Papoo’s Hot Dog Show/Umami Burger/Honeybaked Ham
For over 60 years, The Hot Dog Show (later Papoo’s Hot Dog Show) stood its ground on a busy street corner diagonally across from the oldest Big Boy in the U.S. (both built in 1949). There were several other Hot Dog Show restaurants in Southern California, but the Burbank (Toluca Lake) location just blocks from Warner Brothers was the sole survivor, having served red hots to celebrities and locals jonesing for a wiener until it closed in the summer of 2011, seemingly doomed to be razed and resurrected as some gleaming box chain restaurant. Papoo’s menu was hot dog heavy, with a variety of char-broiled, canine-themed dishes such “The Dachshund”, “The Beagle” and “The Boston Bull” (accessorized with baked beans), culminating in the masterpiece known simply as “The Show Dog”. While the dog itself could be considered medium/sporting size, its accoutrements put it squarely in the large breed category – the hot dog was obscured with a generous mound of firm, grilled spinach, crispy bacon, fat hoops of onion rings and a blanket of industrial-quality Swiss cheese – a dish that required unhinging you lower jaw like a python in order to devour it. In addition to the standard beef variety “show burgers”, Papoo’s added exotic meats such as elk to the menu in its golden years.
The restaurant stood shuttered for almost two years with most of its signage intact, including the tall standalone sign with a harp-playing angelic dog perched on top and a multi-colored neon, winged and haloed hot dog over what was originally the street-facing counter. The layout of the restaurant could best be described as “catch-all”; rooms were added on the stand’s flanks and the front of the building was built out to allow bar patrons to eat indoors (in fact, the wood awning that hung over the bar was left intact when it was enclosed. Just prior to locking the doors for the last time, a grassroots effort to save Papoo’s Hot Dog Show blossomed on the Internet, but too late to save the financially-strapped institution.
Enter, stage left – Southern California’s rapidly expanding supernova burger chain Umami Burger. CEO and founder Adam Fleischman has vied for burger supremacy in the Los Angeles area against bulls like Father’s Office and has parlayed his empire into what amounts to household word status on the Left Coast. The chain’s concept in opening new stores is unique, clever and endearing – Umami Burger preserves the souls of the previous incarnations, which brings the devotees of the dearly departed back into the resurrected space. In the case of Papoo’s Hot Dog Show, the restaurant underwent a renovation, but one has to imagine it would be what previous owner Leona Gardner would have done if money was no object. Red Naugahyde booths and Formica-topped ice cream parlor table and chairs have been replaced by upscale black faux-leather booths and wooden tables (including in the expanded rear patio); chandeliers hang from wood ceilings, framed by walls covered with Victorian flocked wallpaper. Outside, you could be excused for doing a double-take – aside from the removal of the vertical sign and the neon wiener (which is alleged to now be convalescing in a nearby neon museum), the exterior looks almost the same (naturally a couple of the front lighted panels now reads “UMAMI BURGER”).
Homages to several items from Papoo’s menu have found their way onto Umami Burger’s; I use the term “homage” because the similarity ends at the name. The new Show Dog is a Irish wolfhound-sized behemoth jacketed in a Portuguese buttered and grilled bun. The dog is lightly blanketed with chunks of minced bacon and fried onion strings slathered with liquid beer cheese and a generous dose of Hak’s BBQ sauce. While UB’s Show Dog is nothing short of delicious, the umamiable experience is bittersweet – imagine a property developer saving your ancestral home and restoring it to a splendor the likes it has never known, including replacing the beloved matriarch with a hot GILF. While Papoo’s burgers were on the A-list of fast food joints in Southern California, they don’t hold a candle to the half-pound, coarsely-ground Wagyu beef patties dusted with super-secret umami pixie powder – these meat disks leave the pack of contenders eating their dust; naturally, there’s a suitable price tag that accompanies them.
For those who wish to relive the simple euphoria of sinking your teeth into the original Show Dog, all is not lost – the iconic canine is still available as it was originally conceived two mere blocks away at Honeybaked Ham. While the purveyor of pre-cooked Easter main courses is better known for its glazed pork product, the restaurant absorbed many of Papoo’s staff when the hot dog stand tanked; those who made the migration kindly asked if they could bring the menu items with them. Almost all of the dishes from Papoo’s were adopted and merged into Honeybaked Ham’s menu, although for some reason the names have changed slightly. What was once a contender known as the Show Dog is now top dog, gracing the menu as The Main Event. The composition is untouched – grilled spinach, Swiss cheese, onion rings and strips of bacon still lovingly enveloped a butterflied and grilled hot dog, and every bite is a blast from the past. The decor is old school “family restaurant”, but the ambience is not the draw – it’s the chance to savor the Show Dog in all its glory, risen like the harp-playing pooch on Papoo’s old signage.
In the land of disposable nostalgia, it is a gift to see a beloved institution like The Hot Dog Show given new lease on life, whether it comes with a side order of New and Improved, or shyly hides in the menu of a holiday staple. Cue the lights – the show must go on!
GALLERY: See images from Val’s visit to what was once The Hot Dog Show and its resurrection as Umami Burger in Burbank CA
VIDEO: Watch Val and Chef Jay Terauchi set of in search of the elusive Show Dog on Trippy Food Episode 7 on YouTube