (though I so wish Chicagoans would take to toasting), and no one topping threatens to overpower the others. All told, not bad. It’s actually sort of fun.

If only I had such nice things to say about the beef bowl. Like the sandwich, it costs $10—but unlike the sandwich, it’s not even close to worth it. It’s served not in a bowl, but in one of those paper trays usually reserved for, like, fries or onion rings or whatever, and that, combined with the small portion, makes it come off more as a side—an afterthought, a “well, I guess we can sell this, too, can’t we?”—than a main dish. The beef itself is still fine, but with a little (still-too-salty) giardiniera as its only partner, it does end up falling flat. And the same goes for the rice bowl (beef, giardiniera, and sautéed green peppers over very, very mushy white rice): a nice idea, but not worth the order.

Anyway, I like Hank’s. It may not be the world’s most authentic Italian beefery, if we’re (still?) defining “authenticity” as total adherence to the way things are done in a dish’s region of origin—but that’s fine, because if it were, it’d be worse off. Hank’s makes Chicago-style food, no doubt; but it’s ever-so-slightly New York–ified Chicago-style food, and that’s for the best. It’s not New York–ified enough, I don’t think—I could use some better bread, or a hot dog with some snap to it, or, you know, some flavors with a little more nuance than super-sweet or super-salty—but it’s not straight-up Midwest, either, and I’m going to have to call that a blessing.

Find Hank’s at 84 Chamber Street, between Church Street and Broadway.

[P.S. I’m liking this slowed-down posting schedule a whole lot—so much, in fact, that I’m going to be slowing it down even more. At this point, my plan is just to play it by ear and, uh, see how much longer I can fend off this burnout, because while I do like blogging, there are few things I dislike more than (a) feeling pressured to churn out blog posts when I’m busy with school, life, etc., and (b) feeling pressured to churn out blog posts when there’s nothing I want to say. So. I’m going to be aiming to publish a post every 14 days or so, but…we’ll see. They’ll come when they come.]

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Crif Dogs

Two John-John Deragons from Crif Dog

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.

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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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