A vegetarian finds hot dog bliss at Lyman’s Tavern

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Over time, to the eyes of this curious vegetarian, the ubiquitous hot dog became a tease. There it was, wherever I looked — at the ballpark, weekend barbecues, that questionable machine at a local dive bar — always bringing light to people’s faces. I had to know what was so special about the American staple.

Then I found my own hot dog bliss at Lyman’s Tavern.

Lyman’s caps off a beloved block of 14th Street NW in Columbia Heights, also home to fellow drinking hole Red Derby, the original Taqueria Habanero and Mezcalero Cocina Mexicana (the latter two of which are mentioned in our roundup of the city’s best tacos). Since opening in 2014, Lyman’s has become the sort of unfussy corner bar to attract regulars — some of whom even moved to the neighborhood to be closer to their favorite spot, as co-owner Kevin Perone recently told me. “We used to have a sign over the front door that said ‘A Friendly Place,’” he added, “but it got knocked down in a windstorm.”

What keeps people coming back? The booze, obviously, but also a reliable menu. Whether you swing by for cheap beer or the rotation of seasonal drinks — over the summer, fruity variations on Maryland’s Orange Crush cocktail; in colder months, hot toddies and the like — there is always bar food to pair. The offerings have expanded over the years to include an assortment of classic sandwiches, quesadillas, chili, salads and even Frito pies, but the hot dogs have been around from the beginning.

Which makes sense. Like Lyman’s itself, they strike an ideal balance between whimsical and dependable. As you sit on a bar stool beneath the eclectic decorations Perone brought over from a storage unit in Montana, where he previously lived, you might consider which of the six hot dogs to choose. (Prices range from $6 to $8.) How about the Jess Dog — named after Perone’s partner and co-owner, Jessica Kleinmann — topped with pickles, onions and mustard, and served with a silly side of bright orange cheese puffs? If you’re feeling particularly brave, you might go for the chili cheese dog, topped with Impossible meat chili and a housemade roasted jalapeño cheddar sauce (the latter is also served atop the nacho dog, sans chili).

Skeptics might shrug their shoulders at this plebeian fare. But in an era of Instagram rewarding over-the-top food creations, it can feel like simpler accomplishments get overlooked. Perone said he and Lyman’s chef Tom White agree that their menu “may not be the fanciest, but everything is going to be high-quality.”

The default hot dog is made entirely of beef. For an extra dollar, as the menu indicates, you can substitute a pea-protein-based option. A decent vegetarian hot dog — my white whale. I’ve been a vegetarian for more than 20 years. I’ve missed little in the way of carnivorous delights. But a hot dog? That handheld source of joy on a bun? I still wanted that.

And believe me, I’ve tried to find it. Though broad American culture has come far in its embrace of vegetarianism, a balanced plant-based hot dog proved elusive. Most store-bought options were too rubbery. Many were too bland. As open-minded as I tried to be, homemade carrot hot dogs strayed too far from the spirit of their inspiration.

Still, I refused to give up my pursuit. But why? A recent phone call to Jamie Loftus, comedian and author of “Raw Dog: The Naked Truth About Hot Dogs,” confirmed that I, like many of my fellow Americans, had simply fallen prey to effective marketing. The hot dog is sold as a symbol of our nation. But it “comes mainly from a series of European sausage traditions that are tied together and became the hot dog by way of the Industrial Revolution,” according to Loftus, who said she believes it to be somewhat of “a bizarre thing to call it American, because it kind of isn’t — but that also feels very American.”

A more generous read suggests that the hot dog is whatever we choose to make of it. It “functions as a canvas for the local food traditions of wherever you are,” Loftus said, noting that “a hot dog you have in New England is going to be very different than one you have in Southern California or Chicago.”

What about a pea-protein-based hot dog in Northwest Washington? I first ordered the veg Jess Dog on a random weeknight because I needed a snack and am a sucker for cheese puffs. I didn’t expect much of the hot dog itself, but it turned out to be what has kept me going back — on other school nights, some weekends, even the Fourth of July. Comfort food can occasionally veer into mushy monotony, but the pickles-onion-mustard combo gives the Jess Dog the right amount of zing in every bite.

It turns out hot dog distinctions can even vary by neighborhood. The namesake Lyman’s Dog, for instance, pays homage to the demographics of Columbia Heights with housemade curtido, a Salvadoran cabbage slaw. Its zest adds a jolt to the gentle spices of the hot dog — detectable in the vegetarian option as well — resulting in a dynamic blend of flavors to fuel a round of pinball at one of the old-school machines lining Lyman’s back hall.

The hot dog, per Loftus, “is the closest I can get to being like, ‘This is the great equalizer food.’”

At Lyman’s, that’s true for vegetarians and meat eaters alike.

3720 14th St. NW, 202-723-0502. lymanstaverndc.com.

Hours: Noon to 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, noon to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

Nearest Metro: Columbia Heights or Georgia Ave.-Petworth.

Prices: $6-$20 for all items on the food menu.

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