As a connoisseur of hot dogs, I'm always on the prowl for a new hot dog cart or restaurant, and its my life's goal to pay a visit, and write an article on every establishment that features hot dogs in the greater Sacramento area. That's quite an ambition, as there are quite a few restaurants in the metroplex that specialize in hot dogs, and new hot dog vendors and hot dog carts pop up constantly. As a dedicated hot dog reporter, my eyes are constantly scanning the horizon, in search of a new hot dog restaurant, vendor or cart to sample... imagine my surprise when I received an email from Nicki Smith, who is the proprietor of Heavenly Dog, inviting me to pay her restaurant a visit!
Photo: Heavenly Dog's store front, in the Marketplace 99 South shopping center, in Elk Grove, CA. Note the "doggie" logo, which was designed by Stacy Morrison, one of the owners of the business.
Nicki and her sister Stacy had been surfing my web site, and they noted that I'm a lover of Chicago-style hot dogs, and a purist in that particular genre of hot dog. Nicki's email mentioned that her restaurant serves a variety of specialty dogs, including a Chicago Dog, and to quote her, "We have been told by our customers from Chicago, that it is very authentic." I felt both honored and amazed... and I put a mark on my calendar to pay a visit to Heavenly Dog as soon as I could fit it into my busy schedule.
Photo: Stacy Morrison takes a customer's order, at the order counter. Note the selection of beer, to the right of the photo.
One morning over breakfast, I casually mentioned to friend, and fellow hot dog enthusiast, Dan MacLeod that I planned to pay a visit to Heavenly Dog, to sample their supposedly authentic Chicago Dog, and I asked him if he'd be interested to accompany me in my endeavour. Without hesitation, he replied with a resounding YES! as Dan is a guy who appreciates a Chicago-style hot dog as much as I do. But, would Heavenly Dog be up to the task? Many restaurants in California, and the West Coast claim to produce an "authentic" Chicago-style hot dog, and few, if any, actually do. Reading between the lines of Nicki's email, she seemed pretty confident that her product was authentic, so Dan and I felt compelled to pay a visit to Heavenly Dog. We set the date of Saturday, February 28, 2009 to see if Heavenly Dog was up to the task of creating an authentic, Chicago-style hot dog.
Photo: The dining room of the restaurant, to the right of the order counter. The Relish and Mustard bar is in the right center of the photo. Note the attractive decor, and the original artwork that hangs on the walls.
Most folks take hot dogs for granted, and think of them as something that's a charred, piece of mystery meat, coated with burned barbecue sauce, cooked on your dad's '50's style, backyard grill, that is slapped on a non-descript, soggy roll, with catsup as the only condiment. Something that your scout leader tried to cook over a campfire to impress the troop? Others think of the highly-rated Dodger Dog as the apex of hot dogs... well why not, as over a million of them are sold every year at Dodger Stadium alone?... yet there are many regional variations of hot dogs, some famous and some quite obscure. But if you're a connoisseur of hot dogs, you'll recognize varieties such as Coney Island, Sonoran, Fenway Frank, deep-fried Rippers, and others... But if you've ever had the pleasure to visit Chicago, you'll know there is no finer hot dog on earth than the Chicago-style hot dog.
Photo: At 12:20 PM, on Sunday, March 1, 2009, Heavenly Dog's spotless kitchen is alive with activity. Hot dogs are being made to the right of the photo, and fries are being removed from the deep fryer, at the left.
Finding an authentic Chicago-style hot dog outside of Chicago, isn't an easy task, but many hot dog restaurants, vendors and carts claim they sell an authentic version, but most, if not all, miss the mark by a wide margin. An authentic Chicago-style dog isn't born, it's created, and it's created in a methodical, step-by-step order, using specific ingredients and toppings, applied to a specific type of bun, in a regimented order that requires the exact placement of the components that make a Chicago-style hot dog the king of all hot dogs. Simply said, if you've ever been to Chicago, and had the pleasure to enjoy a real Chicago-style hot dog, you know what makes a Chicago-style hot dog the king of all hot dogs.
Heavenly Dog is located behind a Mexican restaurant, in the Marketplace 99 South shopping center, which is a new, upscale shopping center at the south end of the bustling city of Elk Grove, at the south end of the Sacramento metropolitan area. Despite the fact that the shopping center is laid out somewhat haphazardly, Heavenly Dog is easy to find -- just look for their "doggie" logo on the front of the store -- and their location offers plenty of parking very close to the restaurant. Like the every store in the shopping center, the facade of Heavenly Dog is clean, attractive, and well-maintained.
