Even as the Great Recession decimated the restaurant industry these past couple of years, one surprising sector experienced rapid growth here: regional chains.
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Most of the media and blogger attention went to Five Guys Burgers, an East Coast chain foolishly compared to In-N-Out (they're good, but hardly worth the excess of buzz), but other, more-obscure outposts also popped up. There was Santa Barbara's Habit Burger; Cafe Rio, a vile Chipotle clone based in Utah; Pizza Port from San Diego. But the strangest import was undoubtedly Berkeley Dog. The Bay Area institution, known there as Top Dog, is as much a part of UC Berkeley's identity as not being able to afford to eat at Chez Panisse—yet there are now three locations in Orange County, each keeping the Golden Bears motif while gamely adding nods to UC Irvine and the other Pac-12 schools. Honestly, I'm still perplexed why the Top Dog owners allowed franchises to open here, or why a franchiser would pick Top Dog as a golden ticket; if a restaurateur were looking to get rich on the college nostalgia of locals who went to out-of-state schools, he would have done better with El Güero Canelo from Tucson or Filiberto's from the Phoenix area to stuff the many twenty- and thirtysomethings here for whom the University of Arizona and Arizona State served as finishing schools.
But then you bite into a Berkeley Dog wiener. The brand does exaggerate on the choices—half a dozen mustard options, more than a dozen types of links, and newfangled soda dispensers that spew out many kinds from one spigot—but each sausage is stellar: thick, juicy, with strong snaps and enough heft to fill you but not make you feel guilty. It's best to stick with the classics—a hearty bratwurst, a Louisiana link with the right amount of spice, a smoked chicken-and-apple that's actually enjoyable. And regardless of tube steak, each settles inside what's perhaps the sturdiest hot dog bun in the county, a sesame-seeded beauty that could probably survive a dunk in a bathtub and not disintegrate under the weight of its holdings. There's a reason why we called this place OC's best hot dog in our 2011 Best Of issue, and it sure ain't because of the annoying music each location blasts. Really, how can you not love a place that buries a hot dog with bacon bits and hash browns, then calls it lunch?
Berkeley Dog, www.berkeleydogs.com.
This column appeared in print as "Hot-Dogging It."