It’s amazing how fast tables turn over when you’re just slinging hot dogs.
Around dinnertime last Thursday, grumbling crowds were jostling in the normally serene entryway of First Course in South Minneapolis, but nobody had to grumble for very long.
On any other night, First Course is the sort of dimly lit place where couples linger over three courses and maybe one last glass of wine. But, word had gotten around that, for one night only, there would nothing but hot dogs on the menu, and the neighborhood turned out in force. Such is the power of a good hot dog.
“I was hoping to serve at least 50 people tonight,” said restaurant consultant Tobie Nidetz, the man behind the one-night pop-up Prairie Dogs. But, as the crowd was thinning out at about 7:30pm, he had already served between 100 and 120 people, including chef Steven Brown of Tilia — and that’s a man who knows a good hot dog. The kitchen was down to its last serving of merguez.
As a restaurant consultant, Nidetz has helped opened dozens of restaurants in the area, from Ike’s Food and Cocktails to The Sample Room to Rye Delicatessen. Prairie Dogs, however, will be his own place, along with chef and co-owner Craig Johnson (fresh off a successful stint at Spill the Wine). They put the pop-up together to test the concept, gauge interest, and maybe get enough attention to attract investors and eventually run a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Nidetz is a native Chicagoan for whom a good hot dog is like mother’s milk. He fell in love with the world-famous Hot Doug’s five or six years ago and has been noodling on opening a dog-only place locally ever since, all the while keeping himself busy opening restaurants for other people. For now, Nidetz is on the prowl for a location — somewhere dense and young enough to keep a delivery service hopping and fill tables at lunch and dinner and well into the night.
The menu he and Johnson debuted at First Course is about half of what they hope to bring to their own place, with two sausages and four variations on lavishly topped hot dogs. “Craig is working on a vegetarian sausage, a seafood sausage, things like that,” said Nidetz.
The Twin Cities don’t really have a “hot dog culture,” as Nidetz pointed out, but we do have some strong preconceptions of what makes a proper bratwurst. And, Prairie Dogs’ bratwurst ($5, above) busts them wide open. Instead of coarse, meaty, peppery, and dripping with juices, the brat was unexpectedly creamy — almost bready — and mildly sweet. It’s a German-style brat Nidetz remembered from Milwaukee and Johnson successfully recreated… plus some Chicago-style fluorescent green relish.
The brat was good, but the merguez ($5) was excellent, from the sausage itself (though not at all “spicy,” as billed on the menu) to the way the soft feta, peppers, and mint all held together in the soft bun. It alone would be enough to bring this reviewer back.
As can be expected on a test run, there are still some fixes to be made. The bacon wrapped around our Sonora Dog ($5.50) was still flabby and stringy. And the fat, decadent line of foie gras mousse on the enigmatically named Pliny the Elder ($7.50, above) was completely overwhelmed by the currant-apple relish. But the hot dogs had good flavor and great snap, and we’re pretty sure that, even without a strong local hot dog culture, there’s room enough in the area for both Prairie Dogs, wherever it might land, and the beloved Wienery.