I have a new favorite steak house. That’s tube steak, I mean, a.k.a. the humble hot dog. For perfection in the art of the dog, you just can’t beat Zap’s Gourmet Hotdogs, 423 W. Muhammad Ali Blvd., (502) 587-0251.
This delightful new downtown lunch spot specializes in this simple fare, and does so with a flair that has made it a midday attraction for growing hordes of downtown workers, along with a few gourmands like me who can’t resist making the trek in from Crescent Hill and other places to catch a Zapernak Dog and a mound of the world’s crispiest homemade potato chips.
Housed in the storefront quarters in the old Molee Building that briefly was home to Chutnee’s, a short-lived Indian buffet, Zap’s management has pretty much got the curry scent out of the fixtures.They’ve renovated the space with simple, attractive bright colors and a floor enameled to resemble a brick path through flagstones. Exceptionally cordial and smiling servers take your order, requesting your choice of dog (from $2.50 for a single Zapernak Dog to $6.25 for a bison dog combo made from genuine raised-in-Kentucky buffalo meat), your choice of toppings (up to four from a list of 20 or so), along with your decision on plain dog or combo with chips or slaw and a fountain drink.
Wait a few moments and another smiling gent (everyone here is as smiley as the cast of a Broadway musical, it appears) will call your number and fork over your food, almost insisting that you try some seasoning salt, Old Bay or Cajun spice mix on your chips. Don’t mind if I do!
We sampled a couple of dogs for lunch the other day, one topped with bright-green Chicago-style “Neon Relish,” chopped onions and mustard, the other a big half-pounder dressed with a mound of tasty sauerkraut, and found both above reproach. These are excellent Chicago-style dogs, not your mass-market nutritionist’s nightmare, featuring dark-red, flavorful weenie-meat encased in a natural casing, the kind that resists the tooth with an al dente challenge before giving way with a snap that releases those salty, tasty juices. Potato chips, as mentioned, were excellent, made on the premises, thin-sliced and estimably crispy, grease-free, so good that they really don’t require seasonings, although you’re under a lot of pressure to take at least a shake or two. A small cup of thick, spicy Midwestern-style chili ($1.75, with ground beef and red beans but no spaghetti) made a fine side dish on a blustery day.
It looks a lot like a chain eatery – a very high-quality chain – right down to the suggestive “Zap’s From Florida to California” on the logo and the hokey legend of Cyrus Zapernak, the firm’s purported Hungarian founder. In fact, the friendly gent in charge confided, it’s not a chain yet, but they’ve got high hopes and intend to franchise just as fast as they can. If they can maintain the current formula of high quality food, reasonable prices and delightful service, Zap’s might just grow up to challenge the Golden Arches.
For now, you can find it only at 423 W. Muhammad Ali and only at lunch time (11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday). But wait for warmer weather: The owners, with a canny eye on Fourth Street Live’s odd policy of closing its eateries at 10 p.m., plan to reopen late on Thursday through Saturday nights, hoping to lure in hungry hordes by evening as they already do by day. I wouldn’t bet against these guys … I’m just hoping to get in on the ground floor of the IPO.