Saturday, May 29, 2010

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.

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