A veggie dog, ironically, is often not made from vegetables. Or not enough of them, anyway. Instead, the vegan versions of hot dogs often are made of an array of soy-based products, which makes customers at Fritzi Dog do a double take when they discover that the Original Farmers Market eatery's veggie dog is made from a carrot.
Even in vegan circles, a carrot-based veggie dog isn't the norm, so we caught up with Fritzi Dog owner Neal Fraser (BLD, the late and lamented Grace, the forthcoming Redbird) to ask why he prefers a carrot to tofu and what diners think of his unique creation.
Squid Ink: On your menu, what's vegan and what's vegetarian?
Neal Fraser: The carrot dog, which we've been making since we opened, is vegan. We recently came up with a vegan bun, which is our pretzel bun made without milk powder. Most of our buns have nonfat dried milk powder and then they're glazed with eggs. The dog we came up with has deep-fried Brussels sprouts that are topped with gremolata. And that goes on top of the dog. That's our signature vegan dog. Although you can add other things to it, we feel like that's the best combination of ingredients, vegan-wise.
SI: Why have you included the carrot dog since the day you opened?
NF: I'm born and raised in Los Angeles and I try to be no dummy to what people want. We have a fine-dining restaurant, Grace, and a cafe called BLD and we've always had vegan and vegetarian options on our menus because people want them. I never wanted to be the place that you couldn't go to just because you didn't eat a specific thing. That's why we have a gluten-free bun as well. We wanted to be inclusive and make something that is great and unique.
As a non-vegan, I don't really like textured wheat protein. I just don't like the consistency of it. And if I'm going to eat a vegetable, I want it to taste like a vegetable. I don't want my vegetables to taste like meat or look like meat. We experimented with a couple of things and a friend of mine mentioned she's had something similar before, so we applied some modern techniques to a carrot.
SI: How long did you experiment with the carrot before you felt like you got it right?
NF: Not that long. Maybe a couple of weeks before we got the texture and flavor profile correct. We wanted it to taste like a hot dog. We have lots of other vegan options — roasted onions and peppers and things like that — and I don't think catsup and mustard is necessarily right for the carrot dog like a traditional hot dog. If you put peppers and onions and Brussels sprouts on it, at a certain point, it has a similar snap like a regular boiled hot dog. You kind of forget that it is vegan, which to me is kind of part of why it's good. It doesn't taste like something other than a hot dog.
SI: So it's not in that “other” category?
NF: Yeah. A lot of people think it's amazingly creative and some people are like, “What the fuck? You're serving a carrot.” They're organic carrots and they're whittled down to the size of a hot dog. Obviously, a lot more prep goes into that than into our normal hot dogs. They take man-hours to make them.
SI: How long? Can you explain the process?
NF: More or less, they're whittled down and then we add spices and vinegar. Then we vacuum pack them and cook them at a low temperature for a long period of time.
SI: I read somewhere it's 18 hours with 26 spices.
NF: Something like that. Yeah.
SI: So this is a long process.
NF: Yeah. I think all food is taking something complicated and making it seem easy. That's what keeps you coming back for something. If something is too complicated, it goes over your head.
SI: What's the response like from carnivores?
NF: It's definitely our most mixed hot dog. People either love it or they don't, and I think that always says something. If it's a mediocre, lukewarm response, you don't always know if people are being genuine. One of my daughter's friends had it and he couldn't wrap his head around it. He's a vegetarian. He's also 9 years old. He said, “It's a carrot. Why are you charging me five dollars for a carrot?” It was very funny. Most people think it's unique and intriguing and delicious.
SI: Since you've opened, you've added more vegan and vegetarian options, right?
NF: We've added toppings, basically.
SI: The Veggie Eastsider comes with sour cream, while the Fritzi'd Out mentions cheese. Can I get those without or are those cooked into the carrot?
NF: Everything is added to order, so you can omit whatever you want.
SI: What about the sauces?
NF: The blue cheese sauce has dairy and the buffalo has egg yokes in it. The barbecue sauce is vegan.
SI: Does having vegan and vegetarian options bring in more customers? More notoriety?
NF: We're a finite-set restaurant. We serve hot dogs. To a certain point, we want to be as inclusive as possible. Sure, we hope vegans and vegetarians come and eat a Fritzi Dog and enjoy it just as much as somebody who's getting a Bird Dog with chili on top. We want to be responsive to where we are and who our customer base is. And the fact that we're at the Farmers Market and there's a lot of different options. We would love for people to choose us whether they eat meat or not.
SI: What's your favorite of the veggie options?
NF: The carrot dog with the fried Brussels sprouts and the gremolata. I really like Brussels sprouts as a basic ingredient. I eat Brussels sprouts a lot at home and I cook them a lot in all of our restaurants. I think they have great texture and flavor, and I think that's the perfect thing to put on top of a hot dog. Some of them are crunchy and some are not, so the derivation of texture is important to the eating experience. Sometimes, with vegetarian food, that's harder to do. It's harder to take a burger we have at BLD and put a hard sear on it. It's hard to sear vegetables, so I like the fact that that adds texture to it.
SI: Like most kids, I couldn't stand Brussels sprouts, but as an adult I can't get enough of them. Why is that?
NF: It's the way they're cooked. I had them as a child as well and my mom absolutely slaughtered them. She braised them in a liquid until they smelled like Agent Orange. Again, it comes down to technique. The traditional way to cook Brussels sprouts was to braise them. It's very powerful. You can smell it through walls, whereas when you cook something quickly, it's a very different experience. Brussels sprouts are smaller now, and they used to have a definite season. You saw them in the fall and that was pretty much it. And now they're year-round.
SI: Your favorite is the dog with the gremolata. Is that the best-selling?
NF: I would say that one.
SI: What's the worst-selling?
NF: Everything sells. When stuff doesn't sell, we change it up. Again, we're dealing with a finite set of ingredients. For the most part, if something's not working, we usually take it off the menu. I don't think there are a lot of straight-up losers on our menu.
SI: Are you the only place in L.A. that you know of serving carrot dogs?
NF: Yes. But the idea was brought to me by someone who had had it somewhere else.
SI: What did you think at first when that person suggested a carrot?
NF: I thought it was unique because it kind of made sense just by its shape. Again, it's our most controversial dog. Some people think it's genius and some people think it's a stupid idea. But you could say the same thing about vegans, too.
SI: It seems like it would have been easier for you serve a Tofurkey dog or something like that.
NF: The way I experience food is probably very similar to the way you experience food. I want something to taste good, I want it to have texture, I want it to have flavor. Certain things lend themselves much better to being vegetarian. I could take wild mushrooms powdered and fresh and incorporate that into polenta with great olive oil and have it be very satisfying. To me, stamping out a pork chop from a piece of soy is not what I want. If I want a pork chop, I want a pork chop. I thought about doing a tempeh dog, but it's like you need to make the mix, ferment it and cook it from there. To me, that's much harder to do.