Nonpartisan wieners

I know I missed the summer window for talking about hot dogs as a respectable—or, if not respectable, at least understandable—meal choice. Now the days are getting shorter, and the big patio at the Midtown frankfurter joint Capitol Dawg is a lot cooler. But, what the heck: They have a moderate political theme there, referring to themselves as the “Hot Dog Assembly”—though given our state Legislature’s current level of popularity, they might want to rethink that reference. They’re even running a presidential poll (Obama is well ahead). Election season is as good a time as any for picking up an all-American dog for a quick, cheap lunch or dinner, and if a hot dog is what you’re after, Capitol Dawg isn’t a bad place to head—with certain caveats.

You can’t miss the place from the outside, considering that standing outside the door is a figure of a person-sized, anthropomorphic hot dog, grinning rather creepily and squirting ketchup on its head. That’s a pretty good clue to the interior decorating philosophy: a mishmash of all things kitschy and hot-dog-related, with a soupcon of random old-timey signs and Americana of various eras, and a sprinkling of Sacramentoana. Outside, for instance, there’s a hot-dog-themed mural showing various River City landmarks, like the lamented Alhambra and the lately even more lamented Capitol, surrounded by, or in some cases propped up by, hot dogs.

But on to the hot dogs themselves. They’re all-beef, as are the Polish sausages; you can also get a pork bratwurst or veggie dog. There are 21 different predetermined ways you can order them up, from a no-frills plain dog to the really awful-sounding Gold Rush Dawg, with Swiss cheese, crushed pineapple and sesame teriyaki sauce.

Most of the choices strike some kind of happy medium, like the Chicago-style Prop. 51, with mustard, relish, onions, tomatoes, peppers and a pickle spear; various chili-oriented dogs; or the spicy Hornets Dawg, with Tabasco, mustard, cheese sauce and jalapeños. Personally, I prefer more restrained hot dog toppings, so I went for the Midtown Dawg, with spicy brown mustard and sauerkraut, and got it Doganator-style—that is, deep-fried. Yes: They will cook a hot dog by throwing it into a vat of boiling oil; when I said the word Doganator (a little reluctantly; it’s a pretty dumb word), the woman at the counter turned around and yelled happily into the kitchen, “Deeeep fry!” Her enthusiasm, I have to say, improved the whole Capitol Dawg experience; service is not the hallmark of your average hot-dog place, but both she and the guy who delivered our food seemed positively thrilled about serving up franks, and superfriendly to boot.

Anyway, back to that Doganator; I wanted to compare it to the more standard grilled style (my daughter had a plain hot dog), and I have to say it was pretty good fried. The casing had more pop, and the hot dog seemed juicier and less mushy than the grilled one. Either way, though, these are your basic long hot dogs, poking out of the bun on either end, with your classic hot dog flavor. They stand or fall, I think, on the toppings. My brown mustard and the tart, salty, crunchy tangle of sauerkraut did right by the hot dogs. Another one at our table, however, the Delta Dawg, with mustard, chili and slaw, was less successful. The chili was pale and thin, the meat almost gritty, with a scent of cumin but not much forthright chili flavor. The slaw wasn’t too distinctive, but it did add some crunch and tang.

We also availed ourselves of the extensive build-your-own menu to add on to a simple 20th Street Polish—a much fatter and slightly spicier sausage, though not terribly distinctive—ordering it with grilled onions and a few other condiments. The grilled onions, sadly, were chopped and more sautéed in flavor than grilled, pale and with little sweet caramelization. The side of french fries was dang good: lightly golden, perfectly crunchy and just salty enough. We were less thrilled with the drinks; they have your basic fountain drinks and several beers, but there are also some freeze/slush things. The bright-red one said “Real Strawberry” on the outside, but it tasted strongly of artificial fruit flavor.

Desserts are modest, as you might expect, but they do offer a few flavors of Dreyer’s ice cream—a step up, I’d say, from the predictable frosty cone—plus root-beer floats and something called an apple pie puppy. The apple pups are funny little items: greasy, rather goopy little triangular mini-turnovers, deep-fried and coated in cinnamon sugar, with the flaky pastry layers friable on the outside and all but molten within—plus a modest dollop inside of canned apple filling. They had a certain snarfable charm, but gourmet they were not. Then again, do you go to a place called Capital Dawg for gourmet? I thought not. It’s gourmand all the way.