Fine dining is often fickle. Patrons often want the latest and trendiest so unless a restaurant reinvents itself every few years, it is hard to stay in business much less ever reach icon status. What does stick around is usually a low-key, limited menu restaurant that everyone can count on. It has a tried and true identity.
In fact, many towns have a food identity. Sometimes several. Are you familiar with Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington or Gus’s Hot Dog King in Newport News or The Original, known as The O, in Pittsburgh? These are local iconic joints that have been around for decades doing what they do best–serving simple, inexpensive, but great tasting, blue collar fare. These urban eateries all have a retro flair, a strong identity, and are a real snapshot of their owners. Dogs 11 in Martinsburg aims to be around for a long time and wants to be that iconic place on the culinary map.
I journeyed to Martinsburg with a single mission–eat at the new hot dog house everyone is talking about. Opened in August 2014, Dogs 11 is a hot dog shop featuring handmade, natural-casing hot dogs and all beef hot dogs with fresh cut fries, fresh ground burgers, and freshly made buns. Chef Dan Harshbarger doesn’t stop there. He makes homemade sauerkraut, cole slaw, and chili, too.
When you’re a seasoned pro at chatting up restaurateurs and you’re speaking with the affable couple who own Dogs 11, it makes for a nice way to spend some time while having a nice lunch. Chef Dan, and his wife and business partner, Tiffany, are also the proprietors of The Purple Iris at the former Hartwood Mansion–immensely popular as a wedding, banquet, and meeting venue, as well as an outstanding restaurant which is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Celebrating 12 years as the owners of The Purple Iris, the Harshbargers purchased the little yellow house next door almost three years ago which now houses Dogs 11–a place for hot dogs and hamburgers upstairs and a bakery downstairs.
Their practices at The Purple Iris directly impact Dogs 11. Tiffany points out that they age and dry their own beef and make all the breads and pastries, “If it comes out of our kitchen, we have to make it.” Chef Dan, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, says, “The more we control the product, the better it is.” When Chef Dan cuts and trims the steaks at The Purple Iris, those steak trimmings are hand ground into the ground chuck for the burgers at Dogs 11. The patties are then hand pressed. When the burger cooks, only fat cooks out, no water. Water isn’t needed because there is enough moisture from the steak trimmings. The burgers really do taste like steak burgers.
Dogs 11 serves a real traditional, Polish-style frankfurter. With the all natural casing, the hot dog is firm with a lot of snap in the bite. Chef Dan explains that the hot dogs come from a true Polish butcher in Pittsburgh that is very strict. The franks are lower in sodium, fat, and water content than many commercially prepared brands. Indeed, after eating one, I did not feel the need to gulp a gallon of water.
If you have a great dog, you need a great bun. Otherwise, it’s a fail. Chef Dan admits that it was challenging to create a great hot dog bun. “We tried many variations– twenty, actually. They’re handmade every day, rolled out, then proofed overnight to bake fresh the next morning.” The bun is soft enough that your teeth easily sink through it but sturdy enough to carry hot dog toppings.
The sauerkraut takes four to six weeks to make in earthen ware crocks and is a tart-but-not-overly so condiment. Beans don’t belong in chili that goes on hot dogs, so this legume-free chili is made with the same tasty ground chuck as the hamburgers. I loved it because it is very beefy without a lot of sauce– you know you’re eating beef, and it’s not swimming in a red sugary goop.
Dogs 11 has an original condiment- -Mountaineer Sauce. “I decided to make a sauce to take on a hunting trip–a bit of dijon mustard, some mayonnaise, horseradish and garlic. My friend, Jay, asked, ‘What do you call this, Mountaineer Sauce?’ and I replied, ‘I do now!” It’s great on the burger, the hot dog, and for dipping fries.
For soft drinks, Dogs 11 offers cane sugar sodas. Founded in New Jersey in 1891, the Boylan Bottling Company is known for its full line of hand-crafted sodas including Ginger Ale, Root Beer, Black Cherry and Creme sodas, to other popular flavors, including Cane Cola, Orange and Grape.
Everybody enjoys a good dog so Dogs 11 sees quite a cross-section of customers including business people, Air Guard employees, construction workers, and families. It’s a meal that won’t break your bank. “Of course, we’re family friendly,” says Chef Dan, “this is what a hot dog shop was fifty years ago. We’re genuine, real, authentic, and we’re in it for the long haul. We plan to see generations of families.”
There aren’t enough of these places left or opening anywhere. With a strong start, Dogs 11 is on its way to being a Martinsburg icon. They aren’t planning a flashy opening and are just letting the business evolve on its own.
With the heart of a risk-taker and a mind that is absent of fear, Chef Dan says, “I’ve had a burning desire my whole life to leave a legacy. We aren’t perfect, but I wake up in the morning wanting to try. I’d rather fail trying than not. When comparing the hot dog shop to the gray-stone mansion that is The Purple Iris, Chef Dan reflects, “My dad would say I have a hot dog personality. I’m a city kid from Pittsburgh. This is more of who I am and more fitting of my personality than a mansion.”
On the walls, charming images of dogs are for sale in print or on canvas. Art by Weeze is a noted local artist who airbrushes and hand paints detailed art on motorcycles, leathers, helmets, canvas, murals and more.
Dine in or carry out. Dogs 11 is located on Route 11 South/ Winchester Avenue across from Battery Mart and just past The Purple Iris. If you’re passing through, you gotta hit this spot.