With James Coney Island receding from the prominence it once enjoyed and trendier hot dog restaurants entering and exiting Houston’s dining scene faster than beloved characters on Game of Thrones, one can’t help but wonder if the frankfurter’s day on restaurant menus has come and gone. There’s stiff competition from traditional venues like ballgames (in normal times), food trucks (where ethnic takes on the concept reign), and big box retailer diners like those at Costco and Sam’s Club, where they are served as cheap loss-leaders. And hey — somebody must be eating all those gas station roller grill dogs or else they wouldn’t be found on seemingly every major street corner in America.
To make it in today’s Houston, it helps if your frankfurter stands out in two ways: 1) the old dog must know some new tricks, be served up in some exciting and new style; and 2) it helps if it doesn’t have to carry the whole menu for an establishment. If it does neither of those things, it must be served dirt-cheap, as at Costco and Sam’s, companies large enough to give hot dogs away at will.
While the frankfurters at Sul Bing Su / Chung Chun Rice Dogs are not cheap, they are not expensive either, with nothing on the menu coming in at more than $5. As for the other two criteria, Chung Chun meets both in spades, as these offerings are served at Sul Bing Su, which until earlier this year served only creamy Korean-style shaved ice sweet treats. With its dual-threat sweet and savory attack of shaved ice and Korean hot dogs, Sul Bing Su / Chung Chun puts me in mind of a Mexican-style snack house where you can order shakes, smoothies, and variations on nachos and elotes alike.
Now, about those dogs. You often hear Korean-style hot dogs described as corndogs, but that’s a misnomer. Yes, they come to you impaled on a stick, and yes, they are battered and fried, but there is no corn in the equation. Korean-style dogs are dipped instead in rice flour, giving them a crispier, less dough-y texture and mouthfeel once complete. (At your request, you can have them lightly dusted in sugar to replace some of the sweetness a corn coating would bring.) What’s more, many Korean rice dogs are a lot more complex than your run-of-the-mill corndog — yes, you can get a regular, jumbo or spicy sausage dog if you’d like and drizzle it in mustard or ketchup, or you can get more adventurous. On our recent trip there we found that to be the more rewarding approach.
Of the five I sampled, my favorites were the squid ink / mozzarella hot dog, a power-packed flavor punch bringing oceanic tastes I did not know I’d been missing from my long and extensive hot dog experiences. The mozzarella performs well as an intermediary between the squid ink and the frankfurter and the mango / habanero dipping sauce is just the right complement to the crispy / chewy delight. My other favorite was the sweet potato dog, which is also available meatless as one of the place’s vegetarian options. (Mozzarella being the other.) I’d been reluctant to order that one — sweet potatoes and hot dogs had never crossed my mind in combination — and had promised it to my son, an army veteran recently returned from Korea. After he agreed to give me a bite before I handed it over, it was all I could do to stop myself from reneging on my promise, snatching it back and driving away. (The dogs were a big hit with him and his friends, who lit up Snapchat with pics of these finds a “cool dad” had brought them.)
Next time I go, I’ll take my daughter and we’ll go for some of the sweet stuff too. From what I’ve read about their black sugar boba soft-serve dessert, it’s worth a lengthy detour. We’ll order two just to be on the safe side.
Sul Bing Su / Chung Chun
9798 Bellaire Blvd.