Munch must be getting old. How can Munch tell? Seems like just yesterday Munch was sporting a grungy flannel shirt, listening to "Under the Table and Dreaming" on my Discman and visiting the Vermont Flatbread Co., one of those hippie-infused wood-fired (wood-infused hippie-fired?) gourmet pizza joints that were all the rage in the 1990s. Then Vermont Flatbread begot Boomerang BBQ, Paul McKay's Australian barbecue repository, a place where it wasn't unusual to find Munch passed out at one of the pub tables, face-down in a plate of rib bones gnawed clean, surrounded by just a shameful number of empty Foster's cans.
Ah, the youth Munch once possessed. Where Munch used to measure my weekends by the number of beers consumed, these days Munch is mostly in search of a reliable sandwich, kind of like Rick Sebak, although without his freakishly sunny disposition.
What Munch is making great effort to say is, you can find a pretty good sandwich at Hot Franks, the new lunch spot at 2701 Penn Ave., in the Strip District space vacated by both Vermont Flatbread and Boomerang BBQ. Just so you know, it is not a hot dog place, even though the name would seem to suggest that. There are just two dogs on the menu, in fact -- a respectable, if a bit flaccid, chili dog ($1.65) and a cheese dog ($1.95). That's too bad. In the Strip, you can find good chorizo, andouille, pepperonis and probably some grass-fed artisanal kielbasas if you looked hard enough, but the one thing you can't find here is a decent hot dog shop.
So if it's not a hot dog place, what is it? Hot Franks is hard to classify, really. Lots of subs on the menu ($5.95 to $7.25), some burgers and Philly-style cheese-steaks, and there are a few Greek items, too, no doubt a nod to the family heritage (the owner is Bill Papazekos, whose family also runs Bill's Sandwich Shop in New Castle). There's a rotating gyro spit at the front of the store, a polished tile floor, a gleaming corrugated lunch counter, and -- say, what's this? A bar hidden in the back? With a big-screen TV?
Maybe, in Barack Obama's post-racial America, we don't need labels anymore. It doesn't matter if Hot Franks is a bar, or a hoagie shop, or specializes in hot dogs. Maybe all that matters is the food. Right? Isn't that what America is all about? Effort breeds success? The world's first great meritocracy?
Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Just kidding. If that were even partly true, why does Damon's Grill continue to exist? Anyway, in addition to the chili dog, Munch found a turkey sub ($6.15) wanting for only one thing -- four more inches of sub. Shadyside Woman With Checkered Past Friend of Munch (SWWCPFOM) bravely ordered the Hot Franks Super Sub ($7.25), on recommendation from the cashier. At Hot Franks, it's the anointed King of Subs, containing several kinds of meat -- pepperoni, salami and, I don't know, probably scrapple or something -- all of them oily (from the dressing) and greasy (from a trip to the grill), and all of them warmly delicious. Munch tried it, too, on top of everything else Munch had already eaten that afternoon, bringing Munch that much closer to the inevitable quadruple bypass. Over-under: September 2026.
Having eaten there and thoroughly enjoyed the food, Munch still can't shake the sensation that the place lacks a hook. Why should Munch go here -- in the Penn Avenue No Man's land that lies beyond Harp and Fiddle, where good restaurants such as Vermont Flatbread and Tasca Navarre go to die -- when Munch can spend my discretionary income elsewhere? You're not in New Castle anymore; you're in the Strip District, where the food is often standout and the competition for the dollar is intense.
Perhaps Hot Franks needs a focus. Or, as is often the case, perhaps I don't know what I'm talking about -- Vermont Flatbread and Boomerang BBQ had great focus, yet that didn't keep the doors open. The Papazekos family, on the other hand, has been in the restaurant business since 1923, starting with a little hot dog shop in New Castle. Maybe they're onto something.
Have a tip for Munch? Want to be an FOM? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org , or look on Facebook under "Munch von Munchausen."