Dog House Drive In Inc.
1216 Central Ave. SW
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 10am-9:30pm, Sunday 11am-9:30pm
This last year has accelerated change all over Duke City. The harsh realities of the pandemic forced many businesses under. A rising influx of transplants has resulted in home prices skyrocketing and condos popping up left and right, built with cookie-cutter architecture that looks more like suburban Southern California than the Albuquerque I grew up in. Maybe it’s simply misplaced nostalgia, but I worry. Will this growth bring higher standards of living throughout our city? Or will it just create more social stratification? Food offers no real answer, but it is a consolation. When I get frustrated by the changing cityscape, I seek solace at one of many classic local eateries that have held out and continue to thrive. Right at the top of that list is the famed Dog House Drive In.
While the inside seating area is no bigger than a short bus and the parking lot can get a bit rowdy at times, the Dog House has achieved worldwide fame and recognition. It has appeared prominently on Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” but—much like Barelas Coffee House after Obama’s visit—knew better than to put on airs. This place remains a beloved local institution after more than half a century because they don’t muck around with a good thing. They know that their many die-hard fans keep coming back because, aside from occasional adjustments for inflation, the Dog House offers them a time warp. Of course, this time-out-of-time appeals to new customers as well.
On a weekend night, the parking lot often doubles as an informal car show where car-club members show off their ranflas. Pulling up in my battered ‘03 hatchback, I park well away from the scene; my beater clearly doesn’t make the cut. The Dog House’s iconic signage, a neon-outlined dachshund with a wagging tail and a string of hotlinks hanging from its maw, always seems to hypnotize me into ordering more than I ought to. I advise eating inside if you’re a messy eater or if it’s your first rodeo, as consuming one of their foot-long chili and cheese dogs ($4.90), or a “half-long with cheese” ($3.20), tends to result in a serious mess for all but the most practiced. Seeing that the indoor dining is still closed to customers, I wait in my car for the server to walk up, hoping to avoid further damage to the upholstery.
For a summer night, however, when the broiling temps finally start to drop off, ordering from the parking lot is indeed the right move. This being fast food from another era, it takes a good 15 minutes for everything to arrive. First up is the real reason I make my pilgrimages here. The chili dog is a must. The wiener is sliced in half lengthwise to better grill it on the flat top and then topped with Dog House’s chili. Many New Mexicans will cringe when they see this spelling, but the Dog House gets a pass. Plus, their take on “chili” is not that slop that comes on dogs to the East. No, this chili is a thick sauce that somewhat resembles the standard New Mexican red in consistency and appearance but is laden with beef drippings and strong on the cumin. The raw, chopped white onions on top are not usually my go-to, but at the Dog House it seems like a nearly mandatory course of action. The sharpness from the onion cuts into the heavy chile gravy. It’s delicious.
While ordering for this write-up, I departed from the chili dog and/or Frito pie I think of as the obvious choices here. The chile burger with cheese ($5.30) came drenched in the aforementioned chili. It had me tearing up a little by the last bite and struck me as a good (red) counterpoint to Bob’s Burgers’ fiercely spicy (green) chile gravy sauce. I also tried the corn dog ($1.75) for the first time. Nothing too exciting here but it does its thing … and is a much safer bet mess-wise than the famed chili dog. Lastly, I got an order each of fries and tots ($1.90 small, $2.30 large), both fried crispy and served heavily salted. I prefer the tots because they have more surface area to crunch up in the deep fryer.
Some of you may recall the epic flash flood of 2013 that overwhelmed the city’s storm drains. I was showing a friend from Reno around Downtown when we both, being desert rats, sensed the impending deluge and sprinted for cover. We found refuge in the Dog House, along with maybe 20 others, all packed in like sardines. We ordered a Frito pie ($3.90) and watched as the place started to fill, inch by inch, with water. People started standing on booths, muttering and shouting “a la veyyy”s. Amidst the uproar, a cook nonchalantly grabbed a mop and started pushing water toward the drain. The staff never missed a beat. Here, as in all else, the women who run this place were unflappable. They demonstrate perhaps the most important practice of seasoned cooks and servers: conservation and maximization of movement. The small, open kitchen coupled with a steady stream of orders seven days a week results in clean maneuvers with no wasted energy, just as you can find at world famous hole-in-the wall spots like Tortas Poblanos in Mexico City or even Jiro Sushi in Tokyo.
The Dog House, in both atmosphere and menu, embodies something unique to Albuquerque. And for those willing, it can offer a glimpse of Rt. 66 as it may have been before the interstates. As I stole a glance at the veteranos eating in an Oldsmobile next to me, it was easy to get lost, flashing on decades I wasn’t even alive for. For a moment I sensed the specters of past greats. In the whistling wind, I could almost hear Johnny Tapia’s pained laugh. Or picture Rudolfo Anaya eyeing the weekend crowd and formulating his vignettes celebrating the Burque.
The Dog House is, at its best, a sacrament to those who commune with the beating heart of the city. I just hope some of the newer restaurants now rising out of the ashes that this lean year has scattered gain the long view and perseverance necessary to become so fully a part of Albuquerque, to build on the preexisting mystique of this place.