Photos by Arianna Gastelum

Hot dogs don’t need meat to be tasty. Sam Auen is proving that with Los Banditos Hot Dog Speakeasy in Des Moines, Iowa.

A vegan himself, Auen is a chef well-known for pushing vegan cuisine in the area. “I’ve been doing vegan and vegetarian food in town for 12 years,” he says. With limited late-night vegan options in the city, he decided to open Los Banditos. “It’s just important to have those options for people.”

This hot dog eatery pops up inside Krunkwich Ramen House every Friday and Saturday night. Aside from a seemingly out of place neon hot dog light in the window, there isn’t a single trace of Los Banditos during the day—not one sausage or bun in sight.

But when Krunkwich “shuts” its doors at 10 p.m., its insomniac “step-sibling,” as Auen puts it, opens up for business and fulfills its patrons’ sweet, sauce-filled hot dog dreams until 3 a.m.

Unlike many eateries, Los Banditos takes its non-vegan menu and makes an identical, vegan menu front-to-back. There are only six dogs to choose from. “We don’t want to have this giant menu,” Auen says. “We want to keep it simple. It’s 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. How much do you need for choices?”

That Vegan Goodness

Die-hard meat-lovers might still cringe at the thought of a vegan hot dog. Barley? Wheat? Yeast? It sounds like more of a crime than a meal.

But their vegan dogs are so good, even meat-eaters find themselves picking items from the vegan menu. Los Banditos makes it easy by frying Field Roast organic veggie dogs to perfection. The real show, however, is the variety of concoctions added to the dogs, ranging from verdecado sauce to vegan miso whiz.

Caleb Swank-Ferrara, a former employee and regular patron, says both menus are equally as popular. “Surprisingly, it’s about half and half, which is above the mix for most restaurants that offer vegan options.”

To add to the multiple layers of Los Banditos’ unique character, there’s a different menu each week. “You have to have new stuff. People expect it. It’s the pressure to be more creative,” Auen says. “The more creative you are, the more creative you can be. It’s a great tool to keep people thinking, doing, creating. You don’t see the same dog twice.”

Creating humorous titles to match the recipes is the other half of the fun in the Los Banditos kitchen. From the Goon Dog, a “Field Roast organic dog, wrapped inside a vegan rangoon,” to the vegan 420 Island Sauce, to the Plain Ass Side of Fries, the menu items manage to satisfy the hunger and humor of the drunk crowds that stumble in.

Auen knows there’s a very specific way to satisfy needs of those who venture into his restaurant past 10 p.m. “If you’ve made it up that late, there’s a reason. You’ve probably been drinking and you just need really good food.”

It All Started As An Inside Joke

The idea of a hot dog speakeasy occurred to Auen after he discovered an old bar in the basement of the Krunkwich building and a few too many beers.

Auen explained, “This bar was in the basement, so I totally thought it could be a speakeasy. One of my chefs at the time was totally obsessed with hotdogs… This was an inside joke we had, and we would drink. This is actually how all of my concepts have started—by me getting drunk and being like, ‘Dude, do you know what would be cool?’ And then just making it work.”

And, oh, he’s made it work.

Los Banditos and the Des Moines Food Scene

Des Moines native and Los Banditos regular, Felicia Coe, loves Los Banditos for its vegan dogs. “[It’s] delicious vegan comfort food at its best,” she says.

Coe, who hasn’t eaten meat in 17 years, says “I love the vibe of [it]. It’s got that big city, late-night food joint feel, but with better food.” She also knows the importance of supporting local eateries like Los Banditos. “I don’t know how many late-night, local spots our ‘little-big’ city can support, but I sure hope we can sustain [it].”

As for what’s next for Los Banditos, anything is possible. “There’s a possibility of going to a truck with it, so we can do it more mobile,” Auen says. “We may be [serving vegan dogs] on Thursday nights at Tacopocalypse this year. There’s a possibility that [Los Banditos] might go to its own location.”

Regardless of its future, Los Banditos provides the ultimate late-night comfort food that vegans struggle to find elsewhere in the city. Tourists are often surprised to find a restaurant like it in a city like Des Moines.

“We get a lot of bands from out of town that come in after they play shows and they’re like ‘We can get vegan, late-night food? In Des Moines, Iowa?’” Auen says.

“Like, yeah. And we send them away with that.”

When it comes to Los Banditos Hot Dog Speakeasy and Des Moines, Iowa, one thing can be said for certain: always expect the unexpected.