O'Malley: The tyranny of the reindeer dog

Julia O'Malley
Amber Madrid, right, loads onions onto a hot dog as Pilar Eibeck helps operate the Alaska Husky Dogs stand on 4th Avenue near E Street in downtown Anchorage on Thursday, June 20, 2013.
Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News
Eugenia "Tia" Buitrago serves customers at her hot dog stand on 4th Avenue near E Street in downtown Anchorage on Thursday, June 20, 2013.
Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News

It was glorious at MA's Gourmet Dogs last week. Around lunchtime Thursday, there must have been 25 people stacked up there, including me, photographer Marc Lester, three chefs and a cop.

The sun was shining. People were smiling. Mike Anderson, proprietor, was cracking cranky jokes. I wanted to be part of the scene unfolding there before me. And that meant eating a dog, communion wafer of summertime street food on Fourth Avenue.

Halfway through my meal on the steps of the old Federal Building, though, a secret truth filled my mind: As expertly-grilled as my sausage was, as piquant the mustard, I kind of wished it wasn't going in my belly.

Hot dogs are one of those foods it's best not to think too hard about because, bottom line, they are kind of gross. There. I said it. I eat dogs, but I don't really like them. Since I'm going here, I'll go deep: reindeer dogs are a food this third-generation Alaskan could never eat again and I would die perfectly happy. I suspect I am not alone.

Contrary to what tourists are led to believe, Alaskans don't eat piles of reindeer in sausage form (while, naturally, sitting in our igloos reading Sarah Palin's Twitter feed). Because if we did, we'd also have to eat piles of Pepcid. Lean close, dear tourists, and I will tell you an old Alaska secret: Reindeer sausage gives you killer heartburn. And, at least to me, it's kind of gamey.

Anyway, next I got thinking about the lovely blocks of Fourth Avenue between E Street and G Street. It's touristville right now, but they are still ancestral homeland in my imagination. The center of the Old Anchorage bulls eye. Site of statehood bonfires and Fur Rondy Parades. I can close my eyes and see my dad as a kid riding by the Fourth Avenue Theater in the old O'Malley station wagon.

You want to be there. Especially on a sunny day. But why must the official food of this historic place be mechanically separated meat product dripping with ingredients it's best not to Google? I'm okay with a dog option. Give the tourists their Rudolph on a bun. But must it be hot-dog tyranny? There are five dog carts between E and G.

Judging unscientifically, MA's kills it. Tia's trails just behind that. The rest fight for every customer. Everyone has an angle. Some caramelize onions with Coke, others with Pepsi. MA's has longevity and attitude. Sun City Samurai Dogs is going for an Asian theme. Husky Dogs has karaoke and "boss sauce. " Tia, her salsa rosado and pineapple sauce. Outside of that, what's being sold on the carts is, as vendor Blanca Legorreta at Fourth and G told me, "all the same, honey."

Dogs are a safe bet, business-wise, which is probably part of it. There's a little risk involved in selling street food. There are eight city spots for food vendors. To get one, a person must put in a bid in a closed bidding process. Bids have gone as high as $21,000 for a spot on the hottest corner (at Fourth and E.) This year they topped out in the $8,000 range. (Anderson isn't on city property. He has his own deal worked out with the feds.)

Despite the overhead, the hot dog business pencils out nicely. Which is also part of the hot dog saturation equation. By my rough calculations, one dog plus bun and condiments at Costco prices costs around $1 in initial investment, not counting the gas to cook it. Average street value: $6. Anderson's cart sees "tens of thousands" of customers in a season, he told me. I think the others see less, but still. Do the math.

Surely, though, someone selling something that isn't a hot dog could come up with business plan. I have been to the Thursday food truck round-up in the parking lot next to Chilkoot Charlie's three times now. You can get a local seafood skewer, super tots and a rhubarb popsicle. People are fighting to buy those things. The lines are long and the waits for food even longer. The trucks run out early and shut down.

There are some health department requirements for sidewalk carts to deal with downtown. There can't be any raw meat. And anything served has to be fully cooked and either pre-packaged or prepared in a commercial kitchen. I asked readers and they had tons of ideas. How about grilled cheese? Tacos? S'mores?

Eugenia "Tia" Buitrago, who operates Tia's hot dogs, also has a gyro stand, which lends a little variety to Fourth Avenue's food scene. It does surprisingly well, she said. At festivals, it out-sells the hot dogs. On the street, it's just a little behind, she said. The locals like it. Tourists still want reindeer. (There is, of course, a reindeer-sausage/elk gyro option).

Derek Hert and his partner, Chris Sis, ran Smitty's, a cart located in the least sought-after cart spot, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and G, for three years. They sold poutine, the Canadian specialty made of fries and local cheese curds covered with gravy. They also sold hot dogs. It sounds crazy, but poutine business was off the hook, Hert said.

"There seems to be a large Canadian population here," he said.

They'd be doing it again this year, but other issues in their lives and their real jobs made it impossible, time-wise. The poutine experience showed them that the market for street food that isn't shaped like a hot dog is there. All that's missing, he said, is a little imagination.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.



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