Wisconsin State Journal columnist Doug Moe has already taken heat from Madison's greatest Chicago Dog defender, former mayor Paul Soglin, for supporting (or at least not objecting to) some of the unconventional choices made by the latest incarnation of Mad Dog's on Henry Street.
New owner Steve Nelson has taken over the small restaurant, retaining the name but changing the menu. The transformation starts with the jettisoning of the standard Chicago dog, the Vienna, in lieu of the larger and juicier Hebrew National 1/4-pound wiener. Purists would argue that without the Vienna base, it's never going to be a Chicago dog. Whatever.
The Hebrew National carries plenty of flavor and stands up to the onslaught of add-ons that constitute a Chicago dog, and the fresh poppy seed bun doesn't disintegrate. That's good. Wait. That's...bad? In Chicagoland, the bun is supposed to be mushy.
Another radical notion: Toppings are customizable. Circle what add-ons you'd like on an order sheet (kraut, tomato, pickle, sport pepper, chili, cheese, giardiniera); add relish, onions, ketchup or mustard yourself from the counter. The relish looks like actual pickles instead of being neon green. I know, it's supposed to look unnatural.
Yellow mustard is available in a pump. Dijon mustard is available in a squirt bottle. I jumped at the chance to switch out the yellow for Dijon. Have mercy on a poor miserable sinner.
I liked the zippy sport peppers and the opportunity to apply the mustard sparingly. I enjoyed the pickle and the tomato. $2.80 is the base price for the dog; the Chicago fixins' come to another 60 cents. Hotdogwise, this version of Mad Dog's edges out its predecessor and is much better than the recently departed Dawg House.
Mad Dog's also serves a pulled pork barbecue sandwich, often the daily special, with a side of coleslaw (or baked beans) and a large fountain drink, for $5. The barbecue is far too sweet, with a mildly tangy but cloying sauce that masks any pork flavor. The creamy coleslaw is also too sweet, and without any horseradish kick.
The tender but dry Italian Beef fails to get a pick-me-up from the too-salty mild giardiniera, although with the hot giardiniera, plus a side of fries, it's a more interesting lunch.
The french fries, by the way, are more properly steak fries or skin-on potato wedges, with a dusting of spices. They're a good side - not too greasy, full of potato flavor.
Other menu items are Johnsonville brats and Polish sausage. The "Dirty Harry" is a Polish sausage topped with the barbecued pork. "The Combo" is an Italian Beef cozying up to either a Polish or a brat in the same bun. And Nelson is branching out; another recent special was a hickory smoked rib dinner for $8.
I think the new Mad Dog's deserves a shot. Please hold your hate mail.