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Puppy Love

by B.A. Nilsson on August 3, 2011

Summer in Saratoga: It’s a gamble. Will there be a parking space? Can you tolerate such a crush of hoi polloi? Will you find a seat at a restaurant? Once there, can you get service? All this in addition to your unpredictable fortunes at the track.

 Add to the crapshoot another not-so-sure thing: Will there be any food left at Saratoga Awesome Dogs?

My first try at the highly recommended place was in the afternoon on a day of earlier rain. The cart was shuttered. Second was late enough in the afternoon that the offerings were down to a dog or two and I had hungry family and friends to feed. But you know what they say about third times. The smoker was heaped with burgers and a variety of tubestuffs, and a steady succession of customers availed themselves of the fare.

Roadside (or parking-lot) hot-dog carts are familiar summer-landscape items, but the genius of Saratoga Awesome Dog’s Kathy Kahl is in choosing to smoke the menu’s meats. Ever have a smoked hot dog or kielbasa slice? I hadn’t before I paid my successful visit (visits, actually; it’s been more than one).

I’ve extolled the wonders of meat-smoking many times before. That won’t stop me this time. I have entered the nimbus of smoker smoke many times in the company of a vegetarian, and witnessed the instinct-level effect of the powerful combination of aromas as they ease past intellectual pretense and tug at the person’s evolutionary past.

Pork butt, which is actually shoulder, and pork ribs thrive when smoked as the low-temperature overnight cooking softens an otherwise pugnacious meat, infusing it en route with the singular flavor of smoke. You can’t do it with chemicals; you can’t do it in an Alto-Shaam. Kahl smokes her pork butt elsewhere overnight and thus brings a finite amount of pulled pork to her stand. She had plenty on a recent early-afternoon visit, but already had sold out of coleslaw—which has a natural affinity with pulled pork—and cucumber salad, both homemade.

And while we’re considering what wasn’t there, it was too early in the week for her smoked great northern beans, about which I’d heard great praise. “I like to mix up the side dishes through the week,” she explained, “so I don’t make them all every day.”

Kahl is in a corner of a parking lot shared by Saratoga Quality Hardware and Eddie’s Beverage Center (EBI). Behind her cart-and-smoker complex is a tent with a couple of picnic tables underneath. Beside that is the recently opened Spring Run Trail, a two-mile bicycle and pedestrian path that was also busy with customers.

The red cart, with its distinctive recumbent-dog logo, will catch your eye first. Then you’ll see the black cylinder of the smoker beside it. That’s probably Kathy tending the wares within. Grab a peek. Admire the many shades of burnt umber on the wursts within. There’s a kaleidoscope of flavors to match.

An unadorned hot dog of whatever shade is two bucks. You’ll want to add the fifty cents that makes it an Awesome Dog, adding Kahl’s terrific meat sauce. For me, a proper dog also should be aswirl with spicy mustard and chopped onions (please, hold the relish; save the candy for dessert) so that the first juicy bite can spit a payload of toppings onto the convex belly-top of my shirt.

Go Teutonic with a topping of sauerkraut, instead, or avail yourself of toppings of cheese, salsa or sliced jalapenos (50¢ each). For $3.50, you can heap meat sauce, cheese and sauerkraut, for what the menu terms a “dirty dog.”

A smoked hamburger is $3. Bratwurst is $4. But if it’s your first visit, splurge your four bucks on kielbasa, and get some sauerkraut on that puppy. It’s a juicier meat than a hot dog, and the smoke merely mingles with the characteristic array of flavors. (When I tried to replicate this dish at home, it was too smoky. So there’s obviously a skilled guiding hand here.)

The pulled pork sandwich ($6.50) sports a high heaping of the stuff on a large Italian roll. Although it’s served sauceless, with a container on the side so that you may slather at will, the meat is prepared with enough of a hint of the sauce to give even its unadorned flavor a pleasant sweetness. Pulled pork is best when it’s just come off the heat, but even this presentation yields the earthy magic of its flavor.

Along with the many condiments and aforementioned side dishes are, when available, macaroni salad ($2.50), nachos and cheese ($3.50), bagged potato chips, cold sodas and water. Delicious homemade brownies are two bucks apiece.

Kahl also sells fresh produce from a nearby farm, and you might even be able to avail yourself of a jar of her homemade pickles ($8 for dill, $7 for sweet). She’s been running this operation for five years, opening in early April and toughing it out until just before Christmas. And when the cart is closed, chances are you’ll see her around town supplying food to Saratoga’s many outdoor activities.

There’s also a satellite operation in a parking lot on West Avenue near Church Street, open more or less during lunch hours, says Kahl, the hours governed by its proprietor’s whim.

Saratoga Awesome Dogs

110 Excelsior Ave. (Quality Hardware parking lot), Saratoga Springs. Serving 11-4 Mon-Thu, 11-5 Fri-Sat, 11-3 Sun, weather permitting. Open later on track days. Cash only.

Cuisine: burgers and dogs

Entrée price range: $2 (plain dog) to $6.50 (pulled-pork sandwich)

Ambiance: al fresco