Capitol Hill's new upscale hot doggery Po Dog is a study in contrasts. First and foremost is the contrast Po Dog's banking on: hot dogs—the lowliest of foods, typically relegated to street vendors and concession stands—gussied up and served in a room artfully designed by Pb Elemental. The highbrow/lowbrow theme continues with Po Dog's location: The slender box of gentrification is tucked into a rough stretch of Union Street, flanked by an abandoned auto battery retailer and a functioning German auto repair shop. Po Dog's not the only dedicated hot-dog joint in town—Georgetown has Matt's Gourmet Hot Dogs, the U-District has Taste of Chicago, and Wallingford's got Diggity Dog. But Po Dog's definitely the swankiest, with comparable meals at competitors costing about half of what you'd pay at Po Dog. Now that Seattle's in on the national fancified- hot-dog trend, the question remains: Is it worth it?
The space is straight-up gorgeous. One wall wears black-and-white wallpaper bearing an elegant gun motif; another is exposed cinder block rigged with a vast, room-expanding mirror. Above hovers a rough wood ceiling, while the back wall glows with a huge four-color print of a pug's face. In a pub scene long dominated by Mexi-Western hunting-lodge kitsch, Po Dog's maximalist minimalism is a breath of fresh air.
Food is ordered at the front counter and delivered to the brightly lit dining area, where diners have a choice of stylish blond wood tables with benches or two-person booths. I tried the Veggie Dog ($6.35) first. The name's misleading—all of Po Dog's menu options can be executed with either a beef or Field Roast wiener—and the Veggie is either kind of dog loaded with finely chopped tomato, cucumber, onion, and jalapeño, almost in equal measure. A makeshift four-star pico de gallo is created, one that threatens to obliterate everything else on the plate, but once I scraped the top half-inch off the pile, things were dandy (and still impressively spicy).
But the most thrilling component of any Po Dog dog is the bun. Everyone who eats there leaves raving about them. Straight out of Macrina Bakery, these brioche cradles are the best thing to happen to hot dogs since FDA regulation. They're unobtrusive but hearty—minor miracles that are split down the middle, then grilled flat until lightly crisp on the bottom, creating a luxurious home for a hot dog and a small avalanche of condiments. If the Stranger Genius Awards had a Chow category, the inventor of the Macrina hot-dog bun would win it.
A special bun deserves a special dog. The vegetarian wieners are indeed worthy—not thin, bland tofu-pup approximations but big, flavorful Field Roast sausages, which stand up to Po Dog's most ambitious adornment. The Texas Dog ($6.95) comes with mesquite barbecue sauce, Tillamook cheddar, and ridiculously indulgent "crispy onion straws," adding up to something almost garishly delicious. But even the seemingly simple Classic Dog ($4.97) is handled with care. Ordered with onions ("Sautéed or raw?"—thanks for asking), sauerkraut ("Hot or cold?"—ditto), and spicy brown mustard, it is my veggie-dog ideal, thanks to the subtle, super-thin sauerkraut and peerless bun. Also excellent: Po Dog's french fries ($2.50, and easily enough for two), which are as thin and delicious as McDonald's fries with quadruple the delicious condiments (including chipotle ketchup and wasabi aioli).
However, Po Dog's beef wiener ($4.97 with relish and onions) was a just regular pink dog, identified by the cashier/waiter as a Hebrew National. There's nothing wrong with celebrating the basics, but such a pedestrian choice seems out of step with both Po Dog's buns and price point. That said, my carnivorous taste-tester enjoyed most everything he ordered, especially the Morning Glory Dog ($6.85), a breakfasty item involving scrambled eggs, pepper bacon, and Tillamook cheddar cheese, which he said could only be improved by "being drenched in either salsa or maple syrup." Not quite as successful: the Deep Fried Danger Dog ($6.75), a complicated concoction involving the kosher frank wrapped in pepper bacon (is that legal?) and deep-fried, served with sautéed onions and way too much chili sauce, which ended up overpowering everything else. (It takes a lot of chili to overpower something wrapped in bacon and deep-fried.)
Further complicating such complicated menu items are Po Dog's paper boats and plastic utensils. Never mind that only the very barest of Po Dog's offerings qualify as portable (none of the six dogs we ordered could be picked up), or that such a concession-stand serving style aggressively detracts from the vibe Po Dog's working so hard to create. Without a doubt, the most distressing thing about Po Dog's pricey dogs is being made to hack away at them, in all their condiment- festooned glory, with a plastic fork, with only a plastic cup of draft beer to dilute the aggravation. (Bottled beer is also available, and recommended.) This food in this room at these prices demands better-than-picnic presentation. With a proper plate and a metal fork, Po Dog would be just about perfect.