agenda2.org - DEC 2001

OCT 2001

Hot Dogs Court the Kid in You
at Red Hot Lovers

IN MY MOTHERíS KITCHEN, IF THE FOOD wasnít stuck to the bottom of the pan, it was good enough to eat. Burned, runny, rubbery, tough, and tasteless described most of the meals in our house. "Put some more salt on it" was my fatherís tired suggestion to us four complaining children.

The few dishes that could stand up to my motherís (understandable) disdain for the kitchen were causes for celebration. So I looked forward to dinner when hot dogs were on the menu. Boiled, and in later years microwaved, and then slapped into a white bun with ketchup and mustard, hot dogs were dependable fare. We ate them a lot.

But I pretty much swore off the dreaded wieners by the time I got to college. I learned what is in them and what carcinogens are, and I discovered a world of better foods my mother never even dreamed of. Other than a once-a-year treat at a ball game, I havenít eaten hot dogs for fifteen years.

Even so, I have to fully research my subject before I can write this column, so sacrifices have to be made. I visited Red Hot Lovers (the Chicago Style hot dog stand at 629 East University) three times in two weeks. I ate coney dogs and Chicago dogs, reuben dogs and "serious dogs" (with BBQ sauce, swiss, onions, and slaw). I also ate hamburgers, french fries, chili cheese fries, and onion rings. Okay, and I tried the chicken sandwiches and tofu dogs too, but once Iíd given in to the temptations of childhood, the healthier items were fairly forgettable.

From my first bite of their coney dogómade with a Vienna beef hot dog (what they call a "Red Hot"), their homemade chili, onions, and yellow mustard on a poppy seed bun for $2.52óI realized it was a far cry from my motherís Oscar Meyers. The natural casing on the hot dog made it pop when I bit into it, flooding my mouth with juices and smoky spices. The chili, with whole kidney beans, had the perfect chili powder flavor, and stained my fingers as I ate. Oh, what I had been missing.

The Chicago dog was a little weird but also delicious. This classic preparation from the hot dog carts of the Windy City comes with mustard, a bright limy-green sweet relish, onions, a long slice of pickle, two slices of fresh tomato, pieces of hot peppers (called "sport peppers"), and celery salt. It was a complex mix of flavors, but it didnít overpower the tasty dog. Not being a fan of celery, though, I was a little put off by the celery salt. I also had to remove most of the peppers; more than a couple was a bit too hot. (Looking on the Web for the origin of "sport peppers," I found a "Chile Talk Forum" where someone asked "What are sport peppers?" The only answer was that they are eaten on Chicago style hot dogs. I guess youíll just have to order them to see.)

I was familiar with Red Hot Lovers before this month, of course. Itís a well-known food fixture in the South University area (near where I live) and has a reputation for loyal customers. One fifteen-year veteran was there with his wife, Christine. She told me, "I probably wouldnít have come here without him. It looks kind of scary, like a dive. Well, it is a dive, but the food is good." Christine may have been referring to the tiny building, with its dark and dingy interior, dominated by the noise and smells of the open kitchen. A few red-vinyl booths and warped wooden tables crowd along two walls. Although I guess it could be cozy in the winter, I opted for the picnic tables on the sidewalk, where I could tie up my dog and steal a few more outdoor meals from the vanishing summer.

Iíve eaten at Red Hots a few times before with my meat-and-potato husband. (He likes the third of a pound "char-burger" with a side of classically prepared onion rings and a Coke.) But Iíd never let myself indulge in the frankfurters or sausages. I would order the BBQ chicken sandwich (tender meat in a sweet sauce on a fresh onion roll) or the teriyaki chicken sandwich (less flavorful but okay). I remained blessedly ignorant of the hickory-smoked heart-stoppers lurking just a few blocks from my front door.

You donít have to order meat to get some of the Red Hot Lovers experience, though. I discovered that vegetarians flock here for tofu dogs and tempeh burgers. Colleen Scott, who lives nearby, told me, "I like the stuff that goes on hot dogs, but I donít like hot dogs." She ordered the tofu dog "serious style" to share with her baby son, Sebastian. "I wouldnít feed him hot dogs," she said, "but he loves tofu dogs."

Alas, Sebastian doesnít know what heís missing, and Iíll have to trust the vegetarians on their assessment. The tofu dog I ordered was burned on the edges and served with watery sauerkraut that soaked the bun. I found the tofu flavor and mushy texture hard to mask with toppings. But I must admit that it seemed an off-night in the kitchen. On that visit, the fries were greasy, cold, and overcooked, and the staff messed up our order.

But a bad batch of fries is an aberration here. Red Hot Loversí criss-cross, waffle-style fries may be even more important to their identity than the dogs. Everyone I talked to about Red Hots mentioned the great fries. One fellow diner, Jason Pollock, an obstetrician from Denver, was visiting Ann Arbor for the first time since moving away eight years ago. "I have been dreaming about this place," he said, sitting down with his order. "They have the best fries in town. I used to always get a dog and a whopping, heaping pile of fries." His plate served to illustrate. He admitted there was a downside to eating here though: "Youíre pretty much out of commission the rest of the day trying to digest."

