By Zachary Fagenson
By Bill Citara
By Laine Doss
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By Carina Ost
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By Hannah Sentenac
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Our life is frittered away by detail ... simplify, simplify,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden. But that was more than 150 years ago, a time when life’s big basics could be altered by an individual, rather than being bureaucratically locked on a course way beyond our control. These days, when it comes to details, less is not more. While the fine points may provide the icing on the cake, they also dictate how one experiences the good things in life; it’s a given that the essentials must be right, but it’s the small stuff that makes the difference between dependable goodness and delight. At Dawg House Grill, small stuff is the specialty, namely minisandwiches — shrimp, grilled chicken, and burgers — served two per order at miniprices. And as the name suggests, minifrankfurters are also served. But this joint is no hot-dog stand. It’s a gourmet fast-food resto/lounge, a concept that couldn’t be more Miami (though plans to franchise nationally are in the works).
Of course the South Beach setting — an outdoor patio at the Art Deco Tudor Hotel — can’t be franchised, which is unfortunate because it’s a pleasant place to hang, especially the sleek, circular bar area at the palm-planted eastern end. But the restaurant’s real charm stems from an idea that can readily travel: festive food and a killer drink menu. And while the Dawg House concept of producing fast food that’s housemade from fresh ingredients is borrowed from fast-casual restaurants, it’s the little things at Dawg’s that make its snacks so uniquely appealing. Consider the franks for instance. All-beef dogs made especially for Dawg House, they’re not at all spicy, but supersavory nonetheless, with a juiciness that results only from major meat, minimal filler. They also have natural casing, meaning great pop when teeth break the skin — a quality so rare that it’s almost a detail by default. The real particulars begin with the rolls: soft yet satisfyingly chewy minihoagie rolls instead of the normal cottony packaged crapola. Then there are the toppings: your choice of mustard (yellow or brown), relish green enough to bring tears to the eyes of Chicago dog lovers, crisp sauerkraut, homemade pushcart onions that also (unlike the jarred kind) retain considerable crunch, raw onions, cheese, tart coleslaw, mild chili (actually too mild for my taste). The best way to go? All the way, with everything. Less is less.
The same superior rolls also feature four to five chunks of breaded fried shrimp with lettuce and tomato. Described on the menu as “world famous” since the restaurant’s inception, these minisandwiches justify Dawg’s premature chutzpah, owing to another delicious detail: In place of mayo or tartar sauce is homemade aioli. Although not garlicky enough to be traditional aioli, its strong citrus jolt counters the fried breading better.
Dawg House also offers normal-size food, like shoestring fries. The basics: Cut fresh from real potatoes and fried until soft inside, they’re crisp and nearly greaseless outside — as all fries should be but seldom are. The details: They’re served in a metal frame containing a paper cone that elegantly eliminates any further greasy residue. They also come with a variety of sauces, ranging from regular ketchup to housemade treats, including aioli and a spicy-sweet coconut chili.
Or take the onion rings — as long as you don’t try to take any of mine. Okay, that was a little harsh, considering one $3 serving is large enough for two or three people. But in these times, when alleged onion rings are usually more puffed-up batter than onion, Dawg’s lightly coated, perfectly fried and seasoned specimens tend to set off a real ring-freak’s greed alarm. And the mound is accompanied by the same variety of seductive homemade dips as the fries — though not, alas, on a take-out order, which, despite a 10-cent per item packing charge, is unadorned. Some of the other details at Dawg House have yet to be fine-tuned. During two separate visits, the “fast food” took more than 25 minutes to arrive. Twice also, dogs ordered with cheese were served without. On one occasion the shrimp sandwich’s shellfish were perfectly cooked; on another they were overcooked and dry. An Asian chicken noodle salad (with onion, snow peas, cilantro, cabbage, and cashews) that sounded terrific turned up sodden, smothered with a heavy albeit tasty sesame dressing and sporting limp iceberg lettuce. And servers failed to mention several new items not yet printed on the menu, including chicken wings prepared three ways (Buffalo, Asian, and honey mustard).
Still, it’s hard to be irritated by small lapses when prices are so inexpensive in comparison to South Beach norms. Dogs are two for $3.75, and no food or drink item exceeds $8, except for some reasonably priced bottles of champagne — Marlene Dietrich’s favorite quaff with hot dogs. Indulge. More is more.