Monday, June 20, 2011

This Just Wasn't Our Day

We have visited well over 30 hot dog vendors as we have been on The Great Birmingham Hot Dog Tour. Robert and I are based very close together in northern Shelby County; so it is a challenge for us to get to some areas on the tour. Recently we realized that it was a good week for both of us to take a little longer than usual for lunch, so we decided to go for one of the vendors we have missed so far.

The first choice was Dino's Hot Dogs in Woodlawn at 5422 1st Avenue No. Robert asked his son Alex to spot this place for us a day before we were going, but he couldn't find it. We then tried to call the phone number we had for Dino's and found it disconnected. NEXT!

We decided to visit the Dawg House in Center Point. The GPS Couldn't locate their address and their phone was no longer in service. So, NEXT.

The next choice was Paul's Hot Dogs on Edward's Lake Road in Trussville. Please be aware that by this point we were on the way... headed to a destination. Unfortunately the Paul's Hot Dogs on Edwards Lake Road is nowhere to be found. So at the last minute we decided to visit Big Al's Hot Dog Wagon. Big Al's is the hot dog vendor who is located on most days in front of Lowe's in Trussville. It was manned again by Chris Sellers without Big Al, just as on my previous visit.

One of my desires on the tour is to find something positive to say about every place we visit. Sometime that is a challenge. This week I will start with the positive. When you go to Big Al's you can definitely get enough to eat. The hot dogs are consistently plump (no pencil weenies here) with ample toppings. W e have observed that fellow patrons are very open to discussing the experience. These patrons are consistently appreciative and loyal. They also have a perfect health score against all odds for a cart.

We each got a chili-cheese dog and a regular dog. Toppings offered are gardenias (onions), kraut, relish, mustard, ketchup and an oriental style of hot sauce. For the chili-cheese dog, they add Hormel chili sans beans and nacho cheese sauce – the kind you can purchase at Sam’s in a number 10 can. We had the regular dog all-the-way, and the chili-cheese dog with mustard, gardenias, chili and cheese. Robert had jalapenos added to his (see below). Flavor-wise, the regular dog was about average. The chili-cheese dog was pretty good, and needed to be eaten with a knife and fork. Big Al had plastic forks, but no knives. For the record, let me say that the need to eat a loaded dog with knife and fork is not a negative. Some of the better “loaded dogs” out there must be eaten with knife and fork. In this case, since we had no knives, we were delighted that Big Al’s cart had a sink for hand washing.

Now for a few less than glowing comments. A hot dog cart has challenges every day. I am sure that dealing with those challenges gets old but they are nevertheless there every time they open for business. Some of these challenges are to serve a HOT dog, to serve COLD drinks, and to keep it all sanitary. Big Al's seems to be missing a couple of these. Our hot dogs were served warmish but not hot. The drinks were in a bin that had had ice on them a few hours ago, unfortunately we observed there was an ice container that had numerous bags of ice that could have been added to the drink bin. Our drinks were cool but not cold. Somehow it is easy for me to overlook this at a cart but there were also some other negatives that I won't detail.

Bottom line, at Big Al's you can definitely get a good lunch if you are hungry; and you can have a good time with the locals; but don't expect a great meal. It's difficult to argue with the opinion of the masses but I must confess that I don't think I will be returning to Big Al's unless I am right in the vicinity and am very hungry.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sam's - An All Time Favorite

A few days ago my son-in-law Aaron invited me to meet him and Susie for lunch at Sam's Super Samwiches in Homewood. It took me less than a second to decide to join them. Take a look at my previous entry about Sam's Here.

There was a time several years ago that my office was about two blocks from Sam's. At that time I was a frequent customer and developed a great appreciation for their offerings. I have even been heard to say that they have "a chilli dog to die for". OK, that might be a little extreme, but the chili dog is great at Sam's.

