I think of Memorial Day as the unofficial start to outdoor grilling season. Yes, with Austin’s weather, you can grill outside just about any time of year, but this is when it gets serious. Smoke fills the air over parks and backyards across the city. The smell of cooking meat (and veggies) wafts through the twilight.
Burgers and hot dogs are the primary contenders for grill space among us everyman cooks. For the record, I take my dogs on a toasted white bun with mustard, diced onions, dill relish and a shower of melting cheddar.
In honor of one of my favorite dishes, I decided to visit a few Austin restaurants that put a spin on the classic. We’re not talking the simple franks you might find at the ballpark or poolside at your buddy’s apartment complex. This is a mix of handcrafted artisan sausages, pretzel buns from local bakers and bacon-wrapped cholesterol jackers. Forget mayo — this is aioli and creamy miso slaw territory.
*My favorite dogs, the ones I’d order again, are marked with an asterisk.
Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden
79 Rainey St. 512-386-1656, bangersaustin.com
The restaurant echoes the vibe of old Texas biergartens, with a massive open-air courtyard featuring long communal tables for imbibing, eating and socializing. It completes the retro look with faux finishes that replicate a barn and stables.
Banger’s leans on its namesake for most of the food offerings and updates the humble link with thoughtful flavor profiles. There are more than 20 sausage varieties served at Banger’s, with more than a dozen served as dogs in buns. I’m not sure a place where beer gets so much attention (100-plus taps) needs this many varieties of sausage. Tightening the food menu might lead to better execution.
What we ate:
Drunk chicken ($8): All of the dogs we ordered but one came on a sweet, puffy, kolache-style bun that was too big for the sausage, throwing the bread-to-meat ratio out of whack. And an overload of aioli added to the frustration, marring an otherwise satisfying beer-soaked chicken sausage piqued with peppers and cooled with cilantro.
Duck, bacon and fig ($9): Figs served as a nice (if overly abundant) sweet balance to the duck in a dog that tasted like an encased entree.
*Jalapeno cheddar bratwurst ($9): Strips of poblanos with impressive sting draped the hot, fragrant link that spewed gooey cheddar.
South Texas antelope and venison merguez ($9): A sturdy pumpernickel bun matched nicely with aromatic cloves and cinnamon in a plump, gamey sausage drizzled in curry ketchup that was more sweet than spice.
Spicy Italian ($8): Like several of the half-dozen we tried, the Italian didn’t arrive hot enough and the casing didn’t snap so much as tore away. The vegetal zip of red peppers, aromatic fennel in the sausage and sweetness of caramelized onions were all drowned in piquant whole grain mustard.
*Veggie BLT ($8): Who would have imagined that the best sausage at this restaurant would be a vegetarian link? Sun-dried tomatoes gave sweet, rounded flavor to this crispy link topped with the crunch and earth of fried shiitake mushroom “bacon” and dressed with fire-engine-red tomato and bright greens fit for a garden salad.
709 E. Sixth St. 512-614-4972, easytigeraustin.com
Bakery, whiskey lair, beer garden, subterranean lunch spot, pingpong parlor, sausage house … Easy Tiger is many things to many people.
This East Sixth Street restaurant that opened in January 2012 has a (literal) built-in advantage when it comes to dogs. The bakery connected to the restaurant produces glossy and salty pretzel buns that you can pair with any sausage for an extra buck.
What we ate:
*Cajun Chicken ($8): Paprika and red bell peppers put a piquant buzz in this fat, juicy sausage. The tang of housemade chow chow relish is tempered by a smooth salve of cream cheese, a smart condiment choice on this dog that keeps things simple.
Garlic sausage: This one was advertised with a smoked bourbon jam. That got my attention. So did the fact that it arrived without said accouterment. That left a beef link zig-zagged with spicy mustard. It also meant more room for the beef to express itself. The flavor was that familiar funk of a dry-aged steak with a slight garlic buzz. I assume that was the intention? But as my buddy said, “I don’t mind the taste of feet, but there better be a foot involved.”
*Vegetarian ($8): It had the texture of a shriveled Slim Jim, but I still liked the veggie-burger flavor of this thin link — all beets, lentils and enough seeds to start a hippie cafe — buried beneath a tangle of slippery peppers.
407 Colorado St. 512-494-6916, hotdogscoldbeer.com
I’m sure some people wondered how a sit-down restaurant specializing in hot dogs would work when this large restaurant opened in the former Starlite space in 2009. Quite well, as it turns out.
Frank pulls off being a bar and a restaurant at the same time, not just a bar that also serves food. The Frank team develops the recipes for these sausages that are made by Hudson Meat Market in South Austin. They come served on a toasty split-top bun designed by Frank and baked by Slow Dough Bread Co. in Houston. Tawny and rounded at the crust, the buns are like toasty slices of white bread folded in half, and they deliver a great bread-to-meat ratio.
What we ate:
Creole Gator ($5.25): Swampy. A little too swampy. This smoked alligator dog topped with Tony Cachere-seasoned popcorn crawfish and slaw and slathered with Creole remoulade is a transportive airboat ride through southern Louisiana.
*Notorious P.I.G. ($9.50): Some of the food at Frank squarely lands in the category of “stoner food.” Exhibit A: A creamy swirl of firm mac and cheese and sweet barbecue sauce on this robust piggy mash-up of smoked pork and bacon.
*The Straya ($13): Lean and gamey smoked kangaroo meat gets a tart, tannic kick from blueberry-habanero-espresso barbecue sauce in a bun that balances creamy and crunchy with honey cream cheese and crushed Zapp’s Voodoo chips humming with Creole spices. One of the two best dogs I ate during my recent research. What’s with the name? Imagine the phonetic spelling of the way Aussies pronounce their homeland.
1701 E. Cesar Chavez St. missionhotdogs.com
This is a food “trailer”-to-restaurant success story I can get behind. Mission Dogs actually started as food cart about three years ago, sobering up the wobbly masses with bacon-wrapped hot dogs. They opened this restaurant in January in a small, oddly constructed space in East Austin that has been home to several failed food ventures. Let’s hope this one lasts — and that they consider buns with a bit more heft to match the mess of these dogs.
What we ate:
*Dogijuku ($5.75): A bacon-wrapped dog that piles on the flavors of a sushi roll. Sounds ridiculous. Tastes delicious. Nori for salt, teriyaki glaze for sweetness, wasabi mayonnaise for smooth heat, pickled ginger and cucumber slaw for refreshing crunch … there’s a lot going on here. And it all works. One of two best dogs I ate during my recent research.
*Vietdog ($5.75): Take the crunch and fresh flavors of the Vietnamese banh mi (here a cucumber, carrot, jalapeno and cilantro slaw) and drape it with the pungent punch of garlic chili sauce and Thai-inspired Sriracha mayo and you get this dog that sings with a harmony of Southeast Asian flavors.