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Frank relationship wanted: Must love dogs

In a world gone mad with artisanal sausages, there's no room for weenies

Mike Sutter

The Saints are in the Super Bowl, and Ignatius Reilly's wiener wagon rolls with squeaky wheels through the French Quarter of my mind.

Like the corpulent crusader from 'A Confederacy of Dunces,' I'm a man of hot dogs not by choice, but by brute force of necessity. Enjoying a momentary lapse of dietary reason, hot dogs have been elevated and celebrated in Austin, with whole enterprises devoted to the cause: Dog Almighty, Man Bites Dog, Chris' Little Chicago.

But for now let's be Frank. You've seen Frank, a long, low building along Fourth and Colorado streets with so much Teutonic stenciling on the outside — hawking bacon, curiosities, smokes, dry goods, cold beer, you name it — that it looks like they stopped only because they ran out of building.

The inside is a gallery of flags and posters selling the idea of selling hot dogs, porcine agitprop for ironic hick-sters who favor pearl-snap shirts and trucker hats and pretend to like Schlitz beer. The lowbrow pretense can get a little thick.

And there's plenty to be pretentious about. Hot dogs become 'artisanal sausages' of Wagyu beef or antelope, dressed with lemon goat cheese or curry barbecue sauce. Or duck and foie gras sausage with a plum glaze.

The surprising thing is how good they can be. Pork sausage with cole slaw and fried shrimp? Glorious, with jalapeño and horseradish heat on a chewy Sweetish Hill bun, the shrimp fresh and fat, as expertly fried as any first-class seafood house could do it. A spicy buffalo sausage on a crisp Phoenicia baguette (you pick the bread) packs aggressive red chile heat and pacifying sweetness from butternut squash relish. The Jackalope, with smoky cheese and huckleberry compote on a sausage of pork, rabbit and antelope, tastes like a greasy-sweet midnight snack you might have cooked at your first apartment.

But here's where high-minded kitsch meets bottom-line reality. Those dogs run $7 to $9, and your luxuriant Bloody Mary with cheese and impossibly crisp bacon is $8 for the small size. On two visits for one hot dog and something to drink, all I could think about was how much one hot dog and something to drink was setting me back. And the Wagyu dog with lemon cheese and pickled okra tasted as unfortunate as the idea of putting those things together in the first place. Same with a bacon-infused Manhattan, a cocktail that lurched awkwardly from sweet to savory to bitter.

I wasn't getting it, the whole haute dog thing. There were bright spots, like cane-sugar Dublin Dr Pepper on tap and a $3 'Beanie Weenie Cup' with sweet baked beans and big chunks of hot dog. And the service staff was friendlier and more engaged than you'd expect in such a poseur-rich environment. But the rest of it felt like a weird use of the building that once housed better places like Starlite and Gilligan's.

But on a night when our waiter acted genuinely happy that we were 'doing it up Frank-style,' we ordered something like 10 dishes, plus a coffee drink any barista would envy and a ginger cherry limeade that could revive the soda fountain tradition by itself. Then I got it: Frank works better as a restaurant than as a hot-dog stand.

Order a $3.95 Chicago dog with Day-Glo relish, sport peppers and a snappy-skinned Vienna frank as an appetizer. Chase it with a side dish of sweet Mexican street corn splashed with lime for $3, then follow up with a $9 main course from the nightly specials, where we found the 'Bubba Gump' shrimp dog and that buffalo number. For dessert, spring for a moist chocolate cake sandwich called a Whoopie Pie. Suddenly, you're in a high-concept restaurant instead of an overdone concession stand.

Not all of it works. For all the deep-fried-bacon-and-cheese promise of the 'Carolina Pork-It,' the $6 dog couldn't push those flavors past a wet blanket of cole slaw. And a trio of hummus, broccoli salad and potato salad came off like bean-dip spackling, veggie-tray afterthoughts and starchy lumps of ranch dressing. An ice cream cookie sandwich was hilariously bad, a spoon-bending pavestone of chocolate-chip kitchen tile (with bacon, naturally).

You'll be hearing more from Frank. The cable channel TLC was filming an episode of 'America Eats' with co-owner Daniel Northcutt and crew just last week, and Food & Wine magazine put Frank in its 'Hot Dog Heroes' category of emerging food trends. They're here, with beer, get used to it.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902

Frank

407 Colorado St. 494-6916, www.hotdogscoldbeer.com .

Rating: 6.9 out of 10

Hours: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays. 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays for brunch.

Prices: Hot dogs $3 (plain; dressed-up dogs start at $3.95) to $9 (Notorious P.I.G., with mac and cheese). Fries and sides $2.50 (baked beans) to $7 (waffle fry nachos). Salads $7-$8. Desserts $1-$7. Breakfast: $1 beignets, $2.75 German pocket pastries, $3.75 biscuits. Brunch $8-$15.

Payment: All major cards

Alcohol: Full bar. Local beers at $5 a pint from Real Ale and Live Oak on tap, with more than 25 bottled beers leaning impressively on American microbrews (Lagunitas, Allagash, Breckenridge). Ironic and iconic cheap U.S. beers in cans include Schlitz and Pabst. Half a dozen wines, $30 a bottle and less, starting at $7 a glass. Cocktails $7-$10, notable for the use of bacon-infused liquor.

Wheelchair access: Yes

What the rating means: The 10-point scale for casual dining is an average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value.