Photo: Heavenly Dog's French Fries and Onion Rings are deep fried in cholesterol and Trans-fat free oil. In the photo, an order of onion rings is removed from the deep fryer. The onion rings are a golden-brown in color, and they're light, crispy, and delicious.
The first thing that grabs your attention as you enter the restaurant is the colorful menu, which illustrates the fine selection of hot dogs, side dishes and fountain treats the restaurant has to offer. Just to the right of the menu is the order counter, where you'll encounter one of the friendly staff members, who will greet you with a cheery hello. Behind the order counter is the squeaky-clean, stainless steel kitchen, where you can watch the staff at work, and see your dog created. (Remember, good hot dogs aren't just made, they're created...) While you're attempting to decide which entree you prefer, you'll probably notice that he restaurant is super clean, light, and pleasantly decorated, which makes it an inviting place to relax, while you enjoy your hot dog. The walls are painted an attractive burnt orange, and decorated with original artwork, created by Stacy Morrision, one of the owners of the business. The restaurant offers sit-down dining, and after you place your order, one of the friendly staff members will bring your order to your table.
Photo: Chris and Nicki Smith, proprietors of Heavenly Dog strike a pose at the order counter.
And yes, the menu offers a Chicago Dog, but it features other varieties as well, such as a Philly Dog, Western Bacon Dog, Chihuahua Dog, and many more. To go with your dog, side dishes such as French Fries, Onion Rings, Tri-tip Chili, Potato Salad, just to name a few, will round out your meal. Soft drinks and several brands of beer are offered to drink, and fountain treats, featuring Gunther's Ice Cream, will finish your meal on a sweet note. To make your selection easy, each variety of dog has a brief explanation detailing its pedigree, and the friendly and knowledgeable person behind the counter will be glad to help you with your selection. So many dogs, so many choices, what's a hot dog lover to do? Choose... you can't go wrong at Heavenly Dog!
Dan and I were greeted at the order counter by Stacy Morrision, who is a co-owner of the restaurant, and sister of Nicki Smith, the proprietor of the business. I introduced myself, and told her that Dan and I had accepted Nicki's kind invitation to review the restaurant, and that brought a smile to Stacy. In a minute Nicki appeared --- when I walked in she was in the kitchen, busily creating a hot dog for a customer -- and after exchanging introductions, I told her that Dan and I were in the mood to sample a Chicago Dog, as we wanted to see if an authentic version exists on the West Coast of the United States.
Photo: Nicki adds mustard, to the dog, not the bun, which is the first step in creating the perfect Chicago Dog. As the fist step in creating an authentic Chicago-style hot dog, all ingredients must be applied in the correct sequence.
What is a Chicago-style hot dog, and what makes it the king of all hot dogs? Authentic Chicago-style hot dogs feature ingredients and toppings that cannot be substituted, and must be applied in a certain order. No wiggle room here... Necessary ingredients and toppings include:
All beef wiener, featuring natural casing
Toppings must be put in place in the exact sequence, must be installed at the proper place, and must contain the correct amount, so as not to overpower the taste of the hot dog. The idea is when you take a bite into the dog, you'll get to taste a little bit of everything, with each bite. The toppings and condiments should complement each other, and the hot dog as well, and no one garnish must be too dominant or overpowering. Last but not least, the presentation is critical to the enjoyment of a Chicago-style hot dog.
Photo: Nicki adds sweet, neon-green relish to the hot dog. The correct relish for a Chicago-style hot dog must be made from scratch, or purchased over the Internet, as its not sold in stores on the West Coast.
Have you ever attempted to purchase poppy seed buns, neon-green relish or sport peppers in California? Good luck! I have been able to locate a source on the Internet for relish and sport peppers, but poppy seed buns is another story... they're simply not available In all of my experiences of hot doggin' on the west coast, Heavenly Dog is the first hot dog restaurant, outside of Chicago, that serves their Chicago-style hot dog on a poppy seed bun. You can't call a hot dog a Chicago-style dog unless its served on a poppy seed bun, as the poppy seed bun is a signature component of the Chicago genre of hot dogs.
Photo: Our order of Chicago Dogs is almost ready. Note the poppy seed buns, which are mandatory if you want a truly authentic Chicago-style hot dog.
I watched in awe as Nicki placed a large, all-beef frank on a steamed, poppy-seed covered bun. Wow! Next, she squirted yellow mustard directly on the dog, as she dressed the dog, not the bun. Next she added a generous amount of bright, neon green relish, chopped onions, two tomato wedges, a pickle slice, two sport peppers, and a dash of celery salt over the dog... all items were placed on the dog in the correct sequence. As I watched the Master Hot Dogger at work, I noted Heavenly Dog's Chicago Dog features all of the correct toppings, applied in the correct sequence, and each topping is put in the right place, to compliment each other. Folks, that's a Chicago-style hot dog!
