The coolest hot dog joint in Metro Detroit is a dream come true for Joel Bacow, owner of Atomic Dawg Sausage Emporium in Berkley.
Bacow of Huntington Woods has been a successful record producer for close to 30 years, but always hoped to start a restaurant built around the ever-popular “tube steak.”
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved hot dogs,” said Bacow with obvious relish (bad pun). His parents took him to Hot Diggity Dog on Eight Mile and Greenfield, which he later learned belonged to his father’s cousin, Al Hacker. Is loving hot dogs genetic?
The theme for Bacow’s restaurant dates to 1982, when George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” became one of Bacow’s favorite songs.
“I mentioned to a person who was involved in making the record that I could probably make more money opening a hot dog restaurant called ‘Atomic Dawg.’”
When Bacow felt financially ready to move on his idea, he found potential in an unlikely 1921 building. The two-story brick house on Coolidge, north of Catalpa, was “slated to be torn down because of a water leak,” he said.
An attached office on the ground floor became the Berkley Creamery in the 1950s. Looking at a photo of the defunct diner/creamery, Bacow said, “It was exactly what we were looking for.” He and his cousin Bobby Schnitzer, visiting from San Diego, rehabbed the building and brought it back to what it was in 1956.
It’s fun inside Atomic Dawg. The dotted hanging lights, chrome stools and other items are originals from the 1940s and '50s. Bacow worked with Vogue Vintage in Ferndale to reclaim atomic-era items from old restaurants. West Bloomfield artist Celia Block did interior design/finishes. The scratched wooden floors and old brick walls show the house’s age, especially in the two colorful rooms upstairs seating 36. Fourteen diners can sit in the grill area downstairs.
Gary Brunner, an old friend, turned out to be the perfect chef and co-manager (Kristy Levy also manages) so Bacow could keep running his Ferndale-based 54 Sound recording studio. Brunner, who once owned Café 317 in Royal Oak, was immediately excited about the restaurant’s hot dog concept, telling Bacow, “That’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
“Gary and I are music nuts,” Bacow said, “and the playlist of retro music you’ll hear at Atomic Dawg is our own private jukebox.”
Formerly with the classy Coach Insignia in Detroit and the defunct Golden Mushroom in Southfield, Brunner applied his “fine dining” mind to devising Atomic Dawg’s menu. It includes regional hot dogs Bacow and Schnitzer enjoyed on their research road trips. Hot Doug’s in Chicago and similar places on both coasts were visited. Detroit’s favorite, The D, features Cousin Al’s Famous Chili recipe.
Atomic Dawg imports Hoffy (“Taste the Snap”) natural casing, all-beef hot dogs from California – “the same ones you can get at Pink’s, my favorite hot dog joint in L.A,” Bacow said. They’re grilled on an open flame. Most popular, he said, is Atomic Dawg, “a jumbo version that’s split, grilled and filled with the customer’s favorite topping.”
Atomic Dawg purchases custom-made sausages from Corridor Sausage Company, a Detroit vendor specializing in charcuterie, because “we are a gourmet hot dog a la sausage joint,” Bacow said.
Brunner ups his artistry for these “Special Sausages of the Week.” For Laikon, he tops a great-tasting lamb and fig sausage with red onion, cucumber and tzatziki sauce. It’s gyros with a sausage.
Kingston Dawg includes pineapple mango salad and a flavorful, hot-enough jalapeno sauce. Hula Dawg is great -- teriyaki sauce, grilled pineapple and onions, lettuce and cherry mayo squiggled over all.
Don’t miss 100 percent beef or vegetarian mini-burgers, patties made from scratch, and super-gooey Gary’s Grilled Cheese. I’ve also fallen for his hot, homemade potato chips.
Bacow plans to offer an Atomic Dawg food truck this summer.