A lot of folks will probably compare the newly minted Slaw Dogs with the year-old Fab Dogs, the anointed champion of the Southern California hot dog scene. After all, they're both trying to kick an old American street-food classic up to the next level. But where Fab Dogs takes the cultural anthropologists' approach, meticulously re-creating New Jersey rippers and Coney Island dogs down to the last detail, the Slaw Dogs is the shock of the new.
Fab Dogs mostly expresses its seriousness with a reverence for tradition; Slaw Dogs subjects America's humblest food to the free play of the imagination. Where else can you get a chicken Caesar salad dog, with a snappy chicken sausage covered in crisp lettuce, Parmesan and croutons? Where else can you get a Oaxacan dog, with a thick layer of black mole and crumbled bits of tortilla chips for a bit of sharp textural contrast? Or a Thai slaw dog, with bits of cilantro and peanut for extra pizzazz?
This is hot dog as avant-garde art; this is the hot dog surreal. What else would you call Slaw's picnic dog, a hot dog topped with potato salad, two onion rings and a pickle spear, childishly arranged into an ever-so-slightly terrifying happy face?
But strangest and most wondrous of all: Almost all the dogs are fantastic. For Ray Byrne, owner, chef and mellow innovator is, deep down, a craftsman and a hungry guy. The incredible thing about these dogs is not how weird they are, but how many of them you see disappearing down the gullets of all the buzzing, happy customers.
"Every dog has to have a little crunch, a little gooey and a little tang," Byrne says. "That seems to be the magic formula." Whatever it is, he's got it, because for all their intellectual oddity, most of the dogs here are gut-punchingly delicious.
Byrne also has a handle on the classics. Which is why he also serves what is very likely the single best chili dog in Los Angeles.
The key is his chili. Most chilis you find in this town are either disgusting, nuclear-orange, rancid swamps of grease and gristle, or are nicely made but far too chunky to sit well on a dog. Byrne's chili is made with high-quality lean beef and subtle spicing but loses none of the essential sticky urgency of hot dog chili.
The very best way to enjoy his chili dog is to have the No. 1 — the Original. This has a slightly toasted bun (necessary for structural integrity, Byrne says), chili and fresh-made, crisp coleslaw. A single bite gives you a complexity of crispness, coolness, savoriness and, underneath it all, a profound, relentless tang.
The chili's tang comes from beer and time, Byrne says: "We keep a perpetual chili pot. There's just one pot, and we keep adding more meat, more beer, a little of this, a little of that. It just keeps getting more complex."
Like every innovator, for every wild success, there's sometimes a failure. The picnic dog, for all its good humor, is almost physically impossible to eat — the potato salad provides just a little too much lubrication, and the hot dog keeps jumping the bun. But then there's the chicken Caesar dog and the Thai slaw dog, both of which are so perfectly balanced and immediately satisfying that they may enter the lexicon of New Los Angeles Classics.
There are 10 different sausages, including Vienna beefs and spicy Calabreses, and an enormous menu of ingredients from which to customize your dog, including truffle oil, kimchi and house-made chipotle mayo. There are salad bowls, topped with sausage. "We just basically sat around with some beers for, like, 36 hours, and thought of every possible thing that would be fun to eat on a dog," Byrne says.
One sleepy afternoon, Byrne was happily pushing his newly invented kumquat chutney dog on customers. It turns out to be unexpectedly magical, the marmalade-like bitterness of the chutney playing against the spice of a Polish sausage. He's excited about the coming spring and summer because of all the specials. "I'm going to make fried green tomato dogs," Byrne says. "I'm gonna make everything."
Always check the specials board for his latest experiment. That's where the Oaxacan dog showed up, and that's where you'll find his market dog, improvised from fresh local produce. He wants the place to be a hangout for locals, a place where you can prod him for the day's new invention. "It's like having friends over for a dinner party every night," Byrne says.
THE SLAW DOGS:
720 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena, (626) 808-9777
Dogs, $3.50 to $8; salad bowls, $8; sides $3 to $5
Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday to Saturday. Soft drinks. Credit cards accepted. Street parking.