The shack where chefs go for artisanal street meat
At first glance, the 2 a.m. crowd around the tiny hot dog shack looks like your usual horde of hungry late-night bar-goers. But beyond the drunken twenty-somethings, the line is also full of restaurant staff, fresh off their shifts—food pros who know what’s worth eating at Ossington and Queen. I even spot the crew from Montgomery’s, the nearby natural wines and Canadiana spot. They’re here for the food, and at 2 am. At a ramshackle-looking street meat stand.
Hunched inside the shack—it’s a small trailer, equipped with a grill and a deep-fryer—a burly, bearded man named Stephen Payne is serving up original-recipe hotdogs. They’re custom-made sausages masquerading as mystery meat.Mr. Payne, who used to run the charcuterie program at Parkdale’s Parts & Labour, enlists a local butcher to make his dogs from pork and beef and a punchy mix of seasonings that reveals a chef’s hand. Much like the Colonel, he’s secretive about his spices, but there’s clearly a good dose of smoked paprika in this smoky and peppery frank. Fragrant coriander and celery salt linger in the background. The result is a hot dog that’s deceptively complex.
The Loaded Dawg is my favourite. It’s scored in a diamond pattern and grilled to a sizzling char before being slipped into a toasted bun. Mr. Payne tops it with a fennel-and-cabbage slaw that adds freshness, as well as sweet and tart green tomato relish, jalapenos and spicy mayo for heat, and bread and butter pickles and diced onion to remind you that this is still just a hot dog after all. He finishes it with the crunch of crispy onions. This dog is worth eating even while stone cold sober.
Mr. Payne got the idea for his business while developing a choucroute garnie recipe at Parts & Labour. He found himself swamped with bits of sausage left over from his tests. He decided to fry them into corn dogs for a staff meal. Those corn dogs were a hit.
So in 2014, Mr. Payne left the restaurant to launch Kungfu Dawg. At first, he operated as a pop-up at music festivals and other summer events, and took up residence in bars in the winter. The shack launched last spring, when he opened it in a street-art-filled Ossington alleyway, just north of Jimmy’s Coffee.
Mr. Payne opens the stand around noon every day, and early in the week, he serves his dogs until 9 or 10 p.m. On weekends, he runs well beyond last call. It’s pretty chill in the afternoons. There’s space to sit at the single table next to his trailer with a hot dog and an order of Kungfu’s excellent fresh-cut fries while you watch commuters run to catch the Ossington bus.
Late at night, he’s a natural ringleader, calming the rowdiest customers and exchanging playful banter with those who could use a little more fun.
In addition to the Loaded, Kungfu serves plain dogs topped as you like (try the purple cabbage kraut or zingy pickled giardiniera vegetables, along with a squirt of the homemade peach and habanero hot sauce). Chili dogs feature a thin but tasty meat sauce inspired by Michigan’s Coney Island Dogs. On its own with a squiggle of nacho cheese, it’s a fun snack that takes me back to the chili dogs I grew up eating in Montreal. Add chili to the Loaded, and you get the namesake Kungfu Dawg. Frankly, this one’s a little much.
All the same elements, chili included, also top the Loaded Fries. In this case, more does equal more. Get them.
And while the Loaded Dawg is still my go-to, I had the most fun trying the item that inspired this whole venture. Mr. Payne’s smile turns extra-playful as he spears a sausage onto a long wooden stick, dips it into a cornmeal batter and drops it in the bubbling fryer. I’m imagining the lacklustre but nostalgia-inducing frozen Pogos of my youth, but this is something else entirely.
Mr. Payne lets the corn dog turn a deep golden brown before he pulls it out of the fryer. Irregular crispy nubs protrude all over—it looks like a battered version of one of those heirloom root vegetables still covered in dirt at the most rustic stand at the farmers market. It’s a little crispy, but the fluffiness of the well-seasoned batter is what truly makes it sing. Not too thin, not too thick, just right.
It’s fun, and it tastes good. What more could you want from a hot dog stand?
19 Ossington Avenue, http://kungfudawg.com/
Atmosphere: It’s a shack, Jack
Prices: Hot dogs, $4.50 to $7 (some toppings are extra); fries $4 to $7.
Drinks: Basic canned soda and bottled water.
What to eat: The loaded dawg, the corn dawg, the fries, the loaded fries