Having eaten several servings of the mouth-watering, crispy and soft friesówith salt and ketchup, or vinegar, or soaked in the homemade chili, or drowned in real melted cheddar cheeseóI have to agree that the fries are (usually) a stand-out. I also have to admit that I no longer have the digestive system of a ten year old. I hear those dogs calling me, but I think next monthís column better be about bean sprouts.

 

IT IS LATE AFTERNOON, WHICH SEEMS to me to be the golden dawn of another evening, pursuant to Night. I am sitting at a booth near the front of the hot dog joint. My back is to the front window. This provides a remarkable overview of Workers and Eaters. The Workers are assembling my dinner. There is a brief span of time where I may sit still, stare at my hands and contemplate existence. My name is Arwulf. Born in 1957, Iím told my father jokingly threatened to name me Sputnik. Maybe thatís my name too. I donít know. In any case, when I was five years old, I thought Henry Mancini wrote Baby Elephant Walk especially for me. I think my parents accidentally gave me this impression. Itís not their fault. Back in August, Lindsay and I spent the night in Paradise, Michigan, not far from Whitefish Point. I dreamt I was sharing a sandwich with Count Basie. What kind of a sandwich? I donít know. I do remember a wonderful sense of mutual trust and loving respect. Bill Basie is a beautiful spirit. Heíd probably wonder what in the hell Iím doing having a tofu dog when thereís all this groovy meat available. But I havenít eaten meat in thirty years, and this place does a very nice job with the soy product. When I walked in, a mysterious fellow by the name of Che called out: "Wulf! Tofu?" Itís our ritual, and I always say "thanks Che", which is his cue to dunk a soy log in some sort of marinade and then throw it onto the grille. This is my Big Copout as a long-term vegetarian: Iíll eat tofu right off of that greasy grille, just because itís so god damned good. I think I had a tempeh burger well done, once long ago. It was excellent, but I like the tofu dog better than anything, and thatís why I periodically visit Red Hot Lovers at 629 East University.

A couple of years ago I wandered up to the counter and said: "Iíd like three hits of windowpane acid, a quarter ounce of Nepalese finger hash, one chilled bottle of white Bordeaux, and a copy of the First Surrealist Manifesto. Thatís what Iíd like. What Iíll have is a tofu dog with provolone, spicy mustard, Clancyís Fancy Hot Sauce, lettuce, tomato, kraut and a large iced tea." This is one of the only places left in Ann Arbor where I can show my true colors without hesitation. And listen: I wonít even go in there unless I have enough extra cash to leave a reasonable tip. Pouring coins or stuffing bills into the gratuity jar, I often voice my favorite restaurant refrain: "Thank you for working in food service." Anyone whoís ever worked it knows that food service is a bitch. Retail is at least as bad; rarely do you tip the people working in stores. But food is, well, messy. And if somebodyís knocking it together for me, I want them to know that I take their labor seriously. I also appreciate french fries. French Fries are Bad For You.

My doctor is Alberto Nacif, host of the Cuban Fantasy show, which airs Monday nights from 8 to 10 on WEMU 89.1 FM. Dr. Nacif is one hell of a drummer, and a benevolent physician. Heís got me taking 20 mgs of Lipitor every night in order to compensate for my bodyís inability to handle certain types of cholesterol. I even got a little chart in the mail called "Cholesterol Highway". This charming missive lists all the foods I should avoid (practically everything in the standard U.S. diet) alongside a comparatively scant index of things which are good for me. One stalwart item which stands out in the "healthy" column is vinegar. Apparently I can toss down as much vinegar as a man can stand. How lucky then that I am one of those people who saturates fried potatoes in malt vinegar whenever possible. The air outside is cool today, so the corrugated waffle fries send up clouds of steam as I shower them with vinegar. How much vinegar is necessary to render the fries Healthy? Ah well. Whenever I eat here, a cloud of vinegar scent prevails.

I hunt down the mustard bottle and trace a light weave of yellow trails over the fries. This I suspect is some kind of ancient Polish ritual, from which I am reluctant to deviate. Such food is meant to be eaten quickly, before it has a chance to get cold on ya. I am a horrifyingly Fast Eater, much to my wifeís dismay. Whenever Iím with her I try and slow down. Here, taking a break from a 12 hour work day, Iím scarfing like a barn cat. But the mind has time to reflect, even in the midst of culinary chaos. Iím thinking of course about the History and Global Resonance of Mustard. The Oxford English Dictionary appears in front of my fries. The magnifying glass hovers quietly in front of me so that I may survey the many different ways to say mustard. Iím suddenly confronted with mustart, mostard, mustarde, musterd, mustered, mudsterd, moustarde, mostarde, moutarde, mostarda, mostar [thatís Romanian], mostassa, mostalla, mostaert, mostaard [Dutch!] mostert, mostrich, mustert, and musthart. This is just to illustrate how complicated life really is if you pay attention. A simpler passage from the Oxford informs us that the Nature of Mustard is Pungency. Yeah man.

