Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Lyric Hot Dogs

This week we decided to go downtown again. This time to Lyric Hot Dogs, one of the long time hot dog stands downtown. Lyric is a great place! It's a hot dog stand that first opened in 1957 and has grown with the times. Lyric is an interesting place to visit, if for no other reason because of the design. This place has been updated with a retro look which includes lots of neon, vinyl booths and stools and the feel of a 50s soda fountain. This sure fits for a business founded in the 50s.

We were joined this week by this blogs first (and only) official follower, so there were three of us. We anticipated having a hard time finding a parking place near Lyric but there was no problem with that. Lyric is located on 3rd Avenue North near 18th Street and we found plenty of empty parking spaces right on 18th. For the author this is a little sad because I remember the vibrancy of downtown Birmingham not too many years ago, but hey... the changes make it easier to get to Lyric today.

My brother and I each made our usual order of a chili dog and hot dog all the way with chips and a drink. Our companion ordered a chili dog and a special dog, both without kraut, a bag of "pickle chips" and a drink. I am hoping he will write his own contribution to the blog addressing "special dogs". I previously wrote about how special dogs are not my favorite, but today made me think twice about that. His special dog had a meat sauce that didn't have the gray soupy appearance that I've seen before. He remarked that a special dog just needs to be special but not the same at every presentation. He remarked that he was surprised and pleased by the special dog he was served on this occasion.

Here we have lined up a special dog, chili dog and hot dog.

Our orders of a hot dog and chili dog were good. Not exceptional, but good. The chili was better than most we have encountered so far. The whole order was good even though not surprising. We can all do very well without SOME surprises in our lives. We discussed the chili on the dogs and agreed that we thought it was canned chili with additional spices added. It had been simmering long enough to be thick and not the least bit runny which makes for good hot dog chili, yet we could also imagine eating a bowl of this chili (maybe a little thinner in consistency.)

The avid reader of this blog (is there one?) will remember the "dining room" At Gus's; well Lyric has not one but TWO little counters in the front windows where two customers can sit and eat. I really wanted to eat in one of these "private dining rooms", but alas, there were three of us making this impossible. Maybe I can return soon and sit there!

The only possible negative comment regarding this visit would be that our table was less than clean. BUT, for a hot dog stand/restaurant I am coming to accept that this is to be expected at lunch time. I will try to restrain from commenting on this in the future when writing about traditional hot dog stands. The small operation doesn't have the staff to be continually cleaning like they do at the Varsity.

This place might become my favorite hot dog stand. I am considering a return visit soon just to try the special dog and a corn dog. Bottom line.... Try them out, you will not be disappointed.

OK, One more bottom line regarding Lyric. They are located in the Lyric Building at the corner of 3rd Avenue No, and 18th St. (Nobody has renamed either street yet). This building is the location of the OLD Lyric Theater which was originally a vaudeville house. It is now owned by Birmingham Landmarks, the same organization that restored the Alabama Theater and Carver Theater. This is a unique Birmingham location that might someday be restored. I hope so and look forward to that day.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mr. P's

Our next visit was to Mr. P's Deli in Bluff Park. Of course Mr P's isn't a hot dog stand but they do have a reputation for serving great hot dogs. That was enough for me, so when my brother suggested that we hit Mr. P's this week I was ready to go.

This place is another unique establishment. We hung around long enough to talk to the proprietor, Mr. P. (Pilleteri) and learned a little history. He grew up in a family that ran a neighborhood grocery store just west of downtown Birmingham. He graduated from college and decided to open his own neighborhood grocery store during the decade when most of these places were closing. His chosen area to serve was the somewhat remote Bluff Park area south of Birmingham. As time progressed he realized that he needed to change to survive. He first added roast beef sandwiches to meet the requests for something ready to eat. Through the years as freezers died he replaced them with more area for patrons to eat. He also refined his inventory to serve his customers by adding specialty meats, a variety of wines and more deli items.

The result is a place that has the feel of an old neighborhood grocery store that grew with the times. There is definitely the sense of being in a neighborhood establishment. This is something that the chain restaurants would love to duplicate... but never will.

Hot dogs were why we were there so as hard as it was when we looked at the menu we restricted our orders to the realm of hot dogs. We had both heard of Mr. P's for years but had never been there; and the menu has many tempting offerings. We each ordered a hot dog "all the way" and a chili dog (mine was a chili cheese dog). We added to that a bag of Zapps potato chips and a drink. The brother discovered Zapps "Spicy Creole Tomato Spiked with Tabasco" flavor chips and ended up eating two bags (minus a few that I had).

