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Dining Out

These dogs are no mutts

Excessively dressed up, tasting of foreign influences, single or double, with sides or not, the hot dog reflects simplicity and economy when you eat out in a stubborn economy

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By Devra First
Globe Staff / June 9, 2010

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If it's possible to read the national mood in a single dish, right now that dish is the hot dog. An American classic, the frank is a simple pleasure: a stick of fatty, juicy meat free of pesky bones; a light, fluffy bun; as uncomplicated as a summer afternoon. Which is the perfect time to eat one, at a cookout, on a back lawn where adorable children gambol, at an amusement park. That summer feeling, that simple feeling, is more appealing than ever. Our economy is attempting to recover, and we along with it. Brighter times are ahead. (Or are they?)

If belts are still tight, we don’t want to forgo luxury or excess. These are also American classics. The hot dog is an inexpensive vehicle for our desires. We can top it with whatever we want. We can riff on it whimsically, load it up ironically with rich extras, turn it into a cross-cultural experience.

And so the simple hot dog has taken on new life. Restaurants and hot dog stands around town are serving Kobe beef versions, hot dogs wrapped in bacon for double decadence, hot dogs with their own cute names: the Stairway to Heaven, the Marie Antoinette.

They’re offering them combined with the spicy, complex, and increasingly popular flavors of Korea and Vietnam, as well as the standard chili, corn batter, and relish.

They’re serving them alongside craft cocktails, on the same menus with dishes that have longstanding legitimacy in restaurants: the kind of food you go out for, the kind of food you don’t grill yourself in your backyard with one hand while drinking a Bud. You’ll pay more for the pleasure, but less than you would if you ordered the Kobe steak.

Should you buy it? Some might say this elevation of the hot dog means the lowering of diners’ standards. Some might say that’s reading too much into it. Food can be a barometer, but sometimes a hot dog is just a hot dog. A simple pleasure, no matter how you top it.

Here are some places to sample dogs, purebred and mixed up every which way.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

TRINA’S STARLITE LOUNGE

3 Beacon St., Somerville. 617-576-0006. www.trinastarlitelounge.com. $3-$7.

At this hipster restaurant and bar, hot dogs are a focus of the menu. They’re available griddled, as corn dogs, and topped with chili and cheese. But where chef Suzi Maitland really gets creative is the ever-changing Dog of the Day. (Where have you ever seen “hot dog’’ on the menu beside the words “market price’’ before?)

This could be a Banh Mi Dog, dressed up like the Vietnamese sandwich (and for about twice the price). It features a hot dog braised in ponzu, topped with cucumber and carrot salad and pickled onions. If it tastes strangely familiar, it’s because Trina’s uses Kayem dogs, the ones you find at Fenway.

Other Dogs of the Day include the Police Dog (a hot dog wrapped in bacon with a corn bread doughnut and coffee aioli), the Eggroll Dog (with cabbage, onion, carrots, mung beans, pear duck sauce, and spicy mustard), the Campfire Dog (griddled, with baked beans and a S’more), and the Fried Pickle Dog (with melted cheese, ranch dressing, and fried pickles).

Enjoy them with a cocktail like the INMANhattan (rye, vermouth, and orange bitters) or a bucket of High Life ponies and a healthy side of irony.

MET BAR & GRILL

400 Legacy Place, Dedham. 781-467-1234. 1245 Worcester St., Natick. 508-651-0003. www.metbarandgrill.com. $13.

Does size matter? The Met Bar & Grill says yes. These restaurants, in Dedham and Natick, bring you Carl’s XL Kobe Bacon Dog. (It’s named for owner Kathy Trustman’s husband.)

It is indeed extra large. One night, four people share it and wind up full. (It does come with fries.) The Kobe beef hot dog is wrapped in bacon, deep fried, and served with cheddar, onion, and mustard on a bun that purports to be brioche but is something much more cottony.

It’s a salty dog as well as a big one. When you order something called an XL Kobe bacon dog, you’re not worrying about sodium, fat, or calories. But if you consume this monster solo, you’ve got a death wish.

HIPPY THE DOG

Cleveland Circle (Beacon Street and Chestnut Hill Avenue), Brighton. 508-875-6110. www.hippythedog.com. $3.50-$4.50 (or create your own for 50 cents a topping).

