By Elana Schor - 04/19/07 07:28 PM EDT
At M’Dawg (pronounced “muh-dog”), the remedy for such skeptical attitudes toward five-star frankfurters is simple: Try one. And don’t be afraid to load up on toppings.
While M’Dawg’s fresh and local meats are pricier than your average jumbo slice of pizza, the spirit of its sister joint, the Amsterdam Falafel Shop, is alive and well inside. To the beat of hipster music, diners share tips on the tastiest kind of mustard (M’Dawg offers upwards of five varieties) and the merits of mixing it up.
I arrived at the joint a health-conscious New Yorker, with cravings for hot dogs and fries about twice a season, and left a converted aficionado of the “Chicago dog.” With Chicago dogs, as M’Dawg cofounder Scott Bennett discovered doing menu research, the dressing is as important as the beef and bun.
“A poppy bun, a pickle spear, tomato wedges as opposed to chopped tomatoes,” Bennett counseled. “I was flayed alive by a Chicago native for only having chopped tomatoes.”
Plus, diners can’t forget to add a tiny, fiery sport pepper and a dollop of sweet relish, colored a supernatural chartreuse. Bennett and his partners — his wife, Arianne, and the founder and chef at David Greggory restaurant, Greggory Hill — import the wild relish from the Windy City.
If Amsterdam Falafel is a slice of Europe on 18th St. NW, then M’Dawg is a mouthful of Americana right across the street. The walls are decked in wholesome yet vaguely ironic murals designed by G. Byron Peck, the homegrown D.C. street artist famous for his work around U Street and Dupont Circle.
The hot dogs are named for their regions of dominance, from Hebrew Nationals of New York City to Washington half-smokes to Italian sausage — both sweet and spicy. The half-smoke, cooked with incisions across the top to coax out its juices, and the plump Creole andouille sausage, pink with flecks of pepper, are standouts.
Once your dog is chosen and your bun selected, you’ll be asked about “Uptown.” For one dollar extra, the option lets you feast on unlimited toppings, including sweet corn relish, mushrooms in garlic butter and what appear to be eight types of cooked onions. Trust me: Get the Uptown.
“This isn’t chicken lips and ground-up parts,” Bennett, a former bartender at Cashion’s Eat Place and onetime political cartoonist, reminds his customers. “I will not serve schwag hot dogs.” Dinner for two at M’Dawg can cost up to $20, even if neither diner orders the Kobe beef hot dog that’s as much on its own, but the meal is a strip steak in disguise.
Even the crinkle-cut french fries, though they fall short of Amsterdam Falafel’s double-cooked and crispy greatness, come with upscale add-ons. Vegetarian chili with a piquant zip is plumped upon the potatoes, as well as melted cheese made not from a powder mix but hand-heated with paprika and spices.
M’Dawg has something for everyone, as long as customers know how to navigate the smorgasbord. First-time dog-eaters are inclined to dress their franks as they see fit, skipping the sauerkraut or adding gobs of ketchup as they did during childhood. But the best bang for your buck comes from experimentation.
If you’re enamored of Chicago dogs, switch gears and go for the garlic sausage. Spice addicts should give the dessert-esque cornmeal dog a shot. If you’re strictly vegetarian, well, there’s a vegan dog to nestle beneath all that chili.
The desserts are all baked in house, with the Rice Krispie treats outshining the muted flavor of the chocolate-chip cookies and ginger snaps. M’Dawg’s speed of service can be unpredictable during the daytime if you come expecting fast food. But the servers themselves are knowledgeable, welcoming and infinitely patient during weekend rush hour with half-drunk newcomers who squint at the menu and ask, “So what is a ‘ripper,’ anyway?”
Best of all for dog owners, M’Dawg takes its name seriously. Homemade doggie animal crackers and bone biscuits are organic, perfect for pet lovers still shaken up by the recent pet food recalls, and many of the transparent countertops are already crowded with photos of neighborhood mutts and purebreds.
Bennett and his staff are thrilled to add new dogs to the store’s lineup if customers bring in a photo of their pooch. The Bennetts’ own two Italian mastiffs, Saxon and Duce, are featured in the store’s canine pictorial.
M’Dawg’s friendly vibe and anti-fast-food aesthetic are welcome additions among the bars and shops of Adams Morgan, where crowds persist until the closing hour of 4 a.m. on weekends and 2:30 a.m. on most weekdays. Anyone expecting the same grilled meat they take guilty pleasure in at the ballpark or on the street corner is likely to walk away surprised, albeit pleasantly so.
So drop the salad, Washingtonians, and give in to a greasy, spicy, tasty dog.