Hot dogs: The hallmark of the backyard barbecue cookout. It wouldn’t feel like summer without them. But it’s also August in Florida, and our dog days of summer are less than ideal for lighting up the grill.
Thankfully, the Tampa Bay area has always had plenty of solid hot dog options, and iconic stalwarts like Mel’s Hot Dogs in Tampa and St. Petersburg’s Coney Island Sandwich Shop have long set the standard for celebrating the frankfurter.
Lots of elements make a hot dog truly great, from snap and texture to, of course, the bun. However, classic ’kraut, yellow mustard and chili dogs are facing some serious competition from spots putting their own spin on the beloved handheld with inventive ingredients, including quirky toppings and links made with Florida beef, or no meat at all.
Yep, plant-based, all-vegan weenies seem to be popping up across the region lately. But what makes the humble hot dog so enduring?
Shaun Noonan, who owns downtown Orlando’s Vegan Hot Dog Cart and runs Heights Public Market stall Dixie Dharma at Tampa’s Armature Works, credits the recent vegan hot dog boom to a resurgence of what he calls “Americana cuisine.”
“The modern vegan food scene definitely leans in that same direction,” Noonan said. “You can eat plant-based and still enjoy that nostalgia, and it’s a fun challenge for us in the kitchen to prove it when we’re getting compared to the ‘real’ deal.”
Whether you’re a Chicago hot dog fanatic or looking for a meatless alternative to the summer staple, here are some new- and old-school joints.
Coney Island Sandwich Shop
250 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 822-4493.
It has been around since 1926, and folks are still pulling up a swivel stool at this St. Petersburg mainstay for shakes, burgers and the Michigan-style, chili-dressed Coney dog. The franks are topped with seasoned ground beef, onions and mustard — no frills and no fuss, but still a classic.
Mel’s Hot Dogs
4136 E Busch Blvd., Tampa. (813) 985-8000. melshotdogs.com.
A total throwback next to Busch Gardens for close to 50 years, the family-owned institution is known for its wide selection of all-beef links and retro decor. Choices include the bacon cheddar dog, which calls for melted cheddar cheese and two slices of crispy bacon, a soul-warming combination you’re never not craving. Or try the Mel’s My Way, with whatever you like on it.
1748 W Brandon Blvd., Brandon. (813) 210-8190. 2102 E Fowler Ave., Tampa. (813) 540-9001. portillos.com.
This fiercely loved Windy City chain churns out two hot dogs, each served in a poppy seed bun, at its pair of local restaurants. There’s the Chicago-style frank that comes dragged through the garden (read: topped with mustard, relish, celery salt, chopped onions, sliced tomatoes, kosher pickle and sport peppers), plus the equally iconic chili and American cheese wiener sprinkled with chopped onions. Best part? Portillo’s does jumbo versions of each.
7204 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 345-9701. alesiarestaurant.com.
Can you still call it a hot dog if it’s presented on a baguette? The Parisian hot dog on the menu at this French-Vietnamese bistro blurs the line. But who cares when it’s that good? The decadent take features a beef dog smothered in caramelized onions, melted gruyere cheese and creamy mornay sauce, all served on an open-faced crusty baguette.
Cass Street Deli
1331 W Cass St., Tampa. (813) 609-6316. cassstreetdeli.com.
Sure, there are massive pastrami sandwiches, corned beef hash and matzo ball soup. But the newly opened New York-inspired Jewish delicatessen also features a killer hot dog, built upon a Wagyu link from the multigenerational sausage pros at Tambuzzo Sausage Company. The bun is sourced from Jamison B. Breadhouse Bakes in Ybor City and Ba-Tampte spicy deli mustard is imported from New York. Additional fixings — onion mix, relish and sauerkraut — are made in-house.
1601 W Swann Ave., Tampa. (813) 308-1925. goodygoodyburgers.com.
The Columbia Restaurant Group’s Hyde Park revitalization of the iconic diner is best known for burgers, but the quarter-pound Florida beef frankfurters are a great alternative and just as filling. The links are served on a warm bun with yellow mustard and a selection of toppings, ranging from onions and relish to sweet and spicy pickles. Go the extra mile and order the Rusty (named for owner Richard Gonzmart’s late German Shepherd), which comes topped with signature chili, shredded cheddar cheese, onions and blistered jalapeno peppers.
Hot Dogs on Main
505 Main St., Dunedin. (727) 408-5103.
Susan Norton’s quirky Dunedin spot specializes in creative twists on traditional all-beef Vienna franks as well as veggie and organic turkey links. There’s the Reuben Dog, topped with Russian dressing, melted Swiss cheese and sauerkraut; the Dixie Dog, which highlights chili and coleslaw; and the Chihuahua, smothered in guacamole, mango salsa, jalapenos, melted cheddar cheese and a handful of Fritos.
1910 N Ola Ave., Tampa. dixiedharma.com.
Shaun Noonan, who founded after-hours downtown Orlando staple the Vegan Hot Dog Cart, knows a thing or two about plant-based links. So it’s no wonder his Dixie Dharma stall at the Armature Works’ Heights Public Market slings a signature hot dog dish — and make no mistake, it’s a meal in itself. Hillbilly Chili Dogs smother two vegan franks in pretzel buns with Indian chili and “cheese” sauce, blackened onion, scallions and za’taar. Mmm.
Golden Dinosaurs Vegan Deli
2930 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport. (727) 873-6901. goldendinosaurs.com.
Under the “sandwiches” section of the meat-free menu (controversial, we know), you’ll find the popular chili dog. This eatery drawing veg-heads on the regular for both sweet and savory munchies gloriously covers the wiener in a marriage of house-made chili, yellow mustard and chives. Don’t pass up the option to add vegan nacho cheese for an extra $1.
This is one of Tampa Bay’s own roving vegan hot dog carts that recently retired its beloved Yo Soy Dog special with nacho “cheese” and more. Choose from a couple of house creations or opt to build your own frank with various condiments and toppings.
Sly Dogs Vegan Hot Dogs
Another vegan hot dog cart slinging inventive weenies around town. Signature options include the oh-so-Tampa Cubano, featuring black beans, sweet plantains, onions and mojo mayo, and the Frito Pie, which sports the nostalgic mashup of chili, “cheese,” onions and Fritos.