It should be a VW bus. The big white truck parked beside a field in Cleveland Circle sells grooviness along with its hot dogs. Staffers wear tie-dyes, the dogs are named after classic rock songs, and they’re topped with Peace Sauce (a.k.a. sweet barbecue), Love Sauce (spicy mustard), or Hippyness Sauce (hot barbecue).

The “Stairway to Heaven’’ Dog comes with chili, cheese sauce, coleslaw, and Peace Sauce. The “Light My Fire’’ Dog features salsa, cheese sauce, guacamole, jalapenos, and Hippyness Sauce. Or you can customize — an option called (naturally) “It’s Your Thing, Do What You Want to Do.’’

The dogs are big and beefy, the sauces are well made, and the combinations are awesome in a way that pushes you to the verge of queasiness. Maybe it’s the cheese sauce. They’re just the sort of thing you’d want to eat wearing a tie-dye and driving around in a VW bus. Or a big white truck.

POPO’S OLDE FASHIONED GOURMET HOT DOGS

6 Rogers St., Gloucester. 617-461-4127. www.poposhotdogs.com. $4.25.

Ah, ye olde hot dog. Popo’s full name is as quirky as the place. It’s a little storefront in Gloucester, almost charmingly on the water, but actually across the road in a mini strip mall. Painted in turquoise and yellow with nautical accents, it offers more than a dozen hot dog creations, as well as crepes and ice cream. A handwritten sign affixed to the counter may inform you that they also have lobster rolls and sausages. (The lobster rolls are simple, excellent, and a bargain, if you’re dog tired.)

Perhaps you’d like a Boston Dog, with baked beans, sauteed onions, and bacon bits. Or an Italian Dog, with mozzarella and sundried tomatoes. Or a Thai Dog, with “Popo’s secret peanut sauce’’ and caramelized onions. That secret sauce tastes a lot like one you might pour out of a jar, and I’m not entirely convinced it works on a hot dog. But it’s an interesting idea, and you won’t find it anywhere else.

GARGOYLES ON THE SQUARE

219 Elm St., Somerville. 617-776-5300. www.gargoylesrestaurant.com. $10.

Chef Jason Santos’s usual M.O. is to blend comfort food, Asian influences, and a touch of molecular gastronomy. Think grilled oysters with soy-pineapple butter, yuzu kosho, ginger salsa, and mushroom soy suds. Or a dish called Concentration on Bacon: “aerated brioche, egg salad, bacon jam, bacon powder.’’

But his bar menu at the Davis Square restaurant Gargoyles hews mainly to the comfort food part of the equation, with waffle fries, barbecued duck wings with glass noodles, and, of course, hot dogs. Two franks made from American Kobe beef (a cross between Japanese Wagyu and American Black Angus) are topped with chili, cheese, onions, and “cheap yellow mustard,’’ as the menu describes it. Then, tableside, a server dumps a bag of Fritos on top — the reverse flourish of a waiter’s removing a domed dish to reveal something highfalutin at a fancy restaurant.

It’s a funny joke, with an edge. This dish is slumming it, hiding good beef under a blanket of chips and chili and cheese, proclaiming the cut-rate quality of its condiments. Order it, enjoy it, but remember that cheap mustard is only amusing when it’s a choice.

MIKE & PATTY’S

12 Church St., Boston. 617-423-3447. www.mikeandpattys.com. $3-$8.

Many riffs on hot dogs seem like gimmicks, more about concept than taste. At Mike & Patty’s, taste is the driving force. This charming little breakfast-and-lunch place in Bay Village uses a German-style frank that’s a blend of pork and beef. More notable, it’s a manageable size. It’s not here to make you say “whoa!’’ It’s here to be eaten.

Hot dogs come straight up; with barbecue sauce, slaw, and pickles; or with chili. Then there are creations like the Croque Monsieur Dog — two franks served on pain de mie with kraut, Gruyere, and Dijon creme fraiche. Seoul food meets soul food in a Kimchi Dog with scallions, sesame seeds, chili mayo, and a sauce of miso and gochujang. And a Reuben Dog with sauerkraut, melted cheese, and Russian dressing might be tastier than the sandwich that inspired it.