The Godzilla vs. King Kong of dogs is Nathan's versus Vienna. But then you've got to get into the toppings. In New York? A proper dog comes with steamed onions and pale, deli-style yellow mustard. In Kansas City, it's melted Swiss and kraut; Atlanta dogs get a coleslaw mantle. Whatever your frankfurter fantasies, here are some of Tampa Bay's best hot dog spots.
Mel's Hot Dogs
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 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. The house special ($4.25, $6.74 as a basket with fries and your choice of coleslaw or baked beans) is packed with sauerkraut, onion, mustard, relish and pickle. Still, the Polish sausage ($5.50, $7.99) is a fat, juicy choice, accessorized with brown mustard and grilled onions.
• 4136 E Busch Blvd., Tampa; (813) 985-8000
Bruce's Chicago Grill & Dog House
Owner Bruce Karlin, here since 1994, has a more-is-more decorating motif in fluent Windy City: photos of Al Capone, da Bears and other local luminaries, dog-eared menus from Chicago greats, all haphazardly staple-gunned. The way to go here is the Chicago Dog ($3.59), 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, alarmingly neon-green relish, a dill pickle slice, tomato and cuke, chopped onion, "sport peppers" (hot little babies packed in vinegar) and several shakes of celery salt. And a tamale with chili and giardiniera ($2.75) is pure Chi-Town, too.
• 7733 Ulmerton Road, Largo; (727) 524-1146
Hot Dogs on Main
Susan Norton, a personal chef by trade, is at the helm of this little charmer. She has been going at it for several years now, bringing folks traditional dogs and more pedigreed "show dogs." Case in point, the new Chihuahua: That's a wiener putting on the dog with guacamole, mango salsa, diced onion, Greek yogurt, jalapeno melted cheddar and crushed Fritos for $5.95. The standard issue here are Vienna 1:6 (that means six dogs in a pound) skinless all-beef dogs, but she will sub out a veggie dog, organic turkey or beef dog. Popular options include a bacon-cheddar dog ($4.55) and a BLT dog ($4.50).
• 505 Main St., Dunedin; (727) 408-5103
Coney Island Grill
1926. That's a long time to be the alpha dog, but Coney Island's Michigan-style chili dog ($2) is the coin of the realm, especially when eaten atop a vinyl stool at the counter with an impossibly thick chocolate shake ($3.75) at your elbow. The franks cost more than the nickel that owner Pete Barlas charged back in the day (he did add a 5-cent extra charge for anyone who ordered — sacrilege — ketchup on their chili dog), but son Hank and grandson Pete Barlas II haven't let prices get out of hand. While you're there, it's worth checking out the mighty fine BLT ($4), as well.
• 250 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 822-4493
This food truck cruises the mean streets of Wesley Chapel, sometimes downtown Tampa (MOSI, Curtis Hixon) and sometimes St. Petersburg. To keep track of its whereabouts, visit the website, americanwienertruck.com. It's been around for several years and changed hands, but current owners, husband-and-wife team Ben and Amy Laffey, have a serious following. What got people in a tizzy initially was the Asian dog, which combines nori seaweed, pickled ginger, Japanese kewpie mayonnaise, grilled onions, teriyaki sauce and furikake seasonings on an all-beef wiener ($5). Since then, allegiances might have shifted to their own spin on the Chicago dog, called the Capone: an all-beef wiener dressed with roma tomatoes, onions, mustard, piccalillis, wild cucumber spears, Thai chile peppers and furikake seasonings ($5).
• To find them or book them, call (813) 720-7692.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.