Friday, August 26, 2011

Gus's in Crestline

The conscientious reader of this blog (Is there one?) will know that I particularly like the unexpected. This week we encountered the unexpected again. Gus’s (The Original Gus’s Hot Dogs) in Crestline is where we encountered “the unexpected”. So, what was unexpected? The sauce!!!

There are lots of hot dog sauces out there; many are very similar. Every hot dog stand wants to have a sauce that is a little different from all the others while being similar.

Gus’s in Crestline has succeeded in doing that in a way that we haven’t encountered before. The sauce at Gus’s is thick, very thick and full of flavor. This is worth a special trip to try it.

Let’s back up a little. When we arrived at Gus’s we stopped outside to take a couple of pictures. We were surprised to find that the proprietor, Ernie Gerontakis, came out and was commenting on the external appearance of his shop. Throughout our visit we observed Ernie continuing to interact with all of his customers. I think this is a key to his quality. This guy really wants his customers to enjoy their food and makes an effort to make sure that has been their experience.