Sunday, February 27, 2011

Big Al's Dog Wagon - Trussville

I have heard about this place every since we started the hot dog tour; but never made it until this past Friday. I never knew it had a name until I visited "the guy who sells hot dogs outside Lowe's in Trussville". Big Al's has many loyal customers and seems to do a booming business, at least when we have the mild days we had last week. I didn't get there until after 2:00; but business was brisk and I had to wait in line.

While I waited I took in the menu to see they serve beef hot dogs, quarter pound super dogs, polish sausages, nachos, chips and drinks, with many options for toppings. I noticed the sign was missing a few letters and numbers creating some interesting options. I didn't ask for a 7 cent drink, chili hese nachos or "war" for a dollar. Instead I chose to order just one dog, a quarter pound super dog with mustard, relish and chili.

My picture below shows the concoction I received. This was one hot dog that was difficult to portray in a photograph. The huge dog was lost under all the toppings which overflowed. I was offered a fork, which I obviously needed. I then sat down with other customers to eat. Where do you sit when eating at a hot dog cart? Big Al's has been at Lowe's so many years that he has a large space complete with two large picnic tables to one side of the exit door. Many of the continuous stream of customers stop and eat right there. When I arrived a group of men were having a very good time together at one table. I sat at the other table but was soon in conversation with my table mates.

How was the food? Very Good. The regular hot dogs are larger than the ones served at many places. With the big choice of toppings customers can get the dog of their choice. I would even go so far as to say it's worth a trip just for the hot dogs. You don't need to have any other reason to go to Lowe's or Trussville.

I noticed as I was finishing up that there was a short break in the steady stream of customers; so I took advantage of the chance to talk with the chef. While Chris Sellers cleaned and straightened up his "kitchen" I found out that he works with Alan Nichols who has been selling dogs there for many years. Alan was off running errands so I didn't get to meet him, but enjoyed learning a little more about the hot dog cart business from Chris. With years of experience they have stories to tell.

I am always impressed with how well these vendors do in keeping things clean and sanitary. Big Al's was no exception. The Health Department is a mixed blessing here. They seem to have the ability to be arbitrary and nonsensical at times but do maintain a culture of cleanliness that customers notice and appreciate.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Chicago Style Dogs and "The Best" ?

I have recently written several posts pertaining to Chicago style hot dogs. I don't want to run this in the ground; but I find it interesting. Since this past week we couldn't go on one of our excursions this post is a little different.

When I first heard of Chicago dogs I thought they sounded weird. They are definitely not the normal hot dog around here, yet I am learning to appreciate them. I want to repeat what makes up a "Chicago Dog".According to Wikipedia, A Chicago-style hot dog is a steamed or water-simmered, kosher-style, all beef frankfurter on a poppy seed bun, originating from the city of Chicago, Illinois. The hot dog is topped with yellow mustard, chopped white onions, sweet pickle relish (often a dyed neon-green), sometimes called piccalilli, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices or wedges, pickled sport peppers, and a dash of celery salt. The complete assembly of a Chicago hot dog is said to be "dragged through the garden" because of the unique combination of condiments. Some variants exist, adding ingredients such as cucumber slices, but the canonical recipe does not include ketchup, and there is a widely-shared, strong opinion among many Chicagoans and aficionados that ketchup is unacceptable. A number of Chicago hot dog vendors do not even offer ketchup as a condiment. To read their whole entry go here.

Other writers go so far as to dictate the order things should be applied to the bun. For instance one guy says;
"The toppings are just as important as the order they are applied to the Hot Dog. Add toppings in the following order and only in this order:
  1. All beef hot dog (large)
  2. Yellow Mustard
  3. Bright "Neon" Green Relish
  4. Fresh Chopped Onions
  5. Two Tomato Wedges
  6. A Pickle Spear or Slice
  7. Two Sport Peppers
  8. A Dash of Celery Salt
He is convinced that the placement of the toppings is important to get a taste of each ingredient in every bite."

This all gets a little tiresome. Seinfeld had his "Soup Nazi", but there is a whole army of "Hot Dog Nazis" out there, each one insisting that there is only one way to properly prepare a hot dog. But, the biggest lesson I have learned after visiting over 30 hot dog servers in our area is that the unusual or unexpected dogs are the ones I like best. I like people to think "outside of the box" and get creative. That's one reason my interest has been tweaked by the Chicago dog; it is unusual in our area. There are numerous different local traditions of hot dog preparation around the country, even a Hawaiian hot dog. But when tasted with an open mind there must be some great local traditions out there.

