Tampa Bay is red hot, with veteran establishments and newcomers putting on the dogs.
Bruce's Chicago Grill and Dog House
7733 Ulmerton Road, Largo; (727) 524-1146
The exuberant orange-and-yellow signage can be distracting, but head for the basic Chicago dog, dragged through the garden (translation: with the works). That means a tender steamed poppy seed bun cradling a Vienna beef dog in the casing, topped with yellow mustard, scary-neon green relish, a dill pickle slice, tomato and cuke, chopped onion, "sport peppers" (hot little babies packed in vinegar) and a couple of shakes of celery salt. Good snap on the dog, with lots of other enticing possibilities (like the Reuben dog with a drizzle of Russian dressing and mantle of molten Swiss).
250 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 822-4493
A major alpha dog, Coney Island has been a city landmark since 1926 with members of the Barlas family steady at the tiller. The coin of the realm is the Michigan-style chili dog (the topping is technically called Coney sauce), eaten swiftly atop a stool at the counter, washed down with an impossibly thick chocolate shake. (For those not in the mood for a dog, Coney Island's BLT is a thing of beauty.)
Coney Island Drive Inn
1112 E Jefferson St., Brooksville; (352) 796-9141
A serious old-timer, this dates to 1960, the dogs served out of an old boat-manufacturing building. It has changed hands over the years, the Hensley family taking over five years ago (and emerging victorious last year in a scuffle with Subway, which misguidedly wanted them to stop using the word "footlong"). They are still using it — they were at one point second in the state only to Walt Disney World in the consumption of footlong buns. They do a classic dog with either chili (beans and a little heat) or Coney sauce (all meat and milder), although locals also swear by the made-rite-style burgers (loose ground beef, kind of like a Sloppy Joe without the Sloppy).
Frankies of Tampa
909 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 425-3647
It's a fabled dog chain in Connecticut, the 3-year-old Tampa location the only foray into Florida. Get the Frankies plain footlong and stand before the relish bar: Maybe some sauerkraut? Nah, the hot relish they ship in from New York. Or both? For a little more money they have specialty dogs: a bacon dog, one topped with New York-style onions (they're fried and then blushed with a little marinara).
Mel's Hot Dogs
4136 E Busch Blvd., Tampa; (813) 985-8000
This won't be news to aficionados who have been crowding into this red-and-white storefront near Busch Gardens since 1973. The red wienermobile outside beckons; inside, it's order at the counter. It's a fine dog, the house special (offered by itself or as a basket, with fries and your choice of coleslaw or baked beans) packed with sauerkraut, onion, mustard, relish and pickle. Still, the Polish sausage ($4.50, $6.49) is a fat, juicy choice, accessorized with brown mustard and grilled onions. The clientele is all flip-flops, sunburns and wet bathing suits.
Randy's Hott Dogg Heaven
1140 Main St., Dunedin; (727) 781-3647
Randy used to work his magic in Palm Harbor in a little shack in back of a Shell station. Sixteen months ago he took the plunge and opened a permanent (and air-conditioned) 600-square-foot shop with Chicago decor and a big-screen television in Dunedin. He still favors the footlong Vienna cut in half (he says the widely available 7-inch Vienna is too skinny). These dogs are skinless (no pop) and steamed, served dragged through the garden or topped with Chicago-style no-bean chili. He also offers whole kosher dills and classic Vienna beef tamale with Louisiana hot sauce.
3701 Henderson Blvd., Tampa; (813) 414-0101
Bill Shumate and his partner, Joanie Corneil, just celebrated 25 years at their Bella's on S Howard. Meanwhile, they've started a small empire of Square Ones (one in Tampa, two in Sarasota, with more in the works). The star attraction is the burger, with nine basic types, but they also do a very commendable 100 percent Angus hot dog, split down the middle and griddled open-face, then slid onto a hamburger bun. It pokes out on either side and is served "Okie style," which means with chili, cheese and onions.
2914 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport; (727) 321-9869
Yummy's owner Richard Reale sold the business recently to Lori Luczak, but he's stayed on for a while to make sure the Chicago-style sandwiches and Yummy dogs stay in top form. It's a textbook dog, the snappy meat hunkered under sweet relish, sport peppers, etc. They also do a nice Polish sausage on a toasted 6-inch Gonnella roll instead. Reale has taken his Yummy lineup on the road, recently outfitting a concession trailer to hit fairs and special events all over the state.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.