On this visit I entered from the back door which opens into the parking lot behind the building. This was my old entry point. When one enters this way there is a long hallway, painted complements of Pepsi, that leads into their main serving area and "dining room". When I arrived ahead of Aaron and Susie I experienced the strange phenomenon of being the only customer in the place for several minutes. I had a nice conversation with the staff while I waited. I found out that Sam was away on a much deserved golf trip that day. Of course it didn't take long for the place to fill up with people; I had experienced a rare lull in their business.

As I waited I was impresses with the collection of sauces that observed. I am including a picture of one line of sauce bottles available to customers; and this doesn't include all the choices. I can't imagine anyone wanting to top off their dog with a sauce and being disappointed.

Below is our table outside on the sidewalk in the heat. There is an assortment of dogs including chilli dogs, regular dogs, slaw dogs and super dogs, as well as an assortment of drinks. The root beer bottle was mine since I don't particularly care for Pepsi products. If you like 'em, go for it; just give me an alternative. The absence of Coca-Cola products is my only complaint about Sam's.

On this visit both Aaron and Susie tried the slaw dog and reported about how good it is. I was tempted to go back and order one after finishing my two chilli dogs but restrained myself. The slaw dog will have to wait for another day; but will be ordered on my next visit to Sam's.

Interestingly, while we were there, Sam's wife Sue stopped in and was directed to speak to us since I had discussed the blog with the staff earlier. We also had a nice conversation and remembered some contacts from the past. Yes I have a past peripheral involvement with some of the hot dog vendors of Birmingham. Not enough to give me a bias but it helps make it interesting.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Dee's Dogs Again

We recently went to the medical center area to look for a vendor that Dr. Edwards had mentioned. He had commented about the "hot dog guy" near Cooper Green Hospital. Well, we really tried to find this guy but he was nowhere around. This led to plan B which was a revisit to Dee's Dogs at the corner of 20th Street and 7th Avenue South. You can read about out previous visit here.

When we arrived for this visit I was impressed that we had to wait in a long line. She was doing a great business. When we finally worked our way to the front of the line I remembered hearing an order from a regular customer when we were there before. He always got a dog with mustard and relish. I thought it sounded good so I included it in my order along with a chili cheese dog.

Dee remembered us from our previous visit. People sometime don't give enough credit to others regarding their ability to remember people. For over 30 years Brenda and I worked together. She would often tell me; "___ called but wouldn't leave a message". Dee like Brenda remembers her customers. Good for her, she's paying attention.

Our visit was on one of these very pleasant Spring days (a couple of weeks ago before the heat hit town) that makes being outside a pleasure. We were able to walk less than half a block down the street to a little seating area where we ate in the shade. Dee's continues to please. She serves a great hot dog, one of the best. I thought both dogs were great. The big return crowd indicates that I am not alone in my appreciation for Dee's.

Dining at Dee's is a really fun experience. Combined with the quality it makes a great lunch time stop.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Bama Hot Dogs

This week we found ourselves at Bama Hot Dogs in downtown Tarrant, at 1610 Pinson Valley Parkway. This place had not been on my radar screen at all until I spotted it a week ago as we were returning from North Alabama. When I saw it I was ready to stop right then but in the interest of domestic tranquility I decided to save it for another trip.

Bama is run by Dean & Debbie Harris; Debbie is standing in the door in the photo above. I assume that they are Alabama fans but didn't ask. While we were there we saw a steady stream of customers keeping them busy. We like to try to talk with the owners when we can but they seemed too busy. We went on with the rest of our usual routine of eating, taking pictures and talking with some of the other customers.

This turned out to be another time when the camera attracted some attention, a case of what I will call "the camera syndrome". We were noticed by Debbie who came out to ask us what we were doing. I can understand the curiosity and question; are we reviewers from the News, or do we have some less desirable motive. I guess I would do the same thing. We stood and talked with her for a while before leaving. One thing was clear after that conversation, she is the driving force for quality control at Bama.

So how was the food? Very good! We did vary from our usual order a little and ended up with the four dogs shown below.

