After the first two meals of The Veggie-Vegan Project at Schezwan Garden and Flaming Ice Cube, I was beginning to come to the understanding that while restaurants specializing in this type of cuisine were not universal, the level of cuisine had been greatly elevated since I first had it many years ago. I guess that's not a totally accurate statement. Having eaten at The Vegiterranean in Akron, I knew that truly tasty vegan cuisine was possible, but I assumed that in order to get food at that level, one must empty the wallet of a significant amount of cash.
Tonight's third entry into the project at Happy Dog would prove wholly otherwise. Happy Dog is owned by Eric Williams, the owner and chef at Momocho Mod Mex. As such, I knew that the food would be good. I just didn't realize HOW good. The concept of Happy Dog was simple: offer lots of great bottled and on-tap beers, a choice between a 1/4 pound all-beef hot dog or vegetarian Italian sausage on a poppy seed bun with an impressive list of toppings. Additionally, to accompany your dog, you could get either fries or tots, again with an impressive list of toppings and dippers. While I've had and enjoyed the Morningstar vegan corn dogs in the past, I have to think my enjoyment was due as much to the cornbread exterior as it was to the liberal use of ketchup and yellow mustard. As with so many vegetarian and vegan substitutes, had the dogs been plain, I don't know that I would've loved them. Having heard others rave about the vegetarian dog at Happy Dog, I was curious to see what I'd find here.
Happy Dog was located at the corners of West 58th and Detroit, or more specifically at 5801 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44102 and can be reached at 216-651-9474. Parking was either in a small lot on West 58th just south of Detroit or along the street. I easily found a curbside parking spot on West 58th Street just south of the bar and proceeded to walk the two minutes until I got to the front door:
Once inside, the first thing that struck me was the decor: it was a bar. To the right of the front entrance was a dais where musical groups or DJ's could spin the tunes, directly across was a large, impressive looking bar with many taps, and everywhere else were pretty basic tables and chairs. And as with most bars, it was also quite uniformly dark inside. The thought occurred to me that Chef Williams kept Momocho very dimly lit and apparently the theme continued with Happy Dog. Then again, it was a bar, and very few bars are well lit. I knew the lack of illumination would give me a chance to break out the low light photography skills on which I've been working for the last couple of months.
Seeing as I arrived an entire hour before the scheduled start of dinner, I sauntered up to the largely unpopulated bar, sat down, and proceeded to order a pint of Left Hand Milk Stout:
A handcrafted beer from the Left Hand Brewing Company out of Longmont, Colorado, this glass of wonderment combined the sharp bite of your typical stout with a creaminess that did much to sooth out the bitter notes. This was an easy to drink beer and while I did have water with dinner, it was a wonderfully tasty pre-dinner beverage to consume while waiting for the rest of the diners to show up tonight.
According to my fellow Veggie-Vegan Project co-founders, Paul and Eric, Wednesday nights were usually pretty slow. Tonight, however, with a single party of thirty occupying the entire east side of the restaurant, the other available tables began to fill quickly. We soon found ourselves staking out two tables right by the front door in anticipation of the rest of our party. Additionally, while Wednesday's were usually pretty quiet in terms of noise level, tonight Happy Dog had booked a DJ and our table happened to be located right in front of one of the speakers. Suffice it to say, easy conversation was a bit difficult.
After sitting down at our table, I noticed that at the center of each was a long, slender pad of paper. It turned out to be the menu. On one side was a list of hot dog choices and a whole lot of toppings:
On the flip side was a list of sides, which consisted of French fries or tater tots, a list of toppings for said side, and a list of dipping sauces:
In addition to the menu, there was a laminated piece of card stock that offered up helpful suggestions of combinations for both the beef dog as well as the vegetarian Italian sausage:
While all fifty condiments were available as toppers for your dog at no additional cost, toppers for the fries and tots were a reasonable $1 each. While I could've made up my own list of toppings for my dog, I decided to go with one of the recommended combinations for my first visit. Each person filled out their own order request (much the way you used to do at sushi restaurants) and handed it to our server.
Even with the packed crowd tonight at Happy Dog, it wasn't very long at all before our dogs arrived at the table. Here was a shot of mine:
This was a Fieldroast Vegetarian Italian Sausage on a poppyseed bun topped with my choice of caramelized onions, sriracha hot sauce, pineapple-ginger chutney, cucumbers, and French Brie cheese. While I started eating the sandwich with my hands, halfway through I realized that I would need to finish with knife and fork. I did manage to take a bite of the Italian sausage first and discovered to my delight that the flavor and texture of this meat substitute was pretty darn close to the real deal. It wasn't quite as fatty as the meat-based version, but had I gotten the sausage plain, I would've enjoyed it the way I do with most Italian sausage sandwiches, a nice layer of peppers and onions or sauerkraut and a squirt of yellow mustard.
The toppings worked quite well together and provided a nice balance of salty, sweet, sour, and spicy. The cucumber effectively cooled some of the sriracha's heat and the subtle flavor of the Brie cheese added a creamy texture to each bite without overwhelming anything else. I should also note that the poppyseed bun was immaculately fresh and honestly, the only thing I think could've been improved upon was if the bun had been toasted.
After dropping off our dogs, the food runner soon made her way back to our table with fives dishes of tater tots and a multitude of dipping sauces:
I decided to get my tots topped with Smoked Gouda, thinking the slightly smoky flavor would go well with my dipping sauce, the Oaxacan red chile and chocolate mole. I was right. Texturally, the tots were perfectly fried, crispy on the outside without being greasy and light and fluffy on the inside. The soft Gouda added a creamy contrast and the slight smokiness added an additional layer of flavor. The mole was everything a good Mexican mole should be: spicy, sweet, floral, and complex. It very much reminded me of my last visit to Momocho. Needless to say, the pairing with the tots was a marvelous choice.
Our meal now at its conclusion, we asked our server for the check. With my pint of beer, sandwich, tots, and the addition of the Gouda as a topper for the tots, my bill came to $13 before tip and tax. And $4.50 of that was for the beer. For $8.50, I had just eaten an incredibly tasty and inexpensive vegetarian meal. As one of the other diners pointed out, you just can't beat that kind of value. I would have to agree with that sentiment.
Those who do not enjoy a sometimes loud and noisy bar environment might find that this would be enough to keep them away from trying the food at Happy Dog. While I do enjoy being able to hold a conversation with someone next to me without having to raise my voice or cup my ears, the great beer selection and more importantly, the stellar vegetarian options make returning to this bar a real no-brainer for me. Whether you avail yourself of the vegetarian options or not, with so much from which to choose, you simply cannot go wrong. Highly recommended.