On the trail of the chili dog 

Be aware of slaw and beans.

click to enlarge DAVE'S DOGS: For an upscale version, go to Dave's Place.
  • DAVE'S DOGS: For an upscale version, go to Dave's Place.

During the January cold spell, some people who've worked in downtown Little Rock for many years started reminiscing about the legendary D and D, a cafe on Main Street that was best-known for its chili dog, although you could get the chili on anything you wanted — spaghetti, burgers, fries, probably salads and desserts. On cold days, and especially cold, snowy days, it seemed like everybody who worked downtown ate lunch at D and D.

The owner of D and D was murdered — by a former employee, not a dissatisfied customer — in 2002, and the restaurant died not after that. Can one still find a good chili dog in Little Rock, our geezers wondered? Research ensued.

The answer is yes, there are good chili dogs and they're not hard to find. Maybe not as good as D and D's — in our memory, that was a chili dog for the gods — but quite tasty. We'll admit we didn't go to every chili dog emporium in Pulaski County — even our chili-dog appetite is sometimes sated — so it's possible we missed the best of all. But we found quite nice ones, some of them downtown, within blocks of the old D and D site.

At 201 E. Markham St., The Hop is on the first floor of a building that houses the Arkansas Times on the second floor. But we judged on quality, not proximity.

“I will put it up against any chili dog in town,” says Iris Isgrig, a co-owner of The Hop. “You can't beat a good Nathan's dog.” The Hop uses all-beef, Nathan's wieners, and its own beanless chili. (The presence or absence of beans is a touchy subject, a deal-breaker for some aficionados. Slaw is regarded much the same way.) The available add-ons include mustard, cheese, slaw, relish, onions and peppers. One reviewer was not overwhelmed by the first c-dog he ate at The Hop, but he figured out why. Relish always belongs on a regular hot dog, but never on a chili dog. Our man made the deletion, and it's been smooth sailing since. The Hop's dog is the classic foot-long, incidentally. Some places use a standard-length bun.

If there's such a thing as an upscale chili-dog vendor, Dave's Place might be it. Also downtown at 210 Center St., Dave's is a semi-refined sandwich, soup and salad shop. Owner and Chef Dave Williams doesn't prepare the chili dog every day; it depends on his mood. (And it's never available in the summer.) When he's in the mood, he puts beans in his chili, which is also heavy on spices and light on water. He uses all-beef dogs, toasts the buns and omits mustard and slaw. “Some people don't like mustard. I used to put slaw on every once in a while, but nobody wanted it.”

The nearby Downtown Deli does nice work with mustard, and Fritos are available. Fritos are the perfect accompaniment to a chili dog, and we downgrade places that don't stock them. Potato chips have their uses, but they don't go with chili dogs.

We solicited recommendations for c-dogs, and we probably got more for the Buffalo Grill's than any. We went to the Grill at 1611 Rebsamen Park Road. The no-beaners would have been outraged again. (We may as well face up to it: They're wrong.) “We make chili with beans,” manager Brooks Browning said. “That recipe has been here since the beginning of the restaurant in the early '80s, almost as long as I've been alive.” And the chili dog is one of the most popular items on the Buffalo Grill menu. The Times reviewer did have the kind of experience that has turned some against beany chili, however. A bean fell from the fork and left its mark down the front of his white shirt. It was worth it, though a gentlemen wearing an expensive tie should probably stuff his neckwear inside his shirt before digging in.

Some people like jalapenos on their chili dog, including Governor Beebe, Browning said.

Terri-Lynn's B-B-Q & Delicatessen at 10102 Rodney Parham Road offers not only the basic chili dog, but variations like the Killer Dog, which includes sauerkraut, jalapenos and Swiss cheese, and the Demon Delight, which substitutes hot link sausage for the standard weiner. (Chef Dave at Dave's Place said he'd offered a “chili brat,” but found few takers.)

Like most of these places, Chip's Barbecue at 9801 W. Markham St. sells chili by the bowl (beanless, “Chip's own recipe”) as well as on dogs. Chip's handles the slaw question well — it puts the slaw on the side in a plastic cup, so the diner can decide for himself.

Arkansas Burger Co. at 7410 Cantrell Road has a surprisingly good chili dog for a specialty hamburger place. The Town Pump at 1321 Rebsamen Park Road is the kind of establishment that, as soon as you walk in the door, you know will have a good chili dog and cold beer to wash it down with.

Maybe the question should be “Is it possible to find a bad chili dog in Little Rock?” Or maybe it's just us.

We can't leave a chili dog discussion without noting that both the reviewer and a close friend remembered eating their first chili dogs at Jug's Drive-In on Dickson Street in Fayetteville, long ago. Like D and D, Jug's belongs to the ages now.

Doug Smith

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