For as long as I can remember, my mom has been telling me about the wonders of the center-cut hot dog bun. A taste memory of her East Coast youth spent dining at Howard Johnson, the center-cut bun has been, in my own experience, a culinary unicorn — elegized but never seen. In fact, so rooted was I in the standard-issue side-split bun of school lunch lines and ballparks, I couldn't imagine what she meant by a bun sliced along the top instead of on the side. Sheer heresy, I thought.
Then I went to Cori's Dog House, the first spin-off of the Mt. Juliet nameplate and newest tenant in the building that formerly housed U.S. Border Cantina. Fortunately, my mom was with me. Otherwise, I might not have made the connection between her nostalgic longing for a HoJo sandwich and the golden butter-kissed marvel of a roll custom-made by Provence bakery and served in this bright-yellow-and-red diner-themed doggery.
Provence baker Keith Brown has worked with Cori's owner Sean "Sully" Sullivan since Cori's Mt. Juliet debut two years ago, when Sullivan came looking for the kind of roll traditionally used in New England to sandwich lobster salad. Based on Sullivan's description, Brown experimented for weeks with formulas and cookware, ultimately prescribing a custom-made pan to create sweet-and-yeasty lobster rolls.
Brown forms a series of rolls and places them side-by-side in the pan, so when they rise and cook, they stick together. To prepare the hot dogs, the Cori's guys — wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "Professional Bun Handler" — tear apart the contiguous rolls and bisect the smooth crusty spines to make nests for the hot dogs, sausages and other fillings. Then they butter the ragged crustless sides and place the fluffy pockets on the flat-top, where the sides grill to golden-brown and assume the toasty texture of the most perfect grilled cheese. Then the fillings — including split-and-grilled dogs — get piled in.
I may have been reading too much into things, but as we tasted the oversized sandwiches, I could almost see the videotape playing in my mom's brain, a greatest hits reel of meals in Mad Men-era motel restaurants. Having never tasted the center-cut bun of yore, I can't be too authoritative on the matter, but let's just say this: Mom said Cori's was better than HoJo's.
To be sure, Cori's — named for Sullivan's 10-year-old daughter — elevates the standard hot dog to a decadent affair. Sabrett all-beef dogs, which are laced with enough salty smoke to make you wonder if they don't spend at least a little while cuddled up next to a side of bacon, get dressed up with toppings such as chili, barbecue sauce, onion rings, jalapenos, shredded cheese, bacon, baked beans, blue cheese, banana peppers, sauerkraut and coleslaw dotted with cranberries. Turkey dogs, soy- and tofu-based dogs, bratwurst, and andouille, Polish and chicken sausages are also available.
There are 38 standard dogs and sausages, ranging from the simple New York (deli mustard and kraut) to the Hawaii (pineapple and mango relish). Diners can also create their own combinations out of the 35 different toppings. Regardless of toppings, the majority of hot dogs cost $3.75, while sausages cost $4.
Anyone who consumes one of each of the 38 listed combinations — as recorded on a personal punch card — gets his or her name on the wall of fame. Working as a team, our family got almost a quarter of the way down the list, but when we asked to have our card punched, we were advised in a firm-but-gentle way that this was an individual challenge. Our joint effort would be cheating.
So if you don't think you'll make it down the ambitious list of two-score-minus-two dogs, you might want to consider these highlights:
The runaway dog favorite at our table was the Jersey Breakfast, topped with chopped bacon, shredded cheddar and a fried egg, whose sunny broken yolk oozed dramatically into the crisp buttery sponge of the lobster roll, turning the sandwich into a sumptuously soggy handful that would have carried a drizzle of maple syrup just as naturally as a squirt of ketchup.
If you can get past the fact that it doesn't come on the obligatory poppy seed roll, then the Chicago dog represents the Midwest admirably, with bright-green relish, tomatoes, onions, pickle spear, sport peppers and celery salt.
The Pennsylvania delivers an Italian sausage with marinara, provolone or mozzarella. A version known as the Wise Guy is available on the specialty sandwich roster, with ground sweet Italian sausage redolent of fennel and strewn with melted cheese. A diner at our table described the latter as a meatball sandwich without the awkward challenge of the meatball.
Other specialty sandwiches include French dip with Swiss cheese, grilled onions and au jus; fried bologna; grilled cheese (available with bacon and tomatoes); and Philly beef. Depending on your level of orthodoxy regarding the bread required for a Philadelphia cheesesteak, Cori's version — served on the lobster roll — is either an intriguing interpretation of the classic or an abomination. We'll side with the former.
With the exception of the vibrant relish on the Chicago dog, there is little in the way of green vegetables on the Cori's menu. Nutritionally speaking, Cori's is the kind of place to let it all hang out, with a pint of Yazoo and a basket of hand-breaded onion rings, freshly cut French fries and even a fried Twinkie. We could suggest a hot dog wrapped in lettuce, but frankly it would be heartbreaking to skip the center-cut bun.
Speaking of which, when I asked general manager Jeff Troiano if he was familiar with Howard Johnson's buns of my mother's fond memories, he laughed knowingly. No, he said, Cori's isn't trying to replicate HoJo. But Sullivan is trying to recapture a taste sensation of his own childhood, from when his mother used to take him to dine at Woolworth. The lunch counter at the five-and-dime served a center-cut grilled roll similar to the HoJo bun. Either way, it seems, when it comes to memorable hot dogs, Mother knows best.
Cori's Dog House opens daily at 10:30 a.m. and serves until 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7 p.m. on Sunday.