If COVID has had a chilling effect on the local restaurant business, you wouldn’t know it from the lunch scene at the Dog House Drive In on Central.
There were at least 20 cars in the small parking lot throughout the hour I was there. When one left, another pulled in to take its place. Two servers handled the situation with aplomb, lugging drinks and bags of food out to cars and then stopping to take orders from the new arrivals.
The vehicles that crowded the lot came in all shapes and sizes. A low rider, windows tinted an inky black, sat between an SUV full of kids and a bug-splattered van with Utah plates. There was no sign of Jesse Pinkman waiting to buy a handgun or Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill peddling mobile phones
While “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” used it as a backdrop for criminal activity, the real Dog House is a throwback to a more innocent time. It opened in the 1960s at the tail-end of the Golden Age of car travel, when Route 66 was the most viable way westward to the Pacific. After the completion of I-40 in the late 1960s, the so-called Mother Road through Albuquerque fell into a state of neglect; the Dog House, however, defied the odds and prospered in its new location just two blocks west of the original spot on 10th Street and Central Avenue.
Some 50-plus years later, the restaurant remains much the same, serving up hot dogs, hamburgers and shakes from a wheat-colored brick hovel crowned with the now iconic neon sign, an elongated dachshund wagging its tail and chewing on a string of sausages.
The Dog House has made some accommodations for the modern world. There are bars over the windows and indoor seating is no longer available, a casualty of COVID. A few tables and benches have been arranged out front for those who don’t want to risk splattering chili on their car seats.
The menu, posted on a large sign that hangs over the front awning, is comprised of classic American road food livened up with some New Mexico heat. Nothing is more than $8. You order from your car and, based on my experience, you won’t have to wait long. A server approached me only seconds after I pulled up in one of the angled parking spaces. The food arrived in under 10 minutes.
The foot-long chili dog ($4.90), the Dog House’s signature item, comes wrapped tightly in paper. The bun is stretched thinly around the length of a hot dog that’s been sliced in half lengthwise and seared on the grill. It’s not the most Instagrammable food item, but it tastes terrific. Splitting the hot dog means it carries more of the tasty char from the grill, and the heat from the silky chili underneath sneaks up on you a few seconds after you start chewing. Its lands somewhere between making your nose run and eliminating your ability to speak.
Like many of the best hot dog stands, the Dog House also serves up a solid burger. The patty on the Cheeseburger ($5.90) is prepared smashburger style, and the soft bun and crunchy chopped lettuce provide an appealing textural contrast. It was tasty and easy to put away, but next time I would want to spice it up with some chili.
The Dog House’s meat version of Frito Pie ($6.80), served in a greasy takeout box, was a no-frills presentation. A pile of chopped lettuce and tomato slices hid a layer of chili with ground beef over corn chips. The chili sauce softened the top layer of corn chips but didn’t reach the bottom chips, so some mixing is advised.
Alongside the burgers and dogs, popular sides include Tater Tots ($2.50) and Fries ($2.50). Both the tots, the size and shape of a small stack of poker chips, and the thick-cut fries were nicely done: crisp on the outside, fluffy and hot on the inside. I would recommend getting them with the chili cheese sauce.
The menu has floats and shakes that serve as both thirst quenchers and desserts. They are available in a 16-ounce size for $3.40 and a 24-ounce serving for $3.90. The 16-ounce Cherry Shake provided a sweet, creamy balance to the spicy chili.
Vegan and gluten-free options are scant, as you might expect. Dog House ownership might consider designating some options on the menu for gluten-free diners the way that Clowndog in Nob Hill does.
Then again, who am I to suggest any changes? The Dog House appears to be doing just fine in its seventh decade of operation. Thanks to the remarkable team of servers and cooks, it’s a well-oiled machine that runs smoothly even under a steady onslaught of customers.