Saturday, May 29, 2010

Jimmy's Hot Dogs

The third stop on our hot dog tour was at Jimmy’s Hot Dogs located on 6th Avenue South. This was another educational experience. We came to discover that Jimmy’s is one of the members of the Graphos Trilogy. I had known for years that Sneaky Pete’s was started by Pete Graphos and his brother Sam who now has Sam’s Super Sandwich in Homewood. We discovered that there is another brother…. Jimmy. Jimmy’s Hot Dogs remained a Sneaky Pete’s for many years but was eventually renamed “Jimmy’s Hot Dogs” Pete, Sam and Jimmy were all involved in the Sneaky Pete’s business years ago. After the name was franchised and sold both Sam and Jimmy remained in the business when Pete moved on. After our adventure trying to find Gus's downtown we asked and found out the Jimmy's that had been on 4th Avenue was totally different and unrelated.

Our visit to Jimmy’s broke some of my misconceptions. The first was décor; the walls in Jimmy’s dining room are covered with a rich mixture of Birmingham history, autographed sports pictures and three stooges pictures. This is definitely a change from looking at conduit, pipes and menus. Of course the area where one orders has the basic hot dog stand décor which has little more than a menu. Also of note is that Jimmy’s has a dining room. The larger hot dog stands that aren’t located in a cramped downtown space can have the luxury of a separate dining room.

Jimmy’s has a very full menu for a hot dog stand. It lists such delights as a Jimmy’s dog, chili dog, slaw dog, beacon cheese dog, polish dog and jumbo versions of all of these along with various burgers. We ordered what has become the usual for us, a hot dog and chili dog all the way with chips and a drink. The drinks at Jimmy’s are fountain drinks that are big. The hot dogs are good and the chili dogs have real chili on them. This was the first real chili dog we had encountered since starting the tour. The chili did indeed taste like chili and one could easily conceive of eating in a bowl with crackers. This day I also ventured out to buy a polish dog which Robert and I split. This was also good having a flavor that is a real switch from the usual hot dog. The polish dog is definitely worth the slightly higher price.

A place like Jimmy’s actually tempts me to camp out and review EVERY item on the menu. Of course we are on a mission (as the Blues Brothers would say, “a mission from God”) to check out the hot dog stands of Birmingham. I just keep finding that I would like to explore the menu at some of these places.

We are finding that hot dog stands are not predictable and often have more to offer than one would expect.

Finding Our Way!

The trip to Gus's downtown also gave us a couple of interesting experiences. Downtown Birmingham is laid out in a grid with sequentially numbered streets and avenues. The streets run generally north and south while the avenues run generally east and west. One can tell very close to the location of any address in this area just from the street address and street or avenue number. For example, Gus’s is at 1915 4th Avenue North, this is located obviously on 4th Avenue, but is also between 19th and 20th Streets (in the 1900 block) on the south side of the street/avenue (evidenced by the odd street number). There are a few of wild cards thrown in. For many years there was a 21st Street in downtown; but a few years ago it was renamed to “Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard. To me, the name 21st street is the name that I first associate with it; but it has been renamed. The other name change in recent years was the renaming of 8th Avenue South to "University Boulevard". These name changes make navigating Birmingham just a little more confusing.

On this visit to downtown Robert and I encountered not one but two lost parties who were clueless as to how to find their destinations. I guess I could have counted us in this number but didn't. The first of these had the address but had no idea as to how to find it; the other didn’t have a street address but simply a verbal misdirection that his destination was "close to Regions Bank". We were able to assist both of these lost souls in getting to their desired destinations. I am surprised as to how little many of our citizens know about the city we live in.

Gus's Downtown

I thought we might be getting the hang of this thing. After all, both Robert and I have been eating hot dogs for years and I thought I knew what to expect. The next stop was at Gus’s Hot Dogs on 4th Avenue North between 19th and 20th Streets North. To start with I thought I knew for sure where this place is… but I was wrong. Before a new parking deck was built on 4th Avenue near Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard there had been a hot dog stand facing 4th Avenue, adjacent to the old Burch & Tant location. The name of this place was Jimmie’s Hot Dogs. I had just noted the 4th Avenue address without paying much attention to the street number and immediately pictured that stand in my mind. When we arrived at what we came to discover was the wrong location there was no hot dog stand to be seen. The old building was gone and there was empty retail space available in the new building approximately where Jimmy’s was once located. We started walking around the block and asked a security guard near the entrance of the 20th Street parking deck; “Where is Gus’s Hot Dogs?" He explained to us in short order that Gus’s was still right around the corner, “right over there” but that Jimmy’s was gone.

