Every Monday night, I play Sports Trivia with a friend of mine at the Royal Oak on Wellington. As the weather has improved, I’ve started making the trek on foot, from my downtown office to the Oak. Along the way, I make it a point to check out the various shops and restaurants that line each of our city’s neighborhoods; from the traditional Italian fare on Preston, to the mix of classy and shady through Chinatown, and eventually into the Hipster world of Westboro.
The first time I walked, I was taken aback to see that Suzy Q Donuts was no longer the run-down shack at 991 Wellington St W. My heart sank a little, fearing one of Ottawa’s finest bakeries had been lost forever. A frantic Google search quickly calmed my nerves – revealing that not only had they moved on to bigger and better spots (roughly 30 feet from where I was standing … not my finest observational moment), but in even BETTER news, the spot had been taken over by some of the original Hintonburger owners. They’d returned home, to their original location, hoping to make magic a second time by filling a market void. Enter Whassup Dog?
I know the idea of a hot dog “Market Void” seems logistically impossible in Ottawa. In a report generated by Stats Canada, you’re 46% more likely to be run over by a Poutine Truck than any other motorized vehicle. However, the grand majority of these chip wagons are lazy, relying solely on their poutine and putting minimal effort into the hot dogs and burgers they sling out. Whassup Dog?, on the other hand, is making the hot dog the celebrity, bringing in an array of cool culinary options that are influenced from some of the biggest markets in North America.
It goes without saying that within a couple of weeks of discovering this change, my wife and I dropped in for lunch the very first time we needed to venture into the West End.
The menu offers about a dozen offerings, ranging from the boring Whassup Dog (a steamed Lester’s hot dog, Montreal style), to more creative stylings like the Capital Ott-Dog (wrapped in a pita and served with all the usual shawarma toppings). These are priced as premium dogs, with the grand majority running you into the $7 range. They also offer poutine, with all the same names and offerings as their canine counterparts.
My wife, a poutine fanatic, went for the Canadeh Dog ($6.95), topped with cheese curds, fries, and gravy. I tackled the Sin-Cinnati Dog ($7.75), which came with chili, cheese, and onions. Given I am in the camp of people who loves the Cincinnati style of chili, I made sure to double check with the cashier that it was the traditional Greek style that people either passionately love or hate, with absolutely no in between on the matter. She assured me that yes, it was the regional kind with the chocolate and cinnamon flavors in the sauce. I set myself to cautious optimism, and waited for the food.
Roughly 5 minutes later, they arrived. The cheese wasn’t the wire-thin toppings you’d get at a traditional Cincinnati eatery, but the standard grated cheese you’d find locally. I was delightfully surprised to get all the flavors I was looking for in the chili itself, bringing back immediate fantastic memories of eating the stuff piled high on spaghetti. My wife gave me a bit of hers, and it tasted like your typical Ottawa poutine.
The dogs themselves were a little on the bland side – hurting for the salty meaty flavor you’d expect. Because they’d been over-steamed, the bite went through easily, but without any kind of snap you’d come to expect with a really top quality dog. As a result, you’re left with a neutral meat base, and the toppings are left as the star of the dish, as opposed to an accentuation.
Steamed hot dogs, or “Steamies”, were originally popularized in Montreal diners as a means of fast food for the locals who were in a hurry. Street food was banned until only a couple of years ago, so it was necessary to have meals available for people on the run. The steaming process allows for the meat to remain moist for a long period of time – but the downside is that it softens the casing, and eliminates so much of the awesome flavor that makes the hot dog one of the world’s most popular vendor foods. I’ve never been a big fan of the steamed dog, preferring the flavor of the grill and letting the meat stand on its own.
As a result, I was neither satisfied nor unsatisfied. While my hot dog expectations fell short, they blew me away on the toppings – and have left me wondering if I should have ordered a poutine with that wonderful Mediterranean spiced chili and cheese on top. The meal set us back $20 between the dogs and drinks, leaning on the higher end of the price chain for this type of food, but par for the course in Westboro.