I've never been a big fan of hot dogs. I don't like the way the fumes fill my mouth when I bite in. I am disturbed by the processed mystery meat, by the stories of ingredients that shouldn't be food. When it was suggested that I do a story about Anchorage's dog carts I jumped at the chance to face down these demons. I thought I might learn something. Over the weeks leading up to this story I psyched myself out more than a few times.
When we finally made it out the door my dining partner and I headed east on Fourth Avenue. As we passed H Street our pace slowed. I spotted the first umbrella sitting above a dog cart and felt a bit of pre-consumption heartburn. A horde of Tuesday night runners came at us. We were momentarily surrounded by flashes of bright colors and swishing synthetic fabrics. Moving against the tide, it seemed that they were running away from the barbeques and smell of grilling meat. As suddenly as they appeared, they were gone. We had passed through the threshold and we were on hot dog block.
Looking around I expected to find ketchup splatters and piles of crumpled foil, but the area around the carts was clean. I didn't even see a wayward napkin. We jaywalked across Fourth and found ourselves in front of Tia's.
It was raining and I was thrown off because Tia's offered gyros in addition to dogs. There was nobody waiting to order. I made a comment about there being a lot of dog carts to choose from. The graying man behind the cart answered "because the city is stupid." When we asked for their most popular dog, he made a noise to let me know that was a stupid question and asked "mild or spicy?" My dining partner said spicy and the man set a reindeer sausage on the grill ($6). "Are you Tia?" I asked jokingly. He stopped working and looked at me. "Tia is a female name," he said. I started to backtrack but gave up and instead asked if Tia's bought their meat from Alaska Sausage Company like many of the others. "If I told you, I'd have to kill you," he said.
He told us that the gyros are what make his cart special and the meat is made only for them. I asked for specifics. "If I told you that I'd have to kill you, and everyone else you tell," he said. I ordered the Alaskan Gyro ($6.75), advertised as a mixture of elk and reindeer. The gyro meat is cooked in a pan. When the time came for toppings, he offered (and we accepted) onions caramelized in Coca-Cola for the dog. The man gave us the choice of spicy or regular sauce for the gyro. I asked what kind of spice and he gave me that noise again so I sought to clarify: "Like Asian spice?" "Do I look Asian?" he asked. I shook my head and began to rephrase. He interrupted, "it is for Americans spice." When I asked if he made the pita himself he just laughed. I took the spicy sauce and we walked away from the cart quickly.
By this time the rain was falling harder. We huddled under an awning alongside the Egan center. Nearby a group of young men smoked cigarettes. Our meal was undignified and there was nothing we could do about it. The dog was grilled split in half along the long edge. The meat was dry and while it wasn't all that spicy, spice was the only flavor. The gyro was served with raw onion slices and tomato on a warm pita. The sauce tasted nothing like tzatziki. It was mildly spicy and may have had a cream cheese base. The meat tasted like the normal lamb and beef mix but leaner and less flavorful.
The next cart we stopped at was Downtown Dawgs on the corner of Fourth and G. There was a man and a woman working and neither wanted to chat. The woman eyed me suspiciously after my second question. She told us that it is their fourth year selling dogs and that their most popular is also the reindeer ($6). What makes Downtown Dawgs different is that they offer their buns steamed or toasted. The other vendors on the street mainly just do steamed. Their dogs are supplied by Alaska Sausage Company. We adorned the dog with barbeque sauce and spicy mustard. The meat was juicier than the one from Tia's and the skin seemed less tough. The taste was a little smoky. This cart has a punch card for frequent visitors. They told us they get "lots of local customers."
M.A.'s Gourmet Dogs
Heading east next you find M.A.'s, the oldest of the stalls with close to 20 years selling hot dogs to tourists. The cart is bigger, sprawling toward the entrance of the Visitor's Center with a folding table. We opted for M.A.'s Italian dog ($6), purportedly made only for M.A. by Alaska Sausage Company. There are signs projecting a grumpiness equal to the man at Tia's ("Don't worry I'm accustomed to dumb questions," one read) but the shtick went unrealized. In answer to my question about what makes their stand special I was told, "You're going to find out." M.A. assumed we were splitting the dog so he thoughtfully cut it in half for us. I added M.A.'s sweet and spicy sauce to my half. The bun was steamed soft. The dog looked orange and herby but had no strong flavors. The sausage skin was difficult to get through. When I bit into it the meat pinched out and the skin stayed dangling from the bun. I was left wondering about how to interpret all this as special.
