When it comes to restaurant reviews, the phrase “star rating” is loaded, complicated, and confusing for a variety of reasons. Everyone’s star system is different; every reviewer brings different standards and biases to the table; and a star rating is always, to some extent, the subjective masquerading as the objective.
The Heavy Table’s star system is unusual – a “one star” review for us isn’t a slam (it’s a mixed review, and the stars get better from there on up), and we assess restaurants contextually. This allows for the existence of four-star taquerias or pizza joints.
Our high-star ratings aren’t dependent on a French brigade-style kitchen, pricey imported ingredients, or luxurious interior design. They’re dependent upon being superb at what you say you’re going to do. They’re dependent upon good value and good hospitality. They’re (little “d”) democratic that way.
All of this is to explain why, after three visits, we think the hot dogs-and-sausages joint Prairie Dogs deserves a three-and-a-half star rating. Our expectations were that we’d be served hot dogs and sausages. The place instead delivered absolutely fantastic hot dogs and sausages — and terrific fried bread and butter pickles, and a killer milkshake, and more.
The restaurant is a collaboration between industry veteran Tobie Nidetz and sausage artisan Craig Johnson, and the partnership brings experience, passion, and a laser-like focus on details to the restaurant. Although the dining room is a bit antiseptic, the wall decor (including a sprawling chalk menu) is lively and enjoyable, the hospitality is warm, and the concept is crystal clear: It’s all about the dogs and sausages, with a great deal of creativity, many artisan purveyors, and very few distractions.
Ultimately, of course, the proof is in the meat. Let’s start at the core of the menu: the Prairie Dog ($4.50), a Chicago-style hot dog. For those of us who care, Chicago dogs are an obsession. Done right, they’re a perfect symphony — soft poppy seed bun, snappy wiener, crunchy pickles and hot sport peppers, just the right amount of celery salt, the kick of mustard, the brightness of tomato and onion. Done wrong, they’re a mess — soggy, or overly salty, or wilted and sorry-tasting, or all three. Prairie Dogs makes a Chicago dog as good as, or even better than, the best we’ve had around here (that would be the Wienery or the also excellent Uncle Franky’s).
While the Prairie Dog is a great execution of a classic concept, The Seoul Dog ($6) is a work of genius: we’ve had kimchi on a lot of dogs and sausages over the years, and it is generally some combination of too hot, too wet, and too funkily distracting to be a true team player. The kimchi that Prairie Dogs uses is mellow and funky, on even footing with the shoyu mustard, chives, cilantro, hot dog, and bun, making for a harmonious orchestral blast of flavor.
Bread and butter fried pickles with ranch ($4) could easily have been sad, sodden, turgid little disasters. Instead, they were light, rich, crispy, beautifully flavored disks of joy. We felt honored to have them at our table, until — all too quickly — they were gone.
We’ve had two noteworthy milkshakes this year: one at Ike’s (at the airport) and one at Prairie Dogs ($5). Both were rich and profoundly chocolatey, and both compelled consumption at hazardous speeds and quantities. Both — and this is unlikely to be a coincidence — used ice cream from Sebastian Joe’s. (Only one, it should be noted, included a complimentary mini-donut and sprinkles, so the overall win goes to Prairie Dogs.)
The menu’s “Between the Buns” section lets the diner pick out a chicken breast or beef patty and accessorize from there. We tried The Hog (pork belly, hoisin glaze, pickled carrots and radish, cilantro, sriracha aioli) augmentation of a chicken breast ($10) and were promptly wowed by one of the tastiest sandwiches we’ve had over the past few years. The sweet-tart kick of hoisin brought the flavors of the sandwich together without crushing either the taste of chicken or the slightly crunchy, deeply pork-inflected joyfulness of the properly cooked pork belly, and the aioli contributed a bit of creamy heat without swamping its comrades.
At the core of everything are the dogs and sausages. Without fail, we found them to be rich, texturally correct (nice snappy casings, firm but yielding interiors), and balanced from a flavor perspective. These are strong bricks from which to build a welcoming house.
In case you haven’t picked up on it, there’s a theme to the food at Prairie Dogs: balance and harmony. In a realm where every dish lives and dies based on subtle proportions, Prairie Dogs is king — everything has been carefully calculated thanks to a year plus of pop-up dinners before the doors officially opened. Don’t be deceived by the “simplicity” of its dishes. Hard work and deep thought went into this menu, and you can taste it in every bite.
John Garland contributed to this review.
Hot dog and sausage place at Lyn-Lake
610 W Lake Street
Sun-Thu: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Fri-Sat: 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
PARKING: Street, somewhat limited
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
OWNERS: Tobie Nidetz / Craig Johnson
BAR: None (application in process)
ENTREE RANGE: $4.50-10