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Leader of the Pack

The humble hot dog gets a dose of Louisiana flair in Gretna



Hot dogs are often treated like the punching bag of the food world. The poor cousin to the sausage, the cookout item of last resort once all the burgers are spoken for, the staple of ballparks where they are normally dished out and consumed with minimum fuss or care " hot dogs don't usually get much respect. But dogs are having their day at Easy Dogs, a hot dog café in downtown Gretna, and getting a solid dose of Louisiana flavor to boot. Hot dogs should be cheap, and here they start at $2.50. Hot dog toppings count for as much as the actual frank, and Easy Dogs has some unique and delicious accoutrements. Most of all though, to transcend its humble, highly-processed roots a hot dog needs to have some personality, some panache. Easy Dogs has that covered and then some. This is a hot dog house with flair to spare.

From the menu to the décor to the weekly roster of entertainment, everything at Easy Dogs is a bit over the top, but in a way that comes off as fun and endearing. The hot dogs themselves are cooked in crab boil. The basic topping isn't ketchup or mustard but a tart, creamy remouladelike slather called 'easy sauce." You can order a Hubig's Pie a la mode here " a packaged, palm-sized, fried pie served warm and topped with vanilla ice cream and pompoms of whipped cream. The dining room is decorated about as subtly as a Mardi Gras float, with bright colors, a scattering of kitschy props and walls covered with regional folk art, much of it collected from annual convict art sales at the notorious Angola Prison Rodeo.

Easy Dogs opened last year around this time as the post-Katrina business plan of Alice Schaffer, her son Todd and their business partner Judy Reagan. They started with beef franks from Nathan's Famous, the popular Coney Island hot-dog brand, and devised a menu of topping options with equal parts simplicity and whimsy. The Jazz Dog, for instance, has shredded cheese and chunky, oily olive salad. While that hardly makes this a muffuletta substitute, the salty, ripe flavor of the olive salad is a terrific enhancement and beats familiar pickle relish hands down.

A straight-up chilidog comes with a smooth, greasy chili topping, but it pales in comparison (for both flavor and sloppiness) to the Lundi Dog, sluiced with red beans and rice. This is just what it sounds like " a hot dog sprinkled with white rice and covered with a ladle of creamy red beans with bits of sausage " and it is a grand mess to eat once the bean gravy gets to work on the bun. A fork is necessary to properly tackle the ultimate Easy Dogs offering: the Katrina dog, topped with chili, a fresh-tasting coleslaw, chopped raw onion, shredded cheese and a load of cheddar fish crackers, better known by their Goldfish brand name. This fills the entire plastic basket in which it arrives and the Katrina is so topping heavy that no part of the hot dog or even the bun is visible at first. Eventually, eating it means scooping up a mixture of crackers and stray chili and coleslaw like some strange, aquatic-themed version of nachos.

The basic $2.50 Easy Dog is very good all on its own, thanks to the dunk in crab boil. I've seen this technique at backyard crawfish boils as a way to wean children toward the highly-seasoned delights of local seafood, and it proves a commercially viable idea here. The large Nathan's Famous franks come out brick red and dripping with flavor, though they are not spicy hot. The bun is ordinary but it is toasted, a simple step that elevates it exponentially. Any of Easy Dog's offerings can be made with a vegetarian frank.

If the red beans, olive salad, Hubig's Pies and crab boil leave any room for doubt that Easy Dogs is a slice apart from the average hot dog stand, look to the antics of co-proprietor Todd Schaffer as the final argument. Schaffer used to exercise his theatric impulses as the master of ceremonies for a succession of retro-revival burlesque dance troupes. These days he's busy turning Easy Dogs into something akin to hot-dog dinner theater. On most Thursday and Saturday evenings, he hosts a free production he calls 'Let's Make a Wheel of Bingo," a homemade hybrid of bingo and the television game shows Wheel of Fortune, Let's Make a Deal, and Deal or No Deal. It's a family-oriented event with a spinning wheel, bingo cards, goofy prizes and a lot of laughter as the hot dogs, Zapp's chips and drinks from the restaurant's full bar go around the room. A few Fridays a month he also spices it up for a risqué adult version of the show a little later in the evening. Schaffer claims this is the 'sexiest show in Gretna," a title for which there is very slim competition. When it comes to distinctive dogs, at least, Easy Dogs is a leader of the pack.

Todd Schaffer puts a twist on hot dogs at his Gretna restaurant Big Easy Dogs. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Todd Schaffer puts a twist on hot dogs at his Gretna restaurant Big Easy Dogs.

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