This is the first post for a new category here: Happy Hours. I'll call these posts Brief Reviews of Brief Meals. They focus on the after-work food available on the near West side of Cleveland.
Happy Dog, at 5801 Detroit Ave
I remember being deeply suspicious of Happy Dog as I looked at it from the bar across the street, Roseangel (or maybe it was La Boca at the time). But on the advice of a friend, I checked it out, and I've been coming back every couple weeks ever since.
The menu is a skinny strip of paper with checkboxes. Hot dog, $5. Or vegetarian dog. Tater tots, $2.50. Or fries. But after "hot dog" there are fifty more checkboxes. House made ketchup; brie; kimchee. Yes, there are fifty things you can put on your hot dog, they're all free, and some of them are pretty strange. Get them all if you want. If you're feeling overwhelmed, they have several "recommended combinations" of four or five toppings that are tried-and-true. Some of the toppings are from Momocho, a nearby modern-mexican eatery.
The tater tots are sublime. They must have used the scientific method to determine the precise optimum time and temperature to deep-fry those little bastards. Now I'm hungry. There are a few dozen dippings and toppings you can get with them too.
Happy Dog is, of course, a bar. Later there's live music. They serve beer - many excellent beers on tap and many more in bottles. Mixed drinks, too, I guess; there are liquor bottles back there, but that's not what I come for. Nope: a typical tab for me is a hot dog, tater tots, and two beers, and it costs in the mid-teens. And that, my friends, is a bargain.
So now you know what you could learn by stopping by for a meal and a beer. But what makes Happy Dog thrive? It's not a full-service restaurant - the closest the kitchen gets to "cooking" is the fried egg you can check a box for; all the other toppings are prepared ahead. As a bar, it's good, but is it really better than other bars? Here's what I think: other bars have happy hour food specials; some of them are cheap, some of them are good, a few are even both. But none of them actually involve you like the Happy Dog does. Ordering food elsewhere is like clicking a choice on a drop-down menu. To order at Happy Dog is to create an original work of edible art out of fifty variables. And with all art comes risk: it might suck. It really might. But it's on you. If it does, you'll shrug and laugh, and you'll come back in a couple weeks and try again.