Incidentally, I really prefer sitting at the counter or in the booth closest to the lavatory. I like it there because itís Funkier. This place is held together by Funkiness. [Itís clean enough, to be sure. Thatís the Law, as Che points out. The mission is to make Eaters happy with good food that they like, in an environment which is not perilous to anybodyís well-being.] And I like sitting where Iím closer to the Workers, where the Music hits ya perfect and you have a really good view of the insane collage of clippings from trashy tabloids which adhere to the wall directly over the cash register, visible at all times to the Workers in the Kitchen:

WORLDíS FATTEST MAN HAS VANISHEDóWITHOUT A TRACE!

THIEF KILLED BY HOT DOG!

WHY ELVIS MATTERS!

ONE IN FOUR UFO PILOTS IS DRUNK!

3-YEAR-OLD HAS THE FACE OF A DOG!

TEACHER SHOOTS STUDENT FOR DOZING OFF IN CLASS!

VAMPIRE DOG TERRORIZES CITY!

THE DEVIL FORCED TOP PRIEST TO MARRY!

You get the idea. Much of the atmosphere in this place is directly attributable to the aforementioned Che, who tells me heís been working here since 1984. Cheís prize clipping can be seen taped to the back of the Coke machine:

MEALS SPICED WITH OPIUM

Shanghai, ChinaóHealth authorities found that many of the cityís Ďhot potí eateries were adding opium poppies to the broth to keep customers coming back for more, the official Wenhui Daily said Friday.

Now Iím remembering the building at 629 East University as it looked when I began to haunt that neighborhood in 1971: at that time it housed a dry cleaning service. Really old-fashioned, with a big machine for pressing suits. The guy who ran it would shuffle out to the curb once in awhile in his grey work pants, suspenders and workshirt. Big cigar between his teeth. I can still see him. Later on there was something called Falafel Palace. It was the first place I ever tasted falafels. Then came the Hot Dogs. For just awhile it became known as the Chicago Dog House. I suspect that much of the Chicago atmosphere still prevailing at Red Hots is left over from that first Doggish incarnation. And this will always be the Dog House as far as Iím concerned.

There used to be a Mike Royko article in a frame on the wall, wherein the venerable Chicago journalist extolled the virtues of authentic Hot Dogs, and complained about the insidious practice of using catsup instead of mustard. I donít use catsup myself. Too sweet and not enough like mustard or Clancyís Fancy Hot Sauce with its unmistakable bouquet of garlic and aromatic bitters. I had a Caribbean Catsup once that was pretty interesting, but generally I stay away from the stuff. The Oxford English Dictionary is full of insights regarding catsup, a.k.a. ketchup, kitchup, or catchup. The Dutch spelling is ketjap. Malay, kÍchap. Possible Chinese, Japanese or Javanese origin. Amoy dialect says ke-tsiap or koe-chiap. Itís defined as a liquor distilled from mushrooms, tomatoes, walnuts, et cetera, used as a sauce, but not by me or by Royko. And speaking of that, his article is gone. It used to hang on the wall right over here. Did somebody hang it in the lavatory? I stick my head inside the can. "Hey Royko, you in here?" No sign of him.

Che wonders if it got stolen, the way some sociopath swiped his wall-mounted picture disc of Deep in the Heart of Texas b/w Cowboy Roundup. We seethe as we mourn the pilfered picture disc. Our friendship is as much about old records as anything else. I first met Che at WCBN 88.3 FM, where he hosted a Friday Night Rhythm & Blues show. His droll, dry sense of humor is informed by that bizarre awareness of human nature that collectors of used records often have. Che just landed a couple of Dinah Washington LPs. He pulls them from a crumpled up shopping bag and places them on the counter. Says thereís a regular customer who comes in and trades old platters with him. This individual likes to say "Bet you donít have this. Bet you donít have this." One day Che just up and laid a rare record on me: Brute Force Steel Bands of Antigua, British West Indies: another Sounds of Our Times recording by Cook Laboratories, Stamford, Conn. (Cover print courtesy Alcoa Steamship Co.) Needless to say, I was touched.

Music is vitally important to the well-being of this hot dog joint. Che has a mighty selection of gutsy tunes on cassettes. Howliní Wolf works really well at all hours. Koko Taylor, Little Milton, Jimi Hendrix, Steve Miller, the Stones. I often feel lots better just coming in and sitting down to listen to Muddy Waters or Dr John. The evening shift, usually composed of younger folks, likes to play Ween or Mr. Bungle, or even some really dynamite Thrash. In this way I get a rush similar to what happens to my brain when I hang out with the students who run WCBN. Young folks making some noise and looking for things to change. I got my own 44 year thing goiní on, but part of me pays close attention to the up-and-coming. Some of íems gonna make a big difference somewhere. Here in the dog house, the energy of young folks working for a living combines and contrasts with all those personalities ebbing and flowing in and out of the place, hour after hour. Some folks stick around; others, short on time, run off with their food. One can usually land a table if one waits a few minutes. Che watches human behavior closely: "Michigan people donít sit together if they donít know each other. Out East ya just sit down and eat."

 

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