This is a effn’ good hot dog.”
My brother Dan is a geologist and he never swears.
We’re in an old building with salmon-colored walls. Dan plows through his third hot dog, smothered in relish, pickles and ketchup.
“Are they dotted? Hey! Are they dotted? Five, one, three!”
Yester-slingers shout in this thick Yester-brogue, barely audible over Casey Kasem’s American Top 40: The 70s. Coke and Quaker Oats spokeskids wink and pout from their rusty metallic signs. A girl, no more than eight, teeters back to her booth carrying a bottle of hot sauce and three bags of Cheese Curls.
Yesterdog is a place yanked out of time, from the days of the shoop-shoop soda jerks and pie holes, but it is living and breathing in 2009 East Town, Grand Rapids. A plaster sign next door points to an Ethiopian Restaurant, which is down the street from a hookah bar and a jazz club. And it’s a block over from a ribs joint, whose barbequey goodness you can smell all the way down Wealthy Street.
The atmosphere, akin to Old Country Buffet at Thanksgiving. But manager Rene "Nino" Torres is light on his feet and his power suit is a calf-long tear in his jeans and a Dickies button-up. Definitely no geeky Mickey D’s headset and boob-high pants slapped with the Yesterdog brand for this guy, no way. An old gramophone, flipped cone-up, serves as the tip jar—the trick, it’s small and it’s behind the counter. Quarters fling, the old crank register cranks with a good strong arm and hungry customers reach with hungry fingers. It is a process of synchronized chaos, with the dip, dive and dodge quality of a fight with Mohammed Ali.
This restaurant exists without pretense in the beating heart of West Michigan—and it opens its screen door to everybody.
But is it just the franks swathed in sweaty chili and cheese? That’s just another Coney Island—Michigan’s east side is littered with Souvlakis and Leos claiming to serve up New York’s best. Why is it a watering hole for the digestibly insane? For that matter, really, why is it the place for anyone looking for a good hot dog?
Because food is culture. And culture is food. Everyone, everywhere is guzzling, shoveling, gnawing and slurping; right now, people are eating everything from blood sausages to seaweed salads. And the beauty of it, anybody with a stove and knife can mash, hash and serve food.
Especially artery-clogging “street food”, as dubbed by chef, TV-host and bad-ass foodie, Anthony Bourdain; this past season on his Travel Channel show, No Reservations, Bourdain filmed an episode entitled “Down on the Street”. In an hour-long montage of not-five stars, but carts, vendors, hole-in-the-walls and Iggy Pop, Bourdain explains that it’s these places, places like Yesterdog, that offer the best experiences and tastes.
Bourdain and chef buddy, David Chang, recently sat in on a Food and Wine panel in New York City. Bourdain reportedly asked Chang, "Is bacon less cool because Paula Deen likes it, or is it always cool, like Orson Welles?" Chang passed on explicating. But he did say that he “freakin’ hates cupcakes.” I’d say, from all of Bourdain’s serious pigging-outs on pork, he’s with Orson on this one.
These guys just use food as the serving platter. The main dish, the people they eat with. The things they learn at the dinner table or street stall. The jokes they tell and the stories they hear. That, dear friends, is culture.
And here at Yesterdog, it’s handed to us on a chilied-out bun.