One of my daughters recently gave me an article from "Every Day with Rachael Ray" magazine. That was a new one for me. Apparently Rachael Ray is on daytime TV and has her own magazine. But I digress. The article was about these guys (all northerners and all professional food writers) who visited 64 hot dog stands in 56 cities and towns on a search for "the country's hottest dog". The article included a logo proclaiming "The Search for America's Best Hot Dog". They did blow through Birmingham and tried two places out of our over 50. Unfortunately they missed the best hot dog stands in our city. They visited 16 hot dog stands from Washington DC to Austin Texas and called that covering the South. Somehow they overlooked Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. They missed 21 states in all. I wonder if there is a good Cajun dog out there somewhere. If there is these guys didn't stand much chance of finding it.

One of the authors even sells hot dog posters representing a variety of areas of the country. If you look at the link, notice the cities his posters represent. Also consider the huge variety of styles represented and how intriguing some of them are.

After their less than exhaustive sample of our nation's hot dogs they proclaimed the "winner" to be a place in Illinois that serves a "depression style Chicago dog". I hadn't run into that label before; but it's a different type of Chicago dog. It seems that the differences are the ingredients. The "depression style" Chicago dog uses a regular size all beef dog (8 per pound) rather than the large all beef dog (6 per pound). They both have yellow mustard, chopped onions and hot "sport peppers, but the depression dog usually lacks tomatoes, a dill pickle spear and a dash of celery salt. It may or may not have sweet pickle relish and never has the poppy seed bun; but it does come with french fries, often dumped on top.

Here are some pictures I have found (None of these are mine; I picked them all from the web):

Chicago Dogs

Depression Style Chicago Dogs

I have written about this magazine article because it had so much to say about Chicago dogs. They obviously didn't really want to find the best hot dog in America; but I'm sure they had fun. I hope this hasn't turned into too much ranting.

The article claiming to have found the America's best hot dog reminds me of one day when a guy who works with me wanted to join us on an excursion. He proceeded to invite everybody in the office to join us then explained our mission as "looking for the best hot dog in Birmingham". He totally missed the mark. Yes, we might find the best hot dog in Birmingham but the goal was always to visit every hot dog stand in Birmingham. The purpose was to have a good time, period. We have found what we expected, some very good, some good and some not so good. The best parts have been the surprises and the people. We have tried to meet and interact with the entrepreneurs whenever we can. That has been very interesting. Consider these:
  • A CPA working with a national firm who left to return to his love, the food industry, and now owns two hot dog stands.
  • A graduate of a culinary program who has gone into the family business (hot dogs) to have her own hot dog stand.
  • The long timers who have sold hot dogs for decades.
  • The street vendors who are there no matter how hot or cold the day is.
  • The newbies - One guy told me he was "crazy to buy this place". As you might suspect he probably will never be named the best.
Now I'll list some of my favorites in alphabetical order.
  • Full Moon Bar BQ - The moon dog.
  • Klingler's - German sausage platters.
  • Lyric hot Dogs and Burgers - A long time downtown hot dog stand with a diner decor.
  • Max's Delicatessen - An extra large hot dog with generous toppings.
  • Sam's Super Samwitch - Consistently good hot dogs and chili dogs.
  • Scott's Koneys - Consistently good food downtown and the ability to cater for thousands.
  • Steve Malone's Cart (lunchtime on the corner beside Church of the Advent) - WOW what a chili dog.
  • Tip Top Grill - Hot dogs with a view.
  • YaYa's "Home of the almost world famous Q-dog."

Monday, February 14, 2011

Five or Two Men, Brothers, or Guys

I think everyone is familiar with this place except me. I couldn't keep the name straight. I knew it was a name with a number, either two or five, and another word, men, brothers or guys. There are quite a few ways to put some of these words together as a name. Well, I now know that two brothers, Robert and Karl, have paid a visit to Five Guys restaurant in Hoover Alabama. I'll try to keep from confusing Five Guys with another local business, Two Men and a Truck.

