Other than hostesses acting happy to see you, one of the best culinary consequences of the economic downturn has been a burgeoning fast-food renaissance. Practically everyone's in on it, from Danny Meyer, who assigned an Eleven Madison Park crew to run a seasonal hot-dog stand, to Daniel Boulud, seen on the cover of his latest cookbook clutching a street-cart frank as if he might actually take a bite. The pose may be more tongue-in-cheek than dog-in-mouth; this is, after all, the four-star Frenchman who with a little foie gras and a lot of attitude practically reinvented that quintessential American meal, the hamburger, at DB Bistro Moderne. But $29 burgers aside, there's no denying it's an interesting time in American fast-food history, as the current compulsion for cheap, familiar, not necessarily good-for-you grub collides with the organic, environmentally correct, artisanal food movement spearheaded by Alice Waters and her countercultural ilk. Frequently to bizarre effect, we might add.
We've seen organic doughnuts, artisanal marshmallows, and Ring Dings and Oreos made from scratch, so it was only a matter of time before a pedigreed chili-cheese dog came along. But if you take the best free-range-hormone-free-beef frank you can find, coddle it in a custom-baked bun, and lavish it with all-natural beef chili, applewood-smoked bacon, fried onions, and small-batch Cheddar, is it still junk food?
The answer is entirely beside the point at Sparky's American Food, the unassuming source of the $4 Sparky Dog described above. Like the sleek Chelsea fast-food spot F&B before it, Sparky's is bucking the New York "water dog" tradition, elevating franks to haute new heights. But unlike Euro-inflected F&B, which pushes twist-off champagne and rémoulade-topped wieners, Sparky's is unabashedly American, from its cheese fries to its chocolate shakes. Housed in a former fish warehouse in Williamsburg, Sparky's has an urban-industrial appeal, with its cracked concrete wall, rough wooden beams, bare bulbs, and varnished pine tables. A picture of Sparky, the owner's dog, sits on the sidewalk to mark the entrance, a onetime loading dock. Plastic sheets temporarily hung from the rafters until a new door arrives don't succeed in blocking the wind, but a space heater helps.
That's too bad, because this is fast food worth lingering over. Laid off from his dot-com job a year ago, Sparky's owner Brian Benavidez spent months getting the details right -- wheedling a local bakery into custom-baking his unusually sturdy and flavorful buns, then tasting dozens of hot dogs before settling on quarter-pound Fearless Franks from Niman Ranch, the Bay Area brand that's revered by chefs and renowned for its humane ranching practices. The dogs are made from beef that's actually been dry-aged for five days, and Bill Niman himself sold Benavidez on the surprising merits of steaming his hot dogs rather than boiling, grilling, or frying. Instead of rendering them limp and lifeless, the method actually preserves their snap and highlights their remarkable beefy, hickory-smoked flavor.
The quality of the hot dog is matched by the quality of the toppings. Choose your own or try one of the thirteen combinations ($2.50 to $4), like relish, hot cherry peppers, pickle, tomato, and celery salt (No. 6), a worthy tribute to the Chicago-style dog; classic sauerkraut and mustard (No. 10); and our favorite, "buffalo wing" sauce and blue-cheese dressing (No. 7), one of those inspired all-American pairings like fried chicken and waffles -- pure fast-food fusion genius. The finely ground chuck for the chili and burger (a bit bland, and outmuscled by its flour-dusted soft bun) also comes from Niman Ranch, as does the spectacularly thick, meaty bacon. The Cheddar on the grilled cheese, and on the hand-cut, amiably gloppy cheese fries, is from Grafton, the esteemed Vermont producer, and shakes are blended from Ronnybrook Farm Dairy ice creams and milks. While no one has ever improved on Heinz, Benavidez's slightly sweet and spicy homemade ketchups are admirable attempts. Mustard is also made in-house, and so are quirky desserts like chocolate-covered cranberry-studded Rice Krispy treats and tart, tiny caramel apples.
While Sparky's attempts to raise fast food to a higher level, the Burger Joint wants to bring it back down to earth. Sequestered behind floor-to-ceiling curtains in the lobby of Le Parker Meridien hotel, the joint is the elegant hostelry's dirty little secret, offering guests -- and anyone else who can find it -- a $4.50 alternative to its own $20 room-service burger. Once you locate the entrance and push apart the drapes, half expecting a butler from Eyes Wide Shut to appear and ask you for the password, you'll find a coffee shop with faux-wood paneling, vinyl booths, and a few sports-page photos taped to the walls. It's barely three months old, but the timeworn greasy-spooniness is uncannily convincing.
We're reminded of John Belushi's short-order character by the sign on the counter: IF YOU DON'T SEE IT, WE DON'T HAVE IT! What they do have is strictly not gourmet -- for that, you can head across the lobby to Norma's or Seppi's. McDonald's-style fries ($1.50) served in a brown paper bag are addictively crisp and light; $2.50 Sam Adams come in plastic frat-boy cups; and gooey brownies ($1.50) taste like they're made from a mix. Although there's been some misguided talk of adding veggie burgers to the menu, for now, the Burger Joint's raison d'être is its defiantly spartan, perfectly juicy hamburger ($4.50), made from freshly ground beef grilled to order and served unceremoniously on an Arnold's bun. It comes wrapped in paper, without a plate, and does exactly what this sort of food is supposed to -- satisfy an elemental craving and make you glad you're not a vegetarian.
For those who like their hot dogs and hamburgers with a side of kitsch, we recommend Chelsea's Trailer Park Lounge & Grill. The white-trash memorabilia -- including a collection of bios with titles like Elvis: What Happened?, Thin Ice: The Tonya Harding Story, and Jim Bakker's I Was Wrong -- is unsurpassed. But we'd return for the "fat dog," a terrific char-grilled knockwurst served with sweet-potato fries. The chili's not bad, either.