Photo: Nicki Smith displays the masterpieces that she has created for us. Heavenly Dog makes the best Chicago Dog that I've ever eaten on the West Coast.
Dan and I ohhh'd and awww'd when Nicki brought the beautiful Chicago Dogs to our table. They were so pretty and the presentation was so complete, it was almost a shame to eat them, but how could dedicated hot doggers ever write an objective review without sampling the object of the quest?
One bite into Heavenly Dog's Chicago Dog transports you into hot dog nirvana. When you bite into the dog, you get the reassuring snap! of the natural casing that encases the premium, Evergood brand wiener, and the wonderful crunch! of the pickle spear, which lets you know that the pickle is fresh. Working your way down the dog, you'll soon be treated to the delightful taste of a sport pepper, which adds just a little bit of heat, but they're not hot, and suitable for anybody, even your 6-year old niece. About the same time the flavor of the tomato wedges kick in, complimented by the delicious, in-house made yellow mustard... the hot dog experience is sublime, and it's soooooooo Chicago!
Left: Eric Rench, your webmaster, author and hot dog reporter takes a bite of his delicious Chicago Dog. Right: Dan MacLeod bites into his dog. I had to take this photo quickly, before his dog disappeared. Check out Heavenly Dog's logo painted on the wall, over Dan's left shoulder.
Dan and I were awed, dazzled and amazed, as we'd never experienced a genuine Chicago-style hot dog before on the West Coast, or for that matter, anywhere else other than the namesake city of the hot dog. Heavenly Dog makes an authentic Chicago Dog, composed of quality ingredients, prepared the correct way, and topped with authentic, fresh, delicious toppings. What's more, the hot dogs are served in a comfortable, squeaky-clean, family-friendly atmosphere, by some of the nicest people that you'll ever meet. We love Heavenly Dog and their delicious Chicago-style hot dogs!
Sunday, March 1, 2009: I couldn't contain myself, as I had to pay another visit to Heavenly Dog, in order to sample another variety of their fine dogs, and to enjoy an order of French Fries and Onion Rings. I had also been talking about the restaurant to my lovely wife, Sharlene, and she was interested to see what all of the fuss was about. If you're going to write a well-rounded article about a restaurant, you can't really be objective, if you've only sampled one variety of hot dog. So in the interest of journalism, my wife and I jumped into the car, and took a drive over to Heavenly Dog.
Photo: Heavenly Dog's Chicago Dog, features all of the correct toppings, applied in the correct sequence, in the right quantities, and it's a masterpiece, and almost too beautiful to eat. Well... almost!
Chris Smith was working the counter, and he recognized me from the day before, albeit without my friend Dan, and after greeting him, I introduced my wife, Sharlene to him, and told him that since I'd raved about my visit from the previous day, I had to bring my wife, so she could see what I'd been talking about, and sample a delicious dog at Heavenly Dog. Since today was Sunday, both Sharlene and I felt like taking a vacation from our diets, so along with our hot dogs, we ordered a side of French Fries, Onion Rings, and an order of 6 Doggie Dippers.
Photo: I couldn't resist snapping this order of two Mutt Dogs, a Philly Dog, along with an order of onion ring and fries. This order was prepared for another customer.
For me, the choice of hot dog was difficult, as every menu selection looks, well, heavenly. I finally chose a Muddy Dog, due to the fact that I wanted to give Uncle Jerry's home-style Tri-top chili a try, which is the main topping for a Muddy Dog. Sharlene chose The Mutt, as she wanted a plain dog, so she could take a trip to Heavenly Dog's Relish and Mustard Bar.
Photo: Stacy Morrison and staff are hard at work, creating delicious hot dogs and onion rings. This photo was taken from the order counter, as the kitchen activity is visible to customers.
After placing our order, out of curiosity, I just had to ask Chris and Nicki a few questions about themselves and about Heavenly Dog. I learned that they grew up in Elk Grove, and have fond memories of the days when it was a small suburb of Sacramento, with a population of only a few thousand people, and that many of the recipes they use in their restaurant have been in their family for generations. They pointed out that the Tri-tip chili that I was about to enjoy on my Muddy Dog is Uncle Jerry's recipe, and the Potato and Macaroni Salad on their menu is a family recipe from Grandma Eleanor Strong. Of course I had to ask where they obtain the poppy seed buns for the Chicago Dogs, but that's a family secret, along with the recipe for the batter for the Corn Dogs and the Doggie Dippers. I asked them what motivated them to open the restaurant, and Nicki told me that she loves to cook, and she loves hot dogs -- she eats them every day -- and she wanted to open a restaurant that would fill a vacuum that existed in the greater Sacramento area before the arrival of Heavenly Dog, and its wonderful hot dogs.
