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Chef Kevin Sousa's high-end hot dogs break the rules

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Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012
 

Station Street Hot Dog Shop in East Liberty had barely been open a day, when things started to go haywire. Just after Friday's afternoon lunch service, they ran out of food.

That's a problem several orders of magnitude higher than the usual opening-day jitters. But it obviously says good things about the market for creative, high-end hot dogs in the East End of Pittsburgh -- and the reputation of chef-restaurateur Kevin Sousa for making food that people really, really want to eat.

"It was crazy busy," Sousa says. "It was awesome. We had a great weekend."

Station Street's dogs range from the traditional New York Dog (sauerkraut, grain mustard) to the wildly experimental, like the Kimchi Dog, topped with spicy Korean kimchi, Kewpie mayo (Japanese, rice vinegar-based), nori (seaweed) and bonito (fish) flakes.

Sousa's signature restaurant, Salt of the Earth, is a short walk away. Building his first restaurant virtually from scratch was a long, painful process -- but the accolades began rolling in almost immediately. Food and Wine magazine dubbed one of his dishes among the "Top 10 Restaurant Dishes of 2011," for instance.

Sousa had his heart set on opening a barbecue restaurant next. (Union Pig and Chicken, also in East Liberty, is on track to open in a week-and-a-half.)

But the Station Street Hot Dogs building -- a classic lunch counter and neighborhood mainstay since 1915 -- beckoned to him.

"I noticed the 'For Sale' sign for a year," Sousa says. "On a whim, I called the number on the sign, met with the broker, and fell in love with the place when I first walked in. ... It's a complete departure for me, from what I've done, from what I'm known for. I just thought it would be fun."

Well before Salt of the Earth opened, Sousa had developed a following for his work at Bigelow Grille, the Red Room, Yo Rita and other Pittsburgh restaurants, where he combined a passion for local ingredients prepared with a mix of traditional and avant-garde cooking techniques.

Station Street Hot Dogs allows him to scale down to the simplest of menus -- just hot dogs and fries. Among early visitors, there's already a favorite.

"Right now, the Chili Cheese Dog is probably at the top," Sousa says. "We're doing a smoked brisket chili with the Arsenal cheese curds (from Arsenal Cheese in Lawrenceville). After that, it's neck and neck between the Devil Dog, which has egg salad and potato chips (plus green onions and Tabasco sauce) on it, and the Hawaii Dog (pineapple salsa, bacon, sweet soy sauce)."

Finding the perfect hot dog itself was a bit of a project.

"We spoke to a couple local companies, and no one was really willing to do the volume we were looking for, and do it custom," Sousa says. "So, through a lot of research, we found a company in Michigan called Kent Meat. They said, 'Send us your specs and a rough recipe.' They sent us back a sample, and it's a beautiful hot dog. I think it's the best hot dog I've ever eaten. It's all-beef, got the right amount of crunch, stays really juicy, and it tastes like a really high-end product."

New items will be added occasionally, depending on the season.

"I think we'll proabbly add a few, especially in the summertime, when local corn is happening," Sousa says. "And tomatoes, of course, when they're around and awesome. Maybe we'll do a proper Chicago Dog. I'm not going to do a Chicago Dog in the middle of winter when tomatoes are terrible.

"Summertime, we'll likely do roller-skating service, maybe on Saturdays. We'll do funky stuff like that -- maybe some live music outside, community events."

For now, fine-tuning Station Street Hot Dogs will have to be done on the fly. Sousa's next venture, Union Pig and Chicken, should be ready to open in a week-and-a-half. While barbecue afficionados love to argue about what styles are superior, Union will draw from a wide range of influences, and add new things often.

"I like Texas brisket, heavy smoke," Sousa says. "Then I like Kansas City BBQ chicken, where I don't necessarily like Kansas City or Memphis BBQ ribs. I like dry-rub ribs, sauce on the side. But then pulled pork, I like North Carolina -- vinegary, a little spicy. Wer'e going to stay in the tradition of real barbecue, but not necessarily one or the other.

"We're going to use whole hogs, so we'll probably end up doing sausages and charcuterie, smoking hams, and a nod to ham barbecue sandwiches. It's Pittsburgh."

A plus-side to his new ventures: At least, the commute won't be hard. Sousa can walk or bike between all three restaurants in just a few minutes.

"If Station Street Hot Dogs had been somewhere else, it wouldn't have even crossed my mind," he says. "I wouldn't have even entertained the idea of doing it. But, since it's so close, and I'm pretty invested in the '206 -- all three restaurants are in the same zip code -- what's the worst that could happen• I sleep a little bit less or work a few more hours a day."

Additional Information:

Kevin Sousa creations

Salt of the Earth: Hours: 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays. 5523 Penn Ave., Garfield. 412-441-7258 or saltpgh.com

Station Street Hot Dogs: Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. 6290 Broad St., East Liberty. 412-365-2121 or stationstreetpgh.com

Union Pig and Chicken: Opening this month. 220 North Highland Ave., East Liberty. unionpgh.com

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