Winter Hours: Mon.-Fri. 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 10 p.m.-4 a.m.
Fare: Hot dogs and hamburgers
Atmosphere: Hot-dog-centric diner
Pittsburgh palates are sophisticated when it comes to central European peasant food, particularly kielbasa. As with any food dear to the people, debates are spirited as to which is the best. A few years back, the then-mayor wanted to have a contest to name the best kielbasa in the city, but found himself stranded on the shoals of controversy: Was it kielbasa, kolbassi, or even kolvasi? Suffice it to say, the contest never got off the ground.
When Prescila Aquino Jessen and her husband, Danny, decided to start a sausage-centric restaurant here, they deferred to the experts. A few years ago, 50 foodies from across the country undertook the noble task of taste-testing their way to the top of America's sausage makers. The winner: Usinger's, from Wisconsin. And now, the Jessens claim that their TopDog on the Strip is the only place in town where you can get these superlative tubes of ground beef and pork, spiced in a variety of ways.
Tucked into a corner storefront on Smallman Street, TopDog evokes the casual, cheerful atmosphere of an old-fashioned diner without resorting to a literal retro approach. The color scheme is mustard yellow and ketchup red; the walls are adorned by cartoon murals of dogs eating wieners and ice cream cones; and the many-windowed mezzanine is made for those ever-popular pastimes, hanging out and people-watching.
Despite the name, TopDog offers a lot more than your average sidewalk hot-dog cart. In addition to a surprising selection of frankfurter styles (all-beef, pork and beef, even deep-fried) and toppings, the menu features German, Polish and Spanish sausages, as well as burgers stacked two or three patties high. There's also a grilled chicken wrap for those less inclined toward fried beef. French fries and onion rings round out the utensils-optional offerings.
Obviously, we had to have a hot dog. Though intrigued by the locally made SteelTown dog, which is skinless and deep-fried in peanut oil, Angelique opted for the menu headliner, TopDog's Famous Hotdog, a beef and pork frank in its natural casing. Plump, juicy and packed with savory real-meat flavor, the dog was delicious, though the bun was a disappointing piece of supermarket-grade fluff. For 50 cents extra, Angelique added TopDog's specialty topping, cusabi slaw: cabbage and cucumbers in a wasabi-mayonnaise dressing. Crunchy, creamy and packing a wasabi bite that stopped just short of dissolving her sinuses, this distinctive concoction made her want to sit up and beg for more.
Jason tested Usinger's -- and TopDog's -- sausage chops with the Spanish Andouille sandwich. A sassy blend of Cajun spices complemented, but did not overwhelm, the sausage's fundamentally meaty flavor. A generous serving of sautéed onions and red peppers lent the sandwich sweetness and a bit of crunch, and the lightly toasted Italian roll was just right.
Our daughter generously donated bites of her "Pup Burger" to her parents' dining duty. It was a single, loosely formed patty whose edges were seared to a delightful crisp. Much as Jason loves fat, juicy burgers, he sometimes also craves a simpler, less imposing patty; TopDog's is it, served on a doughy roll that would work alongside pasta.
Of course, a meal of hot dogs and hamburger is not complete without deep-fried sides. TopDog's fresh-cut French fries were a beautiful, almost mahogany shade of brown after their hot peanut-oil bath, but their soft, slightly limp texture was a bit of a letdown. They were OK with a burger or dog, but wouldn't be worth a trip on their own. The onion rings, on the other hand, tasted just as good as they looked. Deeply browned, they were extremely crisp from the top to the bottom of the heap, and the onions within were soft and sweet.
Finally, the unexpected treat that made Jason fall in love with TopDog: frozen custard. Jason grew up hearing his mother's reveries of this concoction, so rich it makes soft-serve ice cream seem like a Sno-Cone. Now this old-fashioned decadence is available right at TopDog on the Strip, and its creaminess, combined with a lightness that artificial thickeners can't match, was a luscious finish to a meal of throwback food well prepared.
Jason: 3.5 stars
Angelique: 3 stars