Here we have (left to right) a chili cheese dog, 2 regular hot dogs and a "junk yard dog"

You can see the "nacho cheese on both of the end items; I prefer sharp real cheddar cheese but this was still good. As is usually the case the junk yard dog was hard to eat because of the multiple toppings.

We were impressed with the large plump dogs they use. Debbie agrees that these are better than the average and much more desirable than what she called "pencil weenies". She told us the brand name which I was unfamiliar with and don't remember; but they buy them from Evans Meats. This brings up the issue of the size of hot dogs. Robert and I have observed that there is a significant difference in the size of the "weenies" served at various providers. Debbie's label "pencil weenies" is really quite appropriate for those served at some establishments. Others have very plump/fat dogs. I have tried to figure out the difference. One observation came recently from Dee of Dee's Dogs. She commented that the beef dogs always cook down to be real skinny. I noticed that myself when I did the hot dogs for Restoration Academy recently. I used all beef Hebrew National dogs and noticed how they ended up much thinner than they started out. Who would have thought that the beef dogs cook do so much. So, we are now going to be a little more tuned in to who serves "pencil weenies".

Here we have my order, a chili cheese dog, a regular dog all the way and some fries from France.

Bama's Menu

Notice the decor - lots of RED in keeping with their name.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Robert in New York

This is a "guest post" from my brother Robert who recently found himself in Manhattan with a group of young boys (bless his heart).

On a recent Scout Trip, we dared take 20 Boy Scouts into Manhattan for a day. The tour included the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Times Square and other sights. Our tour-guide assured us that his friend Hameed, who is a street vendor in the Times Square area serves the best hot dogs in New York City. How could I pass on the best hot dog in New York City?

We parked the bus on West 45th Street in front of the Schoenfeld Theater, and and walked up the block to Broadway. Hameed’s cart was one of the first things we encountered, there at the corner of 45th and Broadway, in front of the Marriott Marquis. In addition to hot dogs, he sells pretzels, smoked sausage and a wide variety of drinks. He obviously takes pride in what he does, and he keeps his cart clean and neat.

Because we had just come from South Street Seaport and Pier 17 (where there is a very serious food court), I didn’t have enough appetite to handle more than one dog from Hameed. To insure I got his best dog, and since my appetite did not allow me to try any variations, I asked him to prepare it the way he liked them. He quickly built a hot dog with ketchup (yes, ketchup), mustard, kraut, onions, sweet relish, and his own hot dog sauce. The bun was warm and moist, the hot dog, a certified Hebrew National dog, was hot and came from a steam-table insert in his cart. The sauce was also kept hot in the steam table. Once the dog was built, I paid him for it. The dog and a Coke together set me back a total of $4.00. I stepped away from the cart and enjoyed my New York dog and Coke, then went back to Hameed’s cart and told him about the Great Birmingham Hot Dog Tour. I had my picture made with him as he was preparing a dog for another Scout dad.

He wanted to know how I liked the dog and I told him it ranked high. I ranked it high because it was prepared quickly, served hot and was very tasty. The one thing that was not necessarily to my liking was the fact that the overall taste of the hot dog was sweet. A little sweetness is to be expected when a seller puts sweet relish on a dog, but in this case, the sauce was sweet as well. It somewhat resembled the hot dog sauce you might get at Jimmy’s or Sam’s Super Samwich shop, but was sweet. Because flavor is a personal preference, I won’t downgrade Hameed’s dog for being sweet, but it wouldn’t be my first choice.

I didn’t see Oliver Wendell Douglass or his wife, Lisa. . . but I wouldn’t expect to have seen Lisa anyway. I feel certain that even if she were visiting from her new home in Hooterville, she would not have been dining upon a dog from a street vendor. (With my broad-brimmed camo hat, I looked more like I belonged in Hooterville than New York.) I thought perhaps Lisa might have been seen making her way to one of the 202 restaurants in the immediate vicinity, but it was not to be. One thing is for sure. . . if Lisa or anyone else were going to eat at one of those 202 restaurants, they would pay more and would not enjoy their food any more than I enjoyed my hot dog from Hameed’s cart.