This was both good news and bad news to the brother and I. The good news was that our destination for the day was alive and well doing business right where they have been for over 60 years. The bad news was that we had started the trip without adequately noting the address. We proceeded to go to Gus’s Hot Dogs.

Gus’s is one of the other lesser known classic hot dog stands in downtown Birmingham. Our visit to Gus’s was the first time I have ever been in there. This became somewhat of a Twilight Zone experience as we learned the owner's name. Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs, just 2 blocks away is run by Gus. Gus’s Hot Dogs is run by George. Go figure… it seems that both of these hot dog stands were opened many years ago by Pete and Gus. Their businesses later were taken over by Gus and George. Oddly the names have this real mis-match today. I wonder if somewhere there is a "George's Hot Dogs" run by a guy named Pete.

Regardless, when we finally arrived at Gus’s, somewhat humbled by our lack of knowledge, we went in to place our order. We waited and watched as George filled a couple of orders ahead of us. When he took our order he asked if it was “to go” or to eat there. When we told him we would be dining in, his total countenance changed; it was remarkable. He told us to step into his “dining room”, the area to the left of the front door where his counter doesn’t continue to the window. In this little nook there is a small counter and a couple of stools where two can pause to eat in relative peace. Robert and I were both delighted to eat in George’s/Gus’s dining room. We had our usual order of a hot dog and chili dog each “all the way”. What a surprise awaited; the expected hot dog sauce was much sweeter than anticipated. It was good but totally not what we expected. The chili dogs were good but the topping was not what either of us would call chili.

A couple of observations here. George apparently does a very big take-out business, evidenced by the continuous stream of take out orders and the stack of open bags stacked and ready on the little counter behind the galley. I also noticed he has quite a variety of options for presentation of the hot dog which includes slaw dogs, cheese dogs, chili dogs, chili cheese dogs, chili slaw dogs, and at the bottom the polish sausage. This last entry, the polish sausage, was one that I found intriguing. I thought about it for days and almost went back on Saturday just to have one. This visit to Gus’s convinced me that I would return for more.

I had thought that Pete’s was the sole survivor in downtown Birmingham from the 1940’s hot dog stands. I stand corrected, Gus’s is a member of that club along with Pete's and at least one more! Gus’s doesn’t get the publicity that Pete’s does and I suspect doesn’t have as large a following as does Pete’s, but it should. What else did we learn from this visit to Gus’s?
• They serve a really good hot dog, different but good.
• Their chili dog, like Pete’s doesn’t have chili on it.
• Gus’s has a “dining room”, something Pete’s doesn’t have.
• There is more than one survivor in downtown Birmingham.
• The prices at Gus’s are very good. (The best deal yet among our first stops).

Mike's Chicago Hot Dogs

The next week we made our second excursion; this time to Mikes Chicago Hot Dogs in Homewood. Mike’s looks like a building one might have on the rear of his back yard for storing lawn mowers and other equipment. I have a memory of this place opening up years ago with a guy grilling hot dogs and hamburgers on a charcoal grill located just behind a rudimentary tent or similar structure. He later replaced the tent with a little shack. I also remember that his hot dogs were not of the usual variety but were thick and much more substantial. I don’t know if my memories of Mike’s in the early days are correct and I don’t really want to be corrected if I am wrong. Given that backdrop I went to Mike’s for the first time in years (too many years). Here’s a thought; go ahead and visit those little places you think about occasionally. They might not be there forever and more importantly you are supporting local businesses owned by people like yourself and your neighbors.

Mike’s is run by Mike and his wife who open for lunch a few hours a day. On this visit I ordered a chili dog and a hot dog, both “all the way”. The overall experience was great and very enjoyable. I thought my hot dogs were served at a temperature that was not quite as hot as I would like; but they were good. Mike apparently prepare a supply of hot dogs early and stores them in a hot plate contraption until served. No more right off the charcoal grill… if that was ever the case. I won’t complain too much about the temperature because the flavor was great and the BIG dogs are very filling. The chili wasn’t exactly chili but was good.