We learned that the hot dogs are from a commercial restaurant supply company. They are made of beef & pork and are labeled as "8 per pound" as opposed to the usual "10 per pound". I guess these would be called "jumbo" at many places. They are firm and tasty and fresh cooked in a microwave oven when ordered. The chili on the chili dogs is the same chili that can be ordered by the bowl, fresh made with their ground sirloin. The onions are thin sliced almost having the appearance of kraut. The buns seem to be freshly steamed. All this makes a very good hot dog. We were not sorry that we had limited ourselves to hot dogs.

I want to photograph our hot dogs on these visits but keep forgetting. This time I did remember before everything was all consumed. The above is a hot dog after just one bite has been removed.

Time for some subjective comments. I hate to offer any criticism to a dining experience that was as good as this was, but I must say our table was dirty, very dirty, and we had to clean it ourselves. Mr. P's is known not only for their meats and deli but also for their spices and seasonings sold in local grocery stores. My personal preference for the chili would be to have it a little more spicy. I found myself trying different additions; first salt, then other seasoning from the table. I did like the big firm hot dogs. They are the perfect size, a little smaller than Mikes "Chicago Hot Dogs" but quite hearty. They will even gladly package these for sale from the meat counter.

After this first visit to Mr. P's I hope to return again. The location is not particularly convenient for me; but I think it is worth the trip.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Full Moon Bar-B-Que - What's A Moon Dog?

What in the world is a moon dog? The Moon dog is the hot dog on the menu at Full Moon Bar B Q in Birmingham. I will admit that ordering a hot dog at a good Bar B Q restaurant is really strange. I was first introduced to the moon dog by Brenda who worked with me for many years. If it wasn't for her I still would never have tried a moon dog. She thought I would like it and she was right!

The moon dog is a hot dog done on the grill that has been topped with Full Moon's superb Bar B Q sauce and an abundant amount of their chow-chow. It could almost be called a Bar B Q hot dog; it is really good! I am one who likes to add a little red pepper or Tabasco sauce to a hot dog, but that isn't necessary with the moon dog which is pretty spicy as served.

The obvious problem here for my brother and I is that we both REALLY like good Bar B Q and it is difficult to beat the Bar B Q at Full Moon. So, why would you order a hot dog rather than more Bar B Q? What can I say... let's just blame Brenda. What did we order? Since they don't offer a chili dog we didn't really need to order 2 dogs each, so we ordered a moon dog for each of us and a JUMBO bar B Q sandwich (that we split). Though available we skipped the usual hot dog side of chips and ordered some fries. That way we got our hot dogs as well as Bar B Q, a little of two great worlds. It made a great lunch for us both. (Should we start a Bar B Q tour next? I don't even want to think about it right now.)

This was my brother's first introduction to the moon dog. His reaction was positive.

Here's a practical suggestion; if you are ever getting take-outs from Full Moon just add a moon dog to the order and eat it before you get home or wherever you are going with the take-out. You might even go out of your way to make this happen... really help everybody out by doing the pickup.

We had lunch at Full Moon, but I returned late in the day to take a few pictures just after sunset when the light has that magical quality. I was standing outside taking a couple of pictures of the neon signs in the windows when I noticed a group at a table waving at me through the window. I went inside and asked if they wanted their picture "took". They were all smiles and said yes. The guy in the red shirt looks something like a young man who worked with me a couple of years ago, so much so that through the window I thought it might be him. So I went in to talk with them.

I told them why I was there and about the hot dog blog. When I asked if any of them had ordered a moon dog or had ever had one I was told that they hadn't. Then one of them asked me; "Have you ever been to Sam's?" We agreed that Sam has great hot dogs, maybe the best in Birmingham.

So my subjective comments:
  • It's hard to order a hot dog at a Bar B Q restaurant when you can smell the bar B Q!
  • But maybe it should be done on occasion.
  • The Moon Dog is not your usual hot dog but is very good and certainly worth getting creative in figuring out when to order.
  • Brenda was right as usual!
  • It looks like we need to visit Sam's soon.


I tried to contact my brother regarding our somewhat regular Wednesday lunch together, but had no success. I guess he was still on vacation. So left on my own I persuaded one of my associates to go with me to Tony's Hot Dogs.
Tony's is on Highway 31 in the Hoover/Helena area, just north of Valleydale Road. I've had takeout from there but never actually been there myself. How can that be? I am spoiled rotten by the women in my office who will pick up a take-out lunch for me almost every day. One in particular, who has a letter for a name first introduced me to Tony's "Junk Yard Dog".

