Brian Howard is the executive chef at Sparrow + Wolf, an eclectic fine dining establishment in Las Vegas's Chinatown neighborhood that incorporates Asian, French, Mediterranean and Latin American influences. Its menu, featuring items such as wood roasted lamb neck and swordfish aguachile, has zero overlap with the sort of food served at Minor League baseball stadiums.
Howard's lack of ballpark pedigree was no deterrent to Cody Malone, who recruited him to create a line of unique hot dogs for Las Vegas Ballpark (the new home of the Pacific Coast League's Las Vegas Aviators). Malone, vice president of hospitality, oversees the facility's entire food and beverage operation. His desire to bring local culinary celebrities like Howard into the fold was part of what he called an "outside the box" approach to stadium concessions.
"You move here and start talking to people. You start talking to chefs in town," said Malone, who spent the previous six seasons with the Tulsa Drillers. "You say, 'Hey, what's good?' You meet a chef in town, 'Hey, what are your favorite places to go?' And [Howard's] name always popped up. So, thinking outside the box. Not finding a steakhouse guy to do a hot dog or an American fare chef to do a hot dog. You find somebody who's doing Asian fusion in Chinatown."
Howard, a Detroit native who grew up rooting for the Tigers, was up for the challenge.
"They contacted me, it was like a Thursday night," he said. "They wanted to open up with something that's outstanding and respectful and gives a wow factor to Las Vegas. And my name came up. 'Can you do a tasting tomorrow?' Well, obviously it wasn't enough time to get the quality ingredients that I'd like to have. You know, I'm a sausage maker by trade, I make all my own charcuterie and stuff like that. So I wanted to do something special. 'Well, OK, let's do it Saturday.'
"So I kind of scrambled to put a menu together and for lack of a better word hit it out of the park. Got a really fun take on a menu that I like to say has an emotional connection to the guests and baseball. And brings a little bit of that nostalgia, the classics."
As for what makes for a good hot dog, Howard listed several key factors.
"The snap, of course," he said. "And the emulsification on the inside; that's the mix, the grind. And the flavor -- the cure, right? Some hot dogs are too salty. We tasted a lot of different stuff. We did side-by-side tastings of probably 50 different sausages just to come up with the four that we have now."
Howard's line of hot dogs, known collectively as FlyDog, are available at multiple locations on the Las Vegas Ballpark concourse. During last week's series against the El Paso Chihuahuas, he provided a rundown of the current quartet.
The Hercules: "Growing up in Detroit, it's always a battle between who had the best chili dog. So we decided to do the Hercules, which is a foot-long; you've got to have a foot-long. We wrapped it in bacon and we deep fry it like a Ripper. Stuff it into a potato roll and then we top it with a dry-aged beef chili. The chili powder itself we grind, we use seven different chilis, we grind it ourselves. It's not something that comes out of a package. It's scratch cooking and good quality dry-aged beef. Onions and mustard and chili is the thing with a chili dog. We took those onions and cook 'em down with a little bit of vinegar and sugar. We make a jam out of it. We top it with pickled mustard seeds just to keep that acidity."
Chicago Smokehouse: "People are really into the Chicago Dog. We took that, we did the smoked cheddar brat, called it the Chicago Smokehouse. So, smoked cheddar brat, you bite into it, its oozing with cheddar cheese. Got a little bit of spice to it. Curry aioli, and then we're topping that with your very traditional neon green relish and sport peppers and tomato and pickles from the Chicago Dog."
The Jetsetter: My favorite is the Jetsetter. It kind of pays homage to the neighborhood my restaurant Sparrow + Wolf is at. We're in Chinatown, so I eat a lot of banh mi. I thought it would be good to do a take on that. We use all Wagyu beef, a 100 percent Wagyu beef hot dog, with traditional banh mi ingredients: the pickled vegetables, the crushed cilantro, the fresh jalapeño, top it with a little bit of cilantro mayonnaise as well."
The Heater: I'm a big fan of spice and hot food. So we've got a spicy hot link sausage that's made from Berkshire pork. And then we're topping that with a Calabrian chili relish and then shaved Grana Padano or Parmesan Reggiano over top. And then the buns we're getting imported from New Jersey, from Martin's. Again, just really paying respect to the ingredient and creating something fun for the guest."
Howard isn't at the ballpark on a nightly basis, since he has his own restaurant to run, but Malone said he will often "sneak in."
"[Howard] will do quality control, eat a few hot dogs and make sure they're up to his specs," he said. "He's a tough chef, so we've got to be on our toes all the time. "
In addition to doing quality control, Howard plans to rotate new hot dogs into his FlyDog lineup on a homestand-by-homestand basis.
"We want to create something that's fun and exciting for our fans who come through the door. Keep them excited to come back and wanting more," he said. "And it's great so far. ... I think we're all learning. At least I'm definitely learning, being a part of it. I keep pitching them with ideas. We'll see what sticks."