1. Food

Dining Planner: Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest turns 100, celebrate with Tampa Bay hot dogs

Customers enter Mel’s Hot Dogs on Busch Blvd. in Tampa. After 38 years of a cash-only policy, Mel’s Hot Dogs has started accepting credit cards recently.
Customers enter Mel’s Hot Dogs on Busch Blvd. in Tampa. After 38 years of a cash-only policy, Mel’s Hot Dogs has started accepting credit cards recently.
Published Jun. 29, 2016


July 4? Sure, sure, Independence Day. But in some circles, the main attraction is the annual Nathan's Famous International July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island, which dates back exactly 100 years to 1916. It's an annual tradition for a different brand of American heroes. Introduced with all the hyperbole and fanfare regularly lavished on sports titans, some of them are massive, others surprisingly svelte. Many of them perform in face paint and funny costumes. They even have a gladiatorial name.

They are . . . the Gurgitators.

According to a National Geographic special on the topic, hot dogs are among the most challenging things to eat in competition, each tube steak a powerful cocktail of salt, fat and nitrates. Nonetheless, Matt Stonie ended the 2015 Nathan's event as champ, consuming 62 hot dogs — and buns! — in 10 minutes.

There may not be $10,000 prizes or coverage on ESPN, but you can test your mettle against the pros — many of whom can eat 10,000 calories and 600 grams of fat at a sitting and never break a sweat. In homage to the Super Bowl of competitive eating events, here is where to gorge yourself on wonderful wieners this week.

Kings Street Food Counter:

Stephen Schrutt, who also owns the Avenue, debuted his indoor-outdoor be-muraled project in November with a targeted menu: thick shakes, local craft beers on tap, grilled cheeses, hot dogs, poutine, salads and, oh, cronuts (daredevil tomfoolery: cronut breakfast sandwich with scrambled egg, cheese and bacon). Do these things go together? Yes, they do. Other assets: plucky seafoam green color scheme, dog-friendly patio, open until 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday, seasonal themed movie nights on the second Wednesday of the month and, most important of all, the corn dog of my dreams. This is where to get a corn dog, blistering hot and enrobed in a sweet, crunchy wafflish batter with a ramekin of zingy grain mustard, all tucked in a brown cardboard to-go container with plastic silverware and your choice of side (bacon blue cheese mac salad if no one around you is judgey; cuke and tomato salad if they are). Dogs are respectable all-beef Viennas; themed toppings are coherent. 937 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 914-2111.

Burger 21:

Much has been made of the signature hamburgers (and Thai ketchup and sweet potato fries with toasted marshmallow goo), but frankly, this chain also offers a fine frank. The dogs in question are Hebrew Nationals, the buns toasted for a satisfying crunch, especially when weighted under some serious condiments as in the Great Dane, a blistery grilled dog topped with pickled cukes, chopped tomato, onion strings and remoulade for lushness. 9664 W Linebaugh Ave., Tampa, and other locations. (813) 475-5921.

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 is packed with sauerkraut, onion, mustard, relish and pickle. Still, the Polish sausage 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, 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 is pure Chi-Town, too. 7733 Ulmerton Road, Largo. (727) 524-1146.


Then ditch the dogs and catch the second part of the Communal on July 8, a three-part summer dinner series orchestrated by Mike Webb of Tupelo Catering and Traci Bryant and Kurt Ferguson of N.I.N.A. Each meal is seven courses with wines paired by Robert Sprentall. The group is working with Florida anglers and farmers to include wild-caught and pasture-raised ingredients as well as local, seasonal produce and wild edible Florida plants. The dinner is set in the historic 1910-era Sweet Pea Café and is limited to 26 guests, who will dine at communal tables (thus the name). $100 per person. 7 p.m., 434 Virginia Lane, Dunedin. The final dinner in the series is July 22.