This place has a reputation for good burgers; but they also have hot dogs on their limited menu. That, together with their location which is fairly convenient for us, made this our next stop on the hot dog tour.
I have noticed an abundance of specialty hamburger places in recent years. I once referred to some of the chain restaurants as; "five dollar hamburger places". Those place have now left five dollars in the dust as they have moved their prices even higher. These new specialty hamburger places have come along selling burgers that bear little resemblance to anything on the menu at Micky D's. But on this day we were not looking for burgers; we wanted hot dogs.

When we arrived at Five Guys I liked what I saw from the outside, lots of big windows and sidewalk tables for warmer times than February. Stepping inside we encountered a decor that reminded me of a school lunch room. Everything is very basic. The decorations on the walls consist entirely of bold black and white signs and quotes from reviews of their restaurants in other cities. I could easily envision doing no damage whatsoever when cleaning this place with a hose. But we weren't there for the ambiance; we wanted hot dogs.

One more digression before we get to the meal. Five Guys has several large containers of roasted peanuts (in the shell) available for all at no charge. There are paper french fry trays ready to be loaded with peanuts to shell and eat while waiting for an order. Their french fries, which are very good, come in a cup which they place in a bag along with a generous handful of fries to overflow into the bag.

There is no standard hot dog on the menu; rather the customer chooses toppings from all available hamburger toppings. This presents the opportunity to build a really unusual hot dog, an option chosen by Robert when he ordered his hot dog with mushrooms, tomatoes, grilled onions and bar b.q. sauce.

Since one can't just order a hot dog "all the way" or a chili dog (They don't have chili) I attempted to build a Chicago style hot dog by asking for mustard, relish, dill pickles, tomatoes and green peppers. I'm sure my hot dog was no where near a Chicago style hot dog in the end; but I tried.
(Sorry, I took a bite before I remembered to take a picture.)

They prepare their hot dogs by splitting the dog down it's length, then grilling it on both sides. They then place it in a bun and add toppings. My hot dog had enough toppings that the bun was pulled apart and they attempted to build it like a sandwich. This skinny sandwich with lots of toppings was difficult to eat since almost everything on the sandwich tried to slide out of one side or another when I took a bite. The flavor was good but the experience was frustrating. I guess I should have either wrapped the foil tightly to peal back as I ate or just asked for a knife and fork.

Even after the frustration I had with my sandwich I will probably return. I think the key to ordering a hot dog at Five Guys is to keep it simple and limit the toppings. I know tomatoes are one of the standard ingredients on a Chicago style hot dog; but I have concluded that the tomatoes just add to the mess while their flavor gets lost with so many toppings. I'm sure that's heresy to the connoisseur of Chicago style dogs. I'll even have them as I continue the search for the real Chicago dog in Birmingham.

Speaking of Chicago style hot dogs. there was a comment left by a reader known as "This is my dad. He's got a bald head". I was disappointed to see he removed it himself. I appreciated his comment.

More to come on Chicago style dogs in the weeks to come.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dining in Beverly Hills (kind of) - Johnny Rocket's

Yes you can see yourself visiting Beverly Hills, South Beach or Beautiful Downtown Burbank by simply eating lunch at Johnny Rocket's right here in Birmingham. This diner is literally in Birmingham since their location, which appears to be suburban, is actually located within the strange meandering city limits of Birmingham.

We recently paid a visit to Johnny Rocket's to try their hot dogs. Both Robert and I were generally pleased with our meal and impressed that their hot dogs are given real attention. Since the hot dogs are clearly of the jumbo size we each restricted our order to one chili cheese dog each with a shared order of onion rings and out drinks. We left well fed but not overly stuffed.

The kosher hot dogs appear to be well grilled and are served on a lightly toasted bun with the toppings of choice. The onion rings were really good, served hot and fresh.

The "fun" diner atmosphere was dampened a little by the dried ketchup spill on the table. Their dark tabletops make it a little difficult to spot spills so I can understand why wait staff might easily miss them.

We actually have an evaluation sheet we complete for each of these hot dog excursions. There are several options for overall impression:
  • Love it and want to return
  • Like it and will recommend it and return
  • Might go back but won't suggest it
  • Not very good, but not horrible. Don't plan to return
  • Ugh! Will not return
Robert and I both rated it somewhere between the second and third bullets, thinking we liked it but probably won't go back for hot dogs. While the food was good the prices are high (What one would expect in Beverly Hills or South Beach). I couldn't help but think about Lyric Hot Dogs in downtown; if you want to eat at a diner, go there! The prices are better, it is a one of a kind historic Birmingham business, and the food is just as good if not better.