Mikes has to offer:
• Great taste
• BIG hot dogs
• An owner operator who really cares
• A dining room

“A dining room?” you might ask. The architecture at Mikes is clearly in the class of lawn storage buildings; certainly not your usual commercial construction. Customers place their orders to Mrs. Mike through a window, then pay and receive their order through the same window. There are a couple of cheep plastic tables and chairs outside as well as an attached shelter containing a few more plastic tables and chairs which is the dining room. These tables and chairs look like something that could be purchased at a chain pharmacy or "discount" store. They are basic with a capital “B”, BUT they do the job. I am in full agreement with any businessman who determines the basic requirements of investment to fulfill the need and then doesn’t go beyond that.

When you visit Mike’s you just might run into a friend or old acquaintance at this popular lunchtime stop. This is definitely a place worth visiting. One last bit of advice, just order one to start with. You will find it more filling than you thought one hot dog could be.

A "Memorial" Visit - The First Sneaky Pete's

An ad for the original Sneaky Pete's

The last stop on that first trip downtown was the “memorial visit” to the location of the original Sneaky Pete’s Hot Dogs on Southside. The first location of a Sneaky Pete’s was on the south side of 8th Avenue South, now called University Boulevard, just a few doors east of 20th street. Notice the ad displayed above: it makes me wonder how many people today would know where "the Town House" is.

Sneaky Pete’s quickly became well known and became a fixture in Birmingham Dining. The chain was started by Pete Graphos in 1966. Pete was joined soon after by his brothers, Sam & Jimmy. They took what could have been just another urban hot dog stand and turned it into an industry as they started licensing franchise locations in 1973. The brothers each eventually took their own directions, each having his own location and eventually selling the chain.

I had started the hot dog tour with plans to visit at least one Sneaky Pete’s before finished. Sneaky Pete's clearly has a good product and has become a household name in the Birmingham area; but a serious visit on this tour will come later after visiting more of the unique mom and pop operations. These will include the the hot dog stands started by Sam and Jimmy.

The First Stop - Pete's Famous Hot Dogs

Our first intentional visit to one of the hot dog restaurants of Birmingham was a lunch at Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs. Having a lunch of hot dogs was not a new concept for either of us, yet we were not regular customers at hot dog stands. My first exposure to the hot dog stands of Birmingham was Pete’s. I worked as an usher at the Empire Theater on 3rd Avenue North in downtown Birmingham when I was a teenager. I am unashamedly a “baby boomer” who worked that job in 1965 and 1966. That was a time when the downtown theaters maintained a staff of ushers equipped with blazers and flashlights were given the task of assisting patrons to their seats. This was a holdover of times past. During the time I worked downtown I would on occasion venture to Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs for a quick meal. At least one fellow usher encouraged me to patronize De-Moe’s Hot Dogs which was located just a block away on Second Avenue. I tried it once but no longer remember much about the visit. I do remember that I returned many times to Pete’s but not to De-Moe’s. What can I say… besides that it wasn’t my favorite.

On a Wednesday in the Spring of 2010 we went for our first lunch at a hot dog stand on what I hoped would become the great hot dog tour of Birmingham. This first day also included a memorial visit which I’ll mention later. Our trip to Pete’s was rewarding, just as any visit to Pete’s is. Without any previous discussion we each ordered one hot dog and one chili dog, both “all the way”. This became our usual order as we continued the tour.

Pete’s is unquestionably the premo classic hot dog restaurant in Birmingham. The neon sign and the long history of operation in the same location brings it to mind as THE hot dog place of Birmingham. Going into Pete’s and eating there was a reminder that we were no longer in the national chains (no cows selling chicken, no Happy Meals, no new sandwich advertised on TV or the Sunday newspaper). We were now in a territory that all too often we overlook… to our loss. We ate our dogs and chips and drank our Coke and Grapeco and left with a restored awareness of a type of dining we had missed for too long. This was something of an excursion into the past. I left with a renewed desire to avoid the dining establishments of corporate America.

A couple of initial observations… hot dog stands are not decorated by corporate designers. There are usually numerous aspects of the basic infrastructure clearly obvious as one looks around in any of these establishments. Clearly seen are the pipes and electrical conduit along the cleanly painted walls of these places. The design is clearly functional, inexpensive, clean and basic with a minimum of wall decor. One doesn’t go to a hot dog stand to experience the nuances of the décor as featured in Architect’s Digest. These are places where we go and order our food and either consume it quickly or take it out. The quickness of consumption comes due to the limited space and need to make room for others. At Pete’s there are no seats; in fact there is very limited standing room. This creates a choreograph of moving toward the back as those who were there before you squeeze past to leave and new customers come in the door. Some other hot dog stands actually have some seating. I am reminded of a visit to another downtown hot dog stand where when we communicated our intention to eat our lunch there rather than taking it with us the owner invited us move to the “dining room”, an area near the front of the stand where there is a counter and two stools. It is a really nice little place to dine; somehow off the beaten path yet right there in the flow of every day life. But I digress.

