I felt waves of anxiety washing over me. Clown eyes stared down from vintage circus posters on the walls. Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon droned from the speakers. I was trying to build my own custom dog in Clown Dog, a new circus-themed Nob Hill eatery, and feeling overwhelmed—whether from the clowns or the choices, I’m not quite sure. I let the dry erase marker hover over their laminated menu, unsure how to narrow Clown Dog’s 50-plus options into a manageable, yet novel, order. I scanned past pineapple chunks, PB&J, raisins, and fruit loops, cringing all the while.
Abandoning my harebrained notion of trying to work popcorn into the mix, I backpedaled. Then it came to me: a potentially delicious topping assortment for this meal of encased meat on a bun. (Of course, if you are not up for the gamble—and potential reward—of this build-it-yourself option, Clown Dog offers four predetermined creations.)
I placed check marks next to several of the less-fraught items on the menu, then relaxed at the bar, watching other customers chat with the waitstaff inside the tent-enclosed patio area. (Yes, there is an actual tent at Clown Dog. But because it’s merely a temporary COVID-related protocol, the tent has less of a carnival vibe than the restaurant’s interior with its bold circus-tent colors and posters of circus performers from decades long past.) It seems like some of these customers are regulars, an impressive feat considering that Clown Dog has only been open for just over a month.
I ordered the Chicago Dog ($6), the Circus Dog ($6), skipped the Sonoran Dog ($6) because it is topped with bacon crumbles instead of fully wrapped in bacon, but got the Clown Dog Chili Cheese Fries ($6, and with an optional vegan chili), and the New Mexican Chile Cheese Fries ($6, and vg/gf). I ordered the last one smothered Xmas, as I often do when first trying out a new spot, just to get a sample of both the red and green. Oh, and a frozen choco-dipped banana with crushed peanuts ($5.75) for dessert.
While waiting for the order, noticing I was the only person inside, I took the time to stroll around the interior. While the clown-themed ephemera decorating the place can be a bit unsettling to those who suffer from even a tinge of coulrophobia, upon closer inspection it is all rather measured and even tasteful. Among all the oversized grins and wide eyes, there are a bunch of cool posters and knickknacks that pay homage to clowns and other circus attractions. Beyond the standard—though impressive—Barnum Bros. and Ringling posters are some rarities, including an old hand-painted carnies’ rules list for a quarter-toss game and a poster from Sussex advertising Hugo Zamoratte, better known as the “Man in the Bottle.”
Full disclosure: I’m not really one to get a hot dog outside of a ballgame, or perhaps a frankfurter in Germany. What’s more, my favorite way to prepare a hot dog is what I was taught in Jakarta as a child: Slice the tubesteak into something like a hundred slivers with a razor, fry the pieces in plenty of palm oil til crispy, and then put these meat-chips atop some instant noodles. It’s a serious treat if you are on a budget. That said, having spent time visiting family in the Boystown/Northalstead neighborhood of Chicago over the years, I do know a thing or two about the renowned Chicago Dog.
Opening up the neat wrapping on Clown Dog’s Chicago Dog, I see that all looks to be on point. Taking note of the size-appropriate poppy seed bun and the all-beef (kosher?) dog within, I run through a little rubric: glistening neon-green relish? Check. Yellow mustard mingling with sports peppers, tomato and pickle? Check. And lastly, the magic ingredient that ties it all together? I can smell and even see the celery salt sprinkled atop. I devoured the thing in three or four bites. It was definitely the genuine article, even if not exactly of the same caliber as Chicago’s famed Hot Doug’s or Wiener’s Circle. But if Clown Dog starts offering a char-broil upgrade I could see myself becoming a regular.
The Circus Dog is a bit more of a stretch for me. I mean, the crunch of fresh jalapeno slices and onion rings is a great move. But using Spaghetti-Os in lieu of ketchup? Well, it must work for some people. I went with the vegan dog on this one, despite having eaten all manner of real encased meats during this gluttonous session. Perhaps there was a bit less flavor; but in truth, I could hardly tell the difference between this and the turkey dog. Lastly, my custom dog. I kept it pretty simple and topped a turkey dog with bacon crumbles, roasted and chopped green chile and stone-ground mustard. Come on, you know this was a winning combo.
The Chili Fries (note the “i,” which denotes a more Texan style) were alright. Most importantly, the fries were solid. While they did not muster much crunch, they were by no means limp, and the kitchen had left the skins on, giving them more character and flavor. The chili on top could have used a touch of salt and perhaps some diced white onion.
Vastly superior were the N.M. chile fries. While the green was a nice touch on my custom dog, I preferred the red, as it was thick enough not to make the fries all soggy and honestly packed some heat. Plus this dish was nice and cheesy. While I did find the fries lacking in salt, this feast did leave me craving water … and beer. You may be pleased to learn that, if you eat in-house, Clown Dog has a few taps of local brews to assist in washing down your meal.
Tragically, by the time I got to the chocolate-dipped frozen banana with crushed peanuts it had pretty much melted into a big mess. Don’t clown around, order this and get to munching right away, especially as things heat up. Thinking of future visits, I find myself wishing for more carnival-themed sugar-laden fare. Funnel cakes? Deep-fried Mars bars?
Much of Clown Dog may be borderline novelty, but it makes for a fun atmosphere and could well become one of your go-tos if you enjoy the option of getting quite loose with your customization … and if images of long-dead clowns staring at you from all sides don’t guarantee you nightmares.
3624 Central Ave. SE