The recent opening of Willamette Market & Deli functioned as an act of historic preservation as much as it signaled go-time for a new niche eatery and shop. The Little Market & Deli had closed in the spot at 2013's end, ceasing operation of the city's oldest grocery store, dating back to 1902.
The Shook's Run neighborhood fought other proposals, but welcomed Natalie Peck and Amy Emerson's idea for this local and sustainability-minded mini grocery and hot dog counter. Upwards of 20 folks even bought into $4,000 shares to help launch it, betting on a 10 percent return-on-investment in three years.
Peck says area residents compose at least half of today's foot traffic, and that she'll receive phone calls inquiring about the timing of bread deliveries (from Sourdough Boulangerie) and such — interactions that have become nostalgic in the Internet and big-box store era. "It's the whole reason we went with this model, because we wanted the community to be involved," she'd said earlier.
It's easy to feel welcome in the spacious retail area, basically a scaled-down version of Mountain Mama's, where Emerson formerly worked, considering the mostly organic and alternative products. A record player and stack of vinyls invite a choose-your-soundtrack experience; school desks near the windows act as dining seats; and retail racks and fridges lead back to the order counter for seven different hot dogs, a couple pasta salads and soups, a few house-baked pastries, and Loyal Coffee pours.
Nothing's comparatively cheap — hot dogs are $7 to $10, and specialty drinks from the cooler that we sample range roughly from $3 to $5 — but nothing usually is cheap when considering gourmet, allergy-sensitive, vegan, gluten-free and local items. So instead of Reese's for under a buck, Eating Evolved's muddy dark chocolate caramel sea salt coconut butter cups are $3.40 a pair. A can of Stumptown Coffee's increasingly bitter nitro cold brew shares space with a brilliantly beer-y citra hop-infused kombucha from Happy Heaf, super sweet birch beer from Rocky Mountain Soda, and a bright, honey-forward blueberry basil "wild tonic" from Sedona Kombucha. And, stealing the pretentious award: Boulder's semi-searing Rowdy Mermaid Smoky Badger hibiscus-chipotle pepper-cinnamon kombucha is made with "filtered Colorado snowmelt." (Oh, you mean, like, fucking WATER?)
As evidenced by velvety vegan cheese-and-broccoli and Southwestern white bean soups, WM&D knows how to find depth and soul with its stocks and hearty flavorings. Thick-cut baked fries could use seasoning though, and as a topping overwhelm the Kung Fury dog, best for its Elevation Vindaloo Ketchup. Peck calls the fare "fork-and-knife dogs" for obvious reasons once you make a mess trying to pick one up.
For any dog, choose among Sangre's Best beef dogs, Field Roast vegan frankfurters, or excellent house-marinated (partly in soy-free coconut aminos) boiled carrots as your filler, on fine house-made vegan pretzel buns. The Hot Rock acts like a "dessert-y breakfast dog" in Peck's words, thanks to sappy agave-maple caramelized onions only partly balanced by cream cheese, needing more jalapeño heat. The Fat and Happy uses a baked potato as a bun, drizzled in vegan cheese sauce. Chili and bacon bolster the Dirty Frank, and most interestingly, though I waver on how effectively, The Rockaway gets wild-caught crab and smoked salmon.
Much like how gourmet burger joints have elevated that item's topping count, and price point, WM&D stretches the hot dog's potential, at turns to a breaking point. Next visit I'll just get The Boxer, topped only in ketchup and mustard. After all, this place was built on a classic, and that simple, clean aesthetic acts as WM&D's strong suit.