Battle: New School Gourmet Sausages

Berkeley Dog's bratwurst with chili and cheese
Berkeley Dog's bratwurst with chili and cheese
Berkeley Dog's bratwurst with chili and cheese

Gourmet hot doggeries have opened in the Southland in recent years despite a shabby economy, because gussied-up sausage sandwiches give good value for your dining-out dollar. Faced with newish restaurants as varied as Wurstküche, Slaw Dogs, Brats Brothers, and Fab Hot Dog in Los Angeles County, dog lovers behind the Orange Curtain might shrink with a case of  sausage envy. But shrink not, for our county's wieners are mighty.

In one corner: Jerry's Wood-Fired Dogs, slinging dogs since 2003. As the name says, the schtick is sausages grilled over wood fire and smoke. In the other corner, Berkeley Dog, the 2010 newcomer.  Berkeley's game is to clone the legendary Top Dog up in Berkeley. Though it's endorsed and supplied by Top Dog, it can't take Top's name, like an illegitimate love child born of wienerlust.

The sandwich: I chose bratwurst, topped with chili. Brats + chili = someone's dead German uncle rolling over six feet under Sheboygan, but it's my sandwich, so deal.

The brat: Peek at Jerry's grill and you'll notice that there are no knobs to control the gas heat because the grill runs only on wood. Cooking directly over hot coals gives the mildly nutmeggy brats a pleasantly smoky flavor. Berkeley Dog's sausage is pure pork dosed with marjoram. Related to oregano but mellower and a little sweeter, marjoram adds a nice herbal complexity to the nutmeg and black pepper in the recipe.

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Berkeley's brat has bigger flavors than Jerry's classically mild pork and veal tube steak, but since it's griddled on a flat top, it doesn't take on any smoky grill flavor. Both were cooked with equal skill, and both were juicy and delicious. As a BBQ competitor, I have to give points to the extra skill it takes to cook over live wood fire. Winner: Jerry's

The bread: A great sandwich must have great bread appropriate to the task. Jerry's bun is a soft-crusted, Midwestern-style brat roll which you can get grilled on request. It's big, soft and sized to hold a generous portion of toppings. Overall, the sandwich felt too big unless you're able to unhinge your jaw like a python. Berkeley's French roll is toasted on the griddle by default, and has a crisp, chewy sesame crust. It's a much slimmer baguette type roll that keeps the focus on the sausage. Winner: Berkeley

Jerry's brat with chili
Jerry's brat with chili
Jerry's brat with chili

The chili: Both companies boast a secret recipe chili. They're both beanless and thin enough to work well as a condiment, not thick and pasty like Pink's, or Tommy's Original. Berkeley's is spicier, with a touch more heat and cumin. Winner: Berkeley.

If you enjoy large portions of toppings on your sandwich, then Jerry's wins by a mile. For me, Berkeley Dog's sandwich feels better proportioned and a little better balanced between the bun, meat, and topping. It's a close call, but with two wins out of three, Berkeley Dog takes this sausage battle.

Jerry's Wood-Fired Dogs has locations in Santa Ana, La Habra, Ladera Ranch and Irvine;; Berkeley Dog has locations in Mission Viejo and Brea

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