Restaurant Reviews

Gone To the Dogs

Just because something is fast food doesn't mean it has to be bad food. What's invariably bad is food that has no individuality, no regional identity, no pride behind it -- in other words, when it's safe, standardized food that aims for the bottom line. In fact even chain-restaurant food can be tasty when it's fresh and speaks to local tastes, Pollo Tropical being an example. So when some South Beach street hawkers handed me a menu for Borja's Grill, I got pretty excited by three phrases: "good fast food," "made to order," and above all, "Chicago Style Hot Dog."

I adore a good Chicago hot dog, good being a term that does not include those industrialized dogs sold at airport kiosks and which we addicts always buy on our way out of town anyway. Unfortunately good also does not include Borja's allegedly Chicago-style dogs. And sadly the main problem doesn't seem to be lack of the proper ingredients, but rather a lack of the care that takes a neighborhood eatery from fast food to fascinating.

A more accurate term would be irritating. On a first visit, no one was behind the counter or even within earshot. After a ten-minute wait, it finally became clear that the leaflet hawkers, who were out front chatting with friends, were also the cooks. They reluctantly came inside to assemble the worst Chicago hot dog I've ever experienced.

For the uninitiated: There can be variables with this kind of dog, but some things are nonnegotiable. Because this "salad on a bun" has lavish garnishes, it must come in a properly supportive, high-gluten poppy-seed roll. It didn't. The wiener should ideally be a made-only-in-Chicago Vienna beef, something I'm willing to stretch to include any snappy, predominantly paprika-spiced tube steak, but not to include Borja's big, bland frozen frank (that arrived still frigid in the center).

Of the many required condiments, yellow mustard was present, as were tomato wedges and a pickle spear, but the latter wasn't the kosher dill that traditionally accompanies this immigrant-influenced frank. There was no bright-green sweet/sour relish (Czech). There were no hot sport peppers (Italian). There were raw onions (Greek) only because I noticed some rings behind the counter and asked to have some diced and put on the dog. I also had to hand the celery salt on the counter to the cook, who appeared stunned by this ingredient. All she'd have had to do was read Borja's own menu to know what garnishes to apply.

And what not to apply. A Chicago hot dog never, never, never takes ketchup. Never. Borja's overpriced monstrosity (five dollars -- twice what a proper dog costs in Chicago) was drenched in it before I could protest.

At least the Colombian-style hot dog (also five dollars) was actually cooked. But this was the result of oven roasting after the dog had been garnished, which caused the classic pink sauce to melt, turning the frank's potato topping from crunchy crushed chips to soggy sawdust. The normal hardboiled-egg chunks were absent, as was queso fresco. Most annoying, pineapple sauce, listed as optional (probably as a concession to North American tastes, though it's what makes a perro most unique), wasn't available. Pointless applications of mustard, plus the same ketchup that ruined the Chicago dog, also obliterated the pink sauce's taste.

Of other items tried, fried chicken wings ($5.99) were edible. Chicken pinchos had tasty grilled peppers, onions, and zucchini, but the skinless chicken was grilled dry. And a Borja's sandwich -- supposedly with choice of bread but actually served on a good niçoise pan bagnat-style round bun -- would have been a tasty mix of salami, turkey, roast beef, tomato, onion, pickle, and pink sauce had the beef not been overdone to the point of turning gray. And had the whole thing not been drowned in mustard and ... ketchup. Which, if I forgot to mention it, never goes on a Chicago hot dog.

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Pamela Robin Brandt

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