I like them dragged through the garden. That's what you call it when a Chicago-style hot dog is packed to capacity with traditional fixings: yellow mustard, alarmingly neon green relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices that never seem to quite fit, chopped onion, "sport peppers" (hot little babies packed in vinegar) and a couple shakes of celery salt. A Chicago bun is flecked with poppy seeds, the dog itself is all-beef and pretty darned salty.
For a Coney Island dog with its full complement of bells and whistles, you want it "all the way." Except, confusingly, there are two kinds of Coney Island dogs, the New York beef franks made famous by Nathan's, et al., but also a style of dog in Michigan that is topped with all-meat chili, yellow mustard and diced yellow onion.
In honor of National Hot Dog Month (July, no kidding) and in anticipation of tomorrow's epic battle, Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest, we decided to sample Tampa Bay's efforts with that most American of foodstuffs, the hot dog.
Old dogs (still plenty of tricks)
You want a dog to snap when you bite it? Then you want one with the natural casing, made of sheep's intestine, as opposed to a "skinless" dog. (Kosher dogs are either skinless or made with an artificial collagen casing that lacks quite the same snap.) Mel's Hot Dogs in Tampa has the goods. 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 ($3.25, $5.24 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.
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On the Pinellas side, the alpha dog is clearly Coney Island in St. Petersburg. As one reader wrote, "It's an institution, a city landmark since 1926. If I had a quarter for every hot dog they have sold, I would be a rich man." These days Hank Barlas presides, with his father, Pete Barlas, before him and his son, Pete Barlas II, sure to take his own spot at the controls. The coin of the realm is the Michigan-style chili dog ($1.72; the topping is technically called Coney sauce), eaten swiftly atop a stool at the counter, washed down with an impossibly thick chocolate shake ($3.18).
It may be sacrilege to mention this, mid wiener whirl, but Coney Island's BLT ($3.73) is a thing of beauty, the perfect drippy mix of crunchy and soft, hot and cold.
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Vienna beef dogs are legendary, a Chicago company founded in 1893 and introduced at the Columbian Exposition. You can't buy them around here in the grocery store, but you can sample them in myriad delicious guises at Randy's Hott Dogg Heaven in Palm Harbor. A little shack in back of a Shell station, this is a daytime dog joint only; order at the counter and stand there in the parking lot trying not to drip on your shoes.
The owner is a stickler. He gave me a brief lecture on why the footlong Vienna cut in half is better than the 7-inch Vienna widely available (too skinny). And I believed him. These dogs are skinless (no pop; $2-$2.49) and steamed, served dragged through the garden or topped with Chicago-style no-bean chili. For the carb-phobic, there's a "hott dogg boat" ($4.49), a cut up footlong served in a bowl, dressed per your whim. Add a whole kosher dill ($1) or a classic Vienna beef tamale ($1.89) with Louisiana hot sauce, and it's easy to see what has kept this place going for the past nine years.
New dogs on the block
Yummy's opened mid April in an adorable house on the main drag in Gulfport. On a Tuesday, with the farmers market in full swing, sit at one of the three tables in the sun room and wrestle with some great Chicago-style sandwiches. The Yummy dog ($2.79) is textbook, the snappy meat hunkered under the sweet relish, sport peppers, etc. Also delicious, the Italian beef and sausage sandwich ($5.95) gives its soft poppy seed roll a workout, the Polish sausage ($6.25) so formidable that it requires a sturdy, toasted 6-inch Gonnella roll instead.
The place itself has a high funk factor (yard sale tchotchkes function as decor and impulse buys), and the owners could not be friendlier.
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Bill Shumate opened his first burger joint in 1964 in Norman, Okla. Many restaurants and concepts later (like Bella's on S Howard), he and his partner, Joanie Corneil, have returned to these roots, back to square one with, um, Square One in Tampa. It's burgers and lots of them, with nine basic types (Meyer Angus beef, kobe, sashimi tuna, portobello) with a passel of toppers (teriyaki ginger sauce, roasted black bean and corn salsa) and three kinds of buns.
Yes, a burger joint, but it has an amazing 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, kind of flirty, and is served "Okie style" ($6.99), which means with chili, cheese and onions, but you can top it with anything.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.