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Circus of flavors: Clowndog expands hot dog options with unusual toppings, combinations

The city’s hot dog scene, once dominated by the Dog House Drive In on Central in west Downtown, has gotten considerably livelier in recent years.

Food trucks and restaurants such as Matthew Bernabe’s outstanding Urban Hot Dog Co. on the West Side have expanded the possibilities of the humble dog with unusual toppings and flavor combinations.

And now, just in time for summer, the circus-themed Clowndog in Nob Hill has entered the fray.

Don’t worry: There are no actual clowns cooking or serving the food. The name is derived from the association between hot dogs and the circus, a point driven home by the restaurant’s design scheme, featuring circus posters on walls painted in a big-top color scheme of red and blue.

Chili cheese fries at Clowndog. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Rich Bartel, a veteran of the restaurant business, opened Clowndog in April at the former home of a Ragin’ Shrimp on the south side of Central a block east of Carlisle. A small parking lot, always a bonus in Nob Hill, is on the east side of the building.

The cozy inside space is divided between a dining room and a bar. A large patio on the west side of the building is shaded.

Clowndog’s all-beef Chicago Dog served with tomatoes, pickles and sweet relish. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

When my friend and I arrived just before lunch hour, the server set down laminated menus and blue markers. As she explained, you check off boxes to indicate your choices, starting with the four hot dog options of all-beef, turkey, veggie and bratwurst. After you choose your dog and bun, things get complicated. There are dozens of toppings to suit a wide range of tastes and appetites. Extra hungry? Then load your dog up with macaroni and cheese and a fried egg. Got a sweet tooth? Check off some Fruit Loops and chocolate sauce.

Prices are based on the number of toppings. The Plain Jane ($4) offers the dog and a choice of free condiments such as mustard and sweet relish. Four toppings will set you back $6, and for only $1 more you can have unlimited toppings.

If the sheer amount of options is too bewildering, there are four Clowndog Creations: a Chicago dog, a Frito dog, a Sonoran dog and the Three-Ring Circus, featuring SpaghettiOs, fried onion rings and sliced jalapeƱos.

The Frito Dog at Clowndog combines corn chips, chili and sour cream. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

I ordered a Chicago dog, a Frito dog and a veggie dog on a gluten-free bun with relish and mustard. About five minutes later, the dogs arrived on metal trays.

The Chicago dog was a thing of beauty. Tomato slices alternating with large pickle slices lined one side of the bun, and the other held the hot dog under a pile of chopped onions and vivid green relish. The vegetables and bun were fresh. To my eye, the hot dog looked like a Nathan’s, but the server wasn’t sure where it came from. In any case, it was warm but not hot.

The same issue bedeviled the Frito dog. Otherwise, it was a successful mix of flavors and textures, with the generous pile of corn chips and ground beef chili bringing some crunch and heat to the mix. It was a challenge to eat, though, as every attempt to hoist it off the tray caused toppings to tumble out.

Clowndog has lots of gluten-free options. Even the corn dogs and onion rings are gluten-free. Each gluten-free item is clearly marked on the menu, something that all restaurants in the city should be doing, but few do.

Clowndog’s veggie dog is made with red lentils. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

The veggie dog, made in-house with red lentils, looked like a hot dog and even had sear marks from the grill. The texture, however, was a little mushy. It’s not quite the equal of the plant-based Comfort Dog at the Acre, the vegetarian restaurant on Wyoming in the Northeast Heights.

The backside of the menu has a bunch of non-hot dog choices, such as a guilt-alleviating spinach salad ($9). Chili cheese fries ($6) were good, starchy comfort food, the house-cut fries maintaining their body under a shroud of chili that imparted a slight sizzle to the tongue.

There’s a separate drink menu with beer and wine, and two desserts: chocolate-dipped frozen banana and chocolate-dipped cheesecake ($5 each).

Empty when we arrived, the dining room filled up as the lunch hour wore on. The affable owner was a doting presence, checking with everyone to see how they liked the food. His attentiveness, along with the breadth of the menu and the options for vegetarian and gluten-free diners, reflect a strong level of investment in the place that bodes well for its future.