The Junk Yard Dog is quite a creation. It is best eaten on a plate with a knife and fork. The Junk Yard Dog is a jumbo hot dog with every addition available added. It has toppings like cheese, chili, slaw, kraut, "specialsauce", and who knows what else. It is good, better than you might think, but it does overflow the bun.

On this first official visit to Tony's I ordered, can you guess, a chili dog and a hot dog - all the way, chips and a drink. The experience was pleasing. The dogs remind me of the downtown hot dog stands since they have a similar sauce and construction. Tony's is clearly a suburban hot dog place. I can't even call it a hot dog stand since no one actually stands to eat their hot dogs. There is ample seating for the flow of customers we observed. The customers (with few exceptions) arrive by vehicle rather than walking from a nearby businesses. Tony's is located in a strip shopping center along a very busy highway.

I wanted to meet Tony but discovered that Tony is no longer associated with the business. There seems to be a pattern here.... hot dog places have a name but the guy who's name is on it is long gone. The guy in charge, I presume the current owner, was too busy with some maintenance issues (on the floor) so I didn't get to meet him.

Overall I would say that Tony's is a pretty good place. It beats a thirty minute drive into downtown Birmingham for a hot dog. The dogs are much like what one would expect at a downtown hot dog stand.

  • They were OUT OF regular potato chips. (they like to sell fries and onion rings).
  • It would be nice if they tried a little harder to clean up the tables after customers finish and leave. When we were there were several empty tables but none of them were clean. (take a lesson from the Varsity!!)
In their favor:
  • A pretty good hot dog as well as offering a "Junk Yard Dog".
  • They even offer a corn dog. (I have a wonderful recollection of corn dogs from my earlier years, but I won't tell it now.)
  • seating, such as it is, which allows a little more time at lunch. (But what's with that crazy booth with the backrests that are bent into a reclining position?)
Now a word about this nameless associate who went with me. This guy has an incredible history with the Birmingham hot dog stands. He has grown to be a little out of touch the last few years, but has a huge knowledge of the old timers. We had a rich discussion about the Greeks who dominated the downtown hot dog stands for years. I hope to persuade him to write an occasional guest entry.

Let me encourage the reader to click the link on the left of this page to view the video about the Birmingham hot dog stands. This video. "Hot-dog-opolis" was done by the University of Mississippi as part of an effort to document some of the cultural history of the south. It is fascinating for anyone who has any interest in Birmingham and it's restaurants. There is even an appearance of the one and only original Sneaky Pete.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

East of Downtown

There is a pretty good hot dog place way out from the eastern side of Birmingham. One needs to be willing to invest two and a half hours to get there; but after traveling 150 miles (one way) he can arrive at the Varsity Drive In. The Varsity is billed as the world’s largest drive in, a claim I have no reason to question. Their menu doesn’t contain much variety, but there is enough variety for me. My usual order is a couple of chili cheese dogs, onion rings and a drink. On this visit I had the usual which I thoroughly enjoyed. The occasion was a day when I was meeting a son-in-law and two grandsons for a visit to a special exhibition. This was the first visit to the Varsity for two grandsons (7 and 4 years old). Their orders were “naked hot dogs" (to which they added either ketchup or mustard, but not both) fries and lemonade. They seemed to enjoy their meals as they were in the clean plate club. The 7 year old even needed a second hot dog.

Some subjective observations:

  • I like eating at the Varsity. I like the atmosphere and the food and know of no other place like it. I consider it a treat when on occasion I am close enough to make a stop; but I don’t think it's worth a special trip just to eat at the Varsity.
  • The plan at the Varsity is to get people in and served, to keep things moving. The servers at the counter are quick to ask; "What'll you have?"; but they will allow one time to ponder the menu. It is easy to feel rushed but I've found there is no problem with standing back from the counter to consider the options.
  • The people who work there are polite and helpful. It would be very easy for a place like this to be very dirty; but they do a good job of keeping things clean.
  • The chili on the chili dogs is better than the average chili dog chili I have encountered and does taste like chili. My brother wanted to apply our new standard for chili and asked me; Would I want a bowl of it with crackers?" I must confess that I enjoyed the chili dogs so much I didn't think much about the chili itself. The chili dogs and chili cheese dogs are great products so the chili must be good.
  • Any possible criticism of The Varsity is offset, in my mind, by their unique offering of the “frozen orange” to finish off a meal.

This is the first stop on the hot dog tour where I have found a special counter for gift and memorabilia items. Jimmy’s does sell tee shirts on occasions (they were out of most sizes when we visited), but there isn’t a separate counter for buying these items. I invested in a bright orange “frozen orange” cap which I plan to wear with pride.

A final thought; I think someone should build a Varsity location in Auburn and Tuscaloosa as well as other SEC cities.