Chris Antista was the namesake (saying "Chris" with a mouthful of hotdog came out as "Crif") and one of two founders of what is arguably the finest hot dog joint in all of New York City - the East Village's Crif Dog. For more than a decade, Crif has been the measure of a good dog in a city that knows good dogs, and has singlehandedly revived the snappier, meatier, tastier Thumann's Jersey-style dog in a city that has been notoriously provincial toward non-New York dogs.
I've been a huge fan of Crif Dog myself ever since they opened, and until they started turning the machine off at night, I regularly held the high score on their Pac Man game. I live on the West Coast now, but my annual trip to NYC is never complete without stopping for a meal at one or two of my favorites - Katz's, the 2nd Avenue Deli, DiFara and Crif Dog.
Three Questions: Have you spent any time in Sonora, or have you worked with people who knew Sonoran hot dogs well - or did this just evolve parallel without that outside influence? Long-time Crif Dog fan Christian Schwartz, the New York typeface designer who introduced me to CD, is asking this after noticing that many of the Crif Dog toppings and flavor combinations are very similar to that style; as he writes to me "After all, the idea of combining bacon with anything at all is obviously going to result in something delicious!"
Chris Antista: I had never had the Sonoran style dogs, but my partner and wife both waxed rhapsodic about bacon dogs from their experiences out west on tour with various bands and my wife's college days in Tucson. It was a rarity on the east coast (remarkable, really!) to see bacon dogs prior to Crif Dogs championing them. Once we added bacon to the mix, many happy things happened, like my midnight invention of the Spicy Redneck for a drunken weed dealer who asked me to make him, "the best fucking hot dog you can." I did.
3Q: The dogs Crif Dog uses are far better, crunchier, more flavorful than what is often popular in NYC. Where do you get the dogs from, and how did you arrive at that particular choice? The Jersey-style fried dog tastes like a Thumann's, but the regular grilled is more flavorful and better-textured than anything else I've had elsewhere. What was your research process like while designing the menu and picking the dogs - have you tried Swanky Franks or Super Duper Weenie in Connecticut or Hot Doug's in Chicago?
CA: I grew up in North Jersey so the Texas Wieners tradition was in my blood from childhood experiences at Clixe's, Goffle Grill, Johnny & Hainges, Riverview Diner, Hot Grill (my fave) and countless other Greek-rooted chile dog masters dotting the landscape. I of course, wanted the same dogs, so I just went and looked in the garbage at Rutt's Hutt - sure enough, Thumann's, just like your sharp-palate detected. The all beef dogs are also Thumann's, just a different style. Our research was just eating and experimenting. I've always been a good cook: that and a copious amount of imagination and hunger-inducing weed smoking produced a number of awesome dogs. I worked on the sauce for months - batch after batch getting it just right. It's a very delicate balance of spices. I've never been to any of the places you mentioned - but I have done Demon Dogs for Chicago's sake!
3Q: This may be after your time at Crif, but can you talk a bit about the restaurant's relationship with Jim Power, the mosaic man (I love his pieces in the restroom at PDT)? I know he's gone through a crisis lately, and at one point threatened to remove some or all of his mosaics; some people in the neighborhood blame the businesses (and bars in particular) for the changing character of the East Village. What do you think is and isn't being done to maintain the feel of the area, and what can and can't be preserved?
CA: Jim was just the local provocateur and mosaic guy who was an acquaintance in the nabe. I had lived in the E. Village since my NYU days - Junior year on in the EV proper and watched from the front row as things changed. I can't comment on Jim and his cantankerous relationship with 'change' in general or his feelings of being used and then squeezed, but money will fuck anyone's head up and the quest to make that money will often include a few tears in your wake. It's cool to be poor until you realize how much cooler it is to have a Ducati and a wad in your pocket.
The East Village's metamorphosis has more to do with the city's fortunes than anything village-specific and, frankly, money is going to preserve the village - its boutiques, restaurants and bars give it tons of flavor - anyone who misses the squatters in the park or junkies robbing everyone is a moronic misanthrope who missed out on improving their fortunes with the neighborhood. I say fuck them. Move to fucking Detroit if you miss blight and grit. Fuck it, move to a million other places.
People always feel ownership for things they don't own: that's cool, but ultimately, if you don't become the steward of progress, then you'll be steering a ship of fools whose province has been pulled out from under them. That's the East Village. Of course, I hate to see a Citibank and Starbucks on every corner, but people should vote with their wallets and not patronize these places. Unfortunately, the down side to "progress" is the amount of soulless never-to-be-New Yorkers who move in and ultimately deprive a place of character (like Georgetown in DC! Or Boston!). What do I really think? I think I wished I bought a fucking tenement or two in 1991 when I moved to the East Village!