by Monika Viktorova
Hot dogs are the newest ‘lowbrow’ street food to get a gourmet makeover. And if hot dogs are a foodie’s Cinderella, then Justin Benson is the Edmonton food scene’s edgy, tattooed Fairy Godmother. And he’s here to deliver gourmet but accessible dogs to Edmonton’s downtown core with his newest project, Mayday Dogs.
When asked why he wanted to make hot dogs, Justin Benson says that’s easy – they’re a cult food. Everyone’s got a crazy 10-minute story about hot dogs. They’re fun, they’re delicious, and in Benson’s world, they’re a one-napkin, no-hassle dish. “Hot dogs are on the up and up,” he says, “they’re the new hamburger. Actually, hot dogs are the new fried chicken. Because there’s like 87 fried chicken places [in Edmonton] – including Mercer, best fried chicken in the city.”
The first thing you notice about Justin Benson is his boundless energy. He moves like an unstoppable force, all raw enthusiasm and unceasing recommendations about the best spots to eat and drink in the city. A think-outside-the-box, improvisation-first chef – who eschews the label – Benson’s worked with or had a hand in starting some of Edmonton’s most iconic hangouts – Mercer Tavern, Elm Cafe, the now defunct Urban Diner, and Farrow, to name a few.
Creating the perfect hot dog turns out to be an experiment in simplicity. Mayday Dogs aims to hit the sweet spot between quality and accessibility with its ingredients and pricing. When Benson set out to upscale a food that normally sells for $12 at sporting events but tastes like the industrial meat sludge it’s made from, he reached out to Saskatchewan-based Harvest Farms. Their dogs are nitrate- and gluten-free, ethically sourced, and half the price of the aforementioned fast-food regulars. Specialty dogs will also be featured at his new joint, including a ‘duroc’ pork dog that will be pricier because of the special heritage breed of pig from which it’s derived. The buns are sourced locally from Vienna Bakery, and are currently picked up by Benson himself: “Eventually we’ll be up to 1000 a week so they’ll do delivery but now I literally go to my baker and he hands me the trays.”
Each of Mayday’s ‘gourmet but accessible’ hot dogs has a carefully selected slate of toppings, like the Korean-inspired special called Korean-Abdul Jabbar that features local Vietnamese joint Thanh Thanh’s kimchi, brie, yali pear and Gochujang mayo. A classic Chicago-style dog on offer has green relish, fresh onions, tomato, dill pickle, and sport peppers. And for those who love unique mashups, a hot dog finished off with the classic toppings from Danish Smørrebrød, or smoked-salmon bread, with a Mayday twist: beer & honey pickled onion, hardboiled egg, radish, crispy onion, fresh dill and curry remoulade.
From transparently sourced, high quality ingredients, Benson has crafted an unfussed, classic menu: six hot dogs, three tater tots, and three milk shakes, along with a selection of local beer and canned wine – something that will undoubtedly become the hottest summer party accessory.
“I’m a big fan of simple menus,” muses Benson, “Ever go [to a place that has] like sixty items on the menu? How stressful is it for you to order something? Has anyone ordered number 37 in the last three weeks? When you have six items, someone’s ordered one of those six dogs in the last fifteen minutes!”
Sympathetic to those of us with food sensitivities, Mayday Dogs will serve gluten-free and vegetarian friendly options. All hot dogs can be modded gluten free, with a top cut, old school subway style bun that Benson selected himself after trying several gluten-free options. Because of the small kitchen space, it’s impossible to guarantee no cross-contamination for Celiac sufferers, but Benson assures me that they’re working hard to offer as many people an accessible hot dog experience as possible. The veggie dogs are soy-free and come from Portland, another find that Benson was particular about. “I was vegan for nine years so I’m making sure every person is hooked the f*ck up,” he explains.
To complement the classic, uncomplicated menu, Mayday Dogs is a gleam of white marble, black ceramic and canary yellow walls set against sturdy pine. It sits in the basement of Vacancy Hall. Mustard squiggle-shaped neon lights dot the ceiling and bleacher-style seating wraps around the Order and Pick-Up windows. A long marble counter by the entrance features three Italian-made old school yellow bar stools. Wired with a state of the art sound system, subwoofers installed under the bleachers, Mayday promises to serve up incredible bass reverb to vibe with your meal. And across the bleachers, merchandise shelves will be stocked with specialty items like artisanal hot sauces and mustards, as well as Mayday tees, hats, and the now infamous Mayday stickers you’ve probably spotted adorning someone’s skateboard, laptop or water bottle and have been lusting after ever since.
Mayday Dogs will be more than a purveyor of delicious hot dogs. With Mayday, Benson hopes to offer something that Edmonton’s downtown and the arena district sorely need: a grab-n-go food joint with a block party atmosphere. He knows that good food is more than just stellar ingredients mixed the right way. Mayday, Benson says, is “Intimate. Everyone can talk, hang out. Picture a cafeteria. All the service is in tater tot trays, baskets, [it’s] old school.” A hot dog, taters and a can of PBR is a meal – but with the atmosphere, it’s also an experience.
Whether you grab a hot dog to go or stop in to hang out on the bleachers and people-watch on 104th, don’t miss out on making Mayday a part of a classically #YEG summer.
Banner photography courtesy of Dong Kim.
Hot dog photography courtesy of Justin Benson.
Mayday space photography courtesy of Moh Zee.