There has been a great deal written about Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs in recent years. Yes, Gus has been running it longer than most of us would choose to. This brings to mind some valid questions regarding longevity, loyalty and work ethic. Many today have a tendency to look for a quick easy buck rather than paying the dues of long term investment. I won’t preach about long term commitment, but just point out that there are benefits to those who endure.

When we started our adventure we didn’t have a clear standard for evaluation of these hot dog restaurants. We always assumed that one would emerge; and we were right. During this lunch we were both impressed as follows:
• Great classic downtown location and history!
• Fast service and a warm reception,
• Hot dogs with mediocre flavor – unfortunately nothing to write home about as far as the product. This assessment is probably enough to get us both shot in some company, yet it was our true reaction.
• The “chili dog” didn’t really have chili on it. When we ordered chili dogs Gus proceeded to load a hot dog with the gray beef stuff that he uses on “specials” and a little of the hot dog sauce to give it color. It is hard to imagine eating a bowl of this and calling it chili. For a lover of chili dogs this was a letdown, but to his credit “chili dogs” are not on his menu.

Now a word about “specials” or “special dogs”. Many of the hot dog stands in Birmingham serve these dogs. They include a gray colored soupy ground beef topping. I have tried these several times through the years and never really cared much for them; but I know many people like these and will even go far out of their way to have one. I would never try to convince anyone they shouldn’t like these, but you will not read much about me eating them either. I would suggest that if the reader has never had one he should order one just for the experience; and he might find a taste sensation he will return to many times.

Our assessment is clearly subjective and started without any real standards other than our own reactions. Yet, as the tour progressed we quickly found some areas for comparisons and developed some standards. We left Pete’s with full stomachs and an appreciation for the experience.

Some background

My initial list included 39 unique restaurants and 5 restaurant chains. I didn’t include service stations and convenience stores that sell hot dogs, nor did I include concession stands or street vendors. Each of these were left off of the list for specific reasons but I started this project with the intention to sample even some of these. During the first couple of weeks when making first intentional visits to some of these places I discovered that the list is going to change. Some restaurants that were on the original list had closed. Lag’s Eatery in Homewood closed after many years of lunchtime sandwiches, as had Jimmy’s Hot Dogs on 4th Avenue North and Tony’s Terrific Hot Dogs on 2nd Avenue North. Interestingly there are now other locations bearing the names Jimmy’s and Tony’s so I suspect they had moved to greener pastures. I made a mental note to ask when I made it to one of them. Of course there are also some hot dog stands that remain today right where they have been for decades. One of those was my first place to visit.

Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs seemed to be the logical first stop on any hot dog tour of Birmingham. My brother Robert joined me and we started visiting the hot dog restaurants of Birmingham. He and I have a great relationship and find that we have a very similar view on many things, not just hot dogs.

A Hotdog Tour?

Birmingham Alabama has a wealth of sources for hot dogs, a food I have never tired of. A couple of years ago I had the thought that I would like to take some new Birmingham residents and visitors to visit all of my favorite hot dog stands. When I thought through a list of favorites other choices kept coming to mind. I also realized that I was developing my list from limited information. There were many hot dog stands that I had never been to. That was when I first thought of visiting all the hot dog restaurants in Birmingham (or as many as possible). I started trying to generate a list of hot dog stands to visit by using online resources and the current phone book (The real one).

I started pondering the development of a list and some less likely names started coming to mind. For example, Klingler’s is a German restaurant in Vestavia Hills. Mrs. Klingler probably would not like having her restaurant included in a list of hot dog stands or restaurants. Hot dogs by that name do not appear on the menu, but they serve what in my opinion is an outstanding hot dog platter. This is a real gourmet hot dog if there ever was one. Another name I wanted to include is Full Moon Bar B Q, certainly not a hot dog stand; but their “moondog” was a great discovery a few years ago. I also became aware of some other restaurants that are not hot dog stands but are reported to serve very good hot dogs. I quickly concluded that I couldn’t limit myself to traditional hot dog stands; but needed to include some of the other restaurants where an effort has been made to regularly serve a hot dog they are proud of.