Oddly, as I was writing this I actually considered stopping in there to pick up lunch for a brown bag lunch meeting tomorrow but have decided against it.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Max's Chicago Style Hot Dog

Where can you get a Chicago style hot dog?

The obvious answer is Chicago. But if you live in Birmingham and don't want to go to Chicago for lunch there are some local places serving what they call a Chicago style hot dog. I am no expert on the subject since I have never had one served up fresh in Chicago; but I have looked into the subject a little. I was asked recently if anyone in Birmingham serves a Chicago style hot dog, this by someone who spent several years in Chicago. This question has prompted a new interest in finding out more.

There is also the local item called a "junk yard dog" which usually has a little of "everything" on it. This is different from the Chicago style hot hog but is like it in that it is loaded. But let's think about the windy city rather than the junk yard.

According to Wikipedia A Chicago-style hot dog is a steamed or water-simmered, kosher-style, all beef frankfurter on a poppy seed bun, originating from the city of Chicago, Illinois. The hot dog is topped with yellow mustard, chopped white onions, sweet pickle relish (often a dyed neon-green variety, sometimes called piccalilli, a dill pickle spear, tomatoe slices or wedges, pickled sport peppers, and a dash of celery salt. The complete assembly of a Chicago hot dog is said to be "dragged through the garden" because of the unique combination of condiments. Some variants exist, adding ingredients such as cucumber slices, but the canonical recipe does not include ketchup, and there is a widely-shared, strong opinion among many Chicagoans and aficionados that ketchup is unacceptable. A number of Chicago hot dog vendors do not even offer ketchup as a condiment. To read their whole entry go here.

This all raises numerous questions. The first that occurred to me was; "What is a sport pepper?" I read the link in Wikipedia and still don't really know. I do know that I've never seen a pepper labeled as a "sport pepper" anywhere around here. I like peppers and buy them, cook with them, eat them and have even developed my own unique pepper sauce. I have even used the dreaded habanero pepper, but never a sport pepper.

I hope to determine which of the local offerings are attempts rather than the real thing, maybe even attempts to make the customer think it's a Chicago style hot dog. This particular project will involve some time and effort but should be tasty, filling and fun.

OK here we go.I had discussed with Robert my new interest in checking out the local offerings of Chicago style hot dogs so he suggested going to Max's Deli at the colonnade to try theirs. We had visited Max's many months before during "national hot dog month" and written about that visit here. During this visit we discovered that the offer from July has become their standard menu option, order one, get two.

We arrived at a crowded Max's for a late lunch. Our order was taken by Steve, the owner of Max's. He told us that he named the deli after his father who was known as Max.

On this visit we departed from our usual order to get Chicago style hot dogs. These hot dogs are big. Steve told us he uses only Hebrew National quarter pound hot dogs which can't be bought in the grocery store. Most hot dog sellers would label this as a "jumbo"but not here; at Max's they are business as usual.

So how were the dogs? They had all the ingredients except the pepper. They even use a poppy seed bun imported directly from Chicago since they are not available in Birmingham. Steve told us how, so far, he has not bought the "sport peppers" because they can only be purchased in huge quantities. He seems to be rethinking this ingredient. Regardless, I must say we really enjoyed our hot dogs. We weren't the only ones, they were even enjoyed by some guys at a neighboring table who stopped by on the way out to tell us our dogs looked delicious and how they enjoyed watching us consume them. We had doubts about our ability to finish two of these hot dogs each... but we did it.

I have already talked with the young lady who piqued my interest in Chicago style hot dogs and asked her to join me to give her reaction to some of the local offerings. Unfortunately she wasn't with us on this trip so I might have to return to Max's with her later. I look forward to getting the reaction of someone who has had the real thing and likes them.

I'm sure I'll be writing more about Chicago style hot dogs later. Some of the other places we will visit on this quest are:

Chicago Mike's Hot Dogs
2701 18th Street South, in Homewood
Two blog entries: here and here.

Pop's Grill
1207 20th Street South, in the Five Points Area.
My previous blog entry here.


Tony's Hot Dogs
1922 Highway 31 South, Helena (Near Valleydale Road)
My previous blog entries here and here. (The second entry deals with their Chicago dog.)