Alaska Reindeer Sausages
Across the street halfway down the block we encountered our first friendly vendor. Behind her, in Peratrovich Park, musicians perform on a small stage three times a week. She told us the carts are all pretty much all the same. Like many of the others, this cart serves meat from Alaska Sausage Company. Alaska Reindeer Sausages is special because it has been family-run for 10 years. Their onions are cut thicker than the other carts and their deal of adding soda and chips to your dog is $7.50, 25 cents cheaper than elsewhere. We bought a meal with their most popular dog ($6 without meal). The reindeer was mild, juicy, and pretty much the same as everywhere else: the bun was steamed and the onions were lightly sweet from their cola glaze. The house sauce is a spicy mustard-based sauce with paprika, the woman told us. It was orange with speckles of red and tasted like it was made with honey mustard.
Alaska Reindeer Hot Dogs
The last area cart we ate at also lacked a clear name. This vendor was pleasant and eager to talk. He told us the specials on the menu are what make this cart different. The kimchi dog ($7) is a great choice, he said, so we ordered one. The cart's owner is Korean and makes his own kimchi. He also runs Arctic Sushi. The kimchi dog was supposed to come with a beef sausage but somewhere between receiving our order and putting the meat on the grill the vendor's autopilot kicked in. We ended up with a reindeer dog instead. While we waited he told us that it is the cart's second year. The vendors bid on their spots, he explained. In the past it has been year to year but the city changed it so that vendors can secure their rent contracts for three-year periods of time. This spot is more than $2,000 a month, he said. When I asked about profit he laughed and said, "people love the reindeer dogs."
The kimchi was lightly spicy. At the vendor's suggestion we added grilled onions and cream cheese. We also added sriracha sauce. The spice, along with the sour, crunchy, cabbage and cool cream cheese, complimented the smoky, juicy dog.
International House of Hotdogs (IHOH)
The IHOH wagon is not a cart on Fourth. It is a trailer that sits wedged into place with concrete blocks in an unpaved corner of a lot at Northern Lights and Eagle. IHOH is a different kind of hot dog experience, included in this story as a comparison, to see how the tourist carts stack up against Anchorage's year round hot doggery. When we arrived at 10:45 on Saturday morning there was a young man pulling tarps off a set of picnic tables. He scurried around and into the trailer as we approached the counter. A truck driver waited in front of us. IHOH will have been open two years in October and serves Indian Valley Meats products. The vendor was friendly and thanked us more than once for visiting. "So this is the place to get hot dogs during the winter?" I asked. "And the summer. You'll see," he said with a smile.
We order the Alaskan Breeze ($7), cilantro fries ($4.50), and a Mexican Dog ($6.50). After a few minutes the vendor called us back to the window and apologized for being out of cilantro. He also informed us that if we made it a meal with a drink our order would be a dollar cheaper. Moments later we were sipping mango juice from a can.
The buns were soft and felt steamed but there were grill marks as though they'd also been toasted. The Alaskan Breeze was topped with massive amounts of processed mango salsa, grilled onions, some sort of mayonnaise, and bits of canned pineapple. Underneath was a reindeer dog. The Mexican came with a beef dog wrapped in bacon. The bacon was not crispy. It added a slight smoky flavor but pico de gallo salsa, grilled onions, and chipotle sauce drowned out most of the other tastes. At the recommendation of the vendor, we added cheese and jalapenos (for free). The hot dogs seemed a little irrelevant under the copious amounts of toppings. They were very messy and one dog would have been enough for two people. After eating a few bites, the buns fell apart. The fries were crinkle cut and came covered in sea salt. After consuming so many hot dogs, these potatoes seemed to be the best part of the meal.
The IHOH dogs were more carefully made and thought out than the dogs available downtown. With the reindeer dogs, I'm still not sure if I can taste the reindeer meat. It doesn't taste gamey to me but maybe that's just because it is too lean to use on its own. While some vendors wouldn't reveal their meat sources, they seem to all come from two companies, Alaska Sausage and Seafood and Indian Valley Meats. On the Alaska Sausage Company's website, pork, beef and a few other ingredients are listed before reindeer meat. Both companies sell their products fully cooked. Most of the carts offer steamed buns and onions caramelized in cola. All of the vendors except M.A.'s and the Reindeer Hot Dogs accept payment with credit cards. I learned that the sauces were one of the only elements that differ from cart to cart and that, when it comes to the downtown carts, the dogs are pretty much all made equally. I also learned that there are adults who find it acceptable to answer questions with death threats. If I have to go back, I'll visit the carts that encourage friendliness.
4th Avenue between G and E
Open May - September
From around 10am to 7pm
Monday - Saturday
407 E Northern Lights Blvd.
Monday - Friday 6:30am-7pm