Photo: Chris Smith is about ready to place my Muddy Dog on the table, as Sharlene grins, and seems quite content with her Mutt Dog.
Heavenly Dog is not only a family-friendly place to enjoy a delicious hot dog, but it's family owned and operated, and most staff members are members of the extended family. Nicki told me that they have hired a couple of non-family members, but after working at the restaurant, everybody becomes pseudo-family members, as everybody works together as a team, and they work together as one big, happy family.
Photo: The Mustard and Relish Bar, with toppings front and center, and mustard and barbecue sauce to the right. Note the labels that are pasted to the clear plexiglass and to the squeeze bottles, to eliminate guesswork.
Photo: My order of French Fries, and a Muddy Dog. Note the attractive, golden color of the fries, and the melted Cheddar Cheese on the hot dog. Delicious!
Chris delivered our order of hot dogs, along with fries and onion rings to our table. My Muddy Dog was already dressed with mustard, chili and cheddar cheese, but Sharlene had ordered The Mutt, which is essentially a dog waiting to be dressed with condiments from the Relish and Mustard Bar. The fries and onion rings were a golden brown, perfectly cooked, and Chris was happy to point out that they use only premium ingredients, and they deep fry using only 100% cholesterol and Trans-fat free oil. It was time for Sharlene to pay a visit to the Relish and Mustard Bar...
The Relish and Mustard Bar is located near the center of the restaurant, and the self-service bar features several varieties of in-house made relish, including pickle, sauerkraut, cucumber and jalapeno relish; the relishes are made from family recipes. The bar also contains several varieties of in-house made mustard and barbecue sauce, and bottles of commercially-made picante sauce. When an order arrives from the kitchen, the dogs are delivered without ketchup, and you won't find any catsup -- no matter how you spell it -- at the Mustard Bar; who would want to desecrate a Heavenly Dog by placing ketchup on it? But for kids, those with a sweet tooth, or those who are uninformed, ketchup is available at each table, but it pains me deep inside, even to think about topping a Heavenly Dog with ketchup...
Photo: Six Doggie Dippers, which are small hot dogs, covered in corn batter, and deep fried to a golden brown. Doggie Dippers make an outstanding hors d' oeuvres, especially when dipped in the in-house made mustard from the Mustard and Relish Bar.
After Sharlene's dog was dressed with yellow mustard and cucumber relish, neither she nor I needed any urging to sample our Heavenly Dogs. Her Mutt Dog, like my Muddy Dog, featured an 8-inch, Evergood, all-beef wiener, contained within the natural casing, that snapped! when she into it. Oh yes! Ditto for my Mutt Dog... now that's a hot dog! Sharlene raved about the mustard and relish that she'd dressed her dog with, and she commented on the freshness of her dog, and how the toppings complimented the premium wiener. In my case, I found that Uncle Jerry's beanless chili made an excellent topping for my Muddy Dog, and the cheddar cheese and onions added to the experience. The Doggie Dippers, which are small pieces of hot dogs covered in corn dog batter, and deep fried to a golden brown, made an outstanding addition to our lunch. I made a run to the bar for some mustard, and when dipped into a cup of the homemade mustard, a Doggie Dipper makes for an unforgettable experience. The French Fries and Onion Rings were cooked perfectly, and they weren't salty, greasy, or oily, and they were delicious.
Photo: Sharlene's Mutt Dog, before relish and additional mustard was applied.
Photo: Sharlene and I relax at our table, before enjoying our delicious lunch at Heavenly Dog. Thanks to Chris Smith, who graciously took our photo.
We highly recommend that you take a look at Heavenly Dog's web site, so you can see for yourself the wonderful selection of hot dogs, fountain treats and side dishes that they offer. Although we haven't had the opportunity to sample every hot dog on their extensive menu, we're looking forward to the opportunity.
Heavenly Dog has found itself a niche in the greater Sacramento restaurant scene, as there is no other hot dog restaurant that offers the quality, variety, and the personal touch that the staff puts into each hot dog they produce. When you visit the store, its quite obvious that the Smiths and their crew love what they do, they love their customers, and they love hot dogs. If you're looking for the best hot dog experience that the greater Sacramento area has to offer, you need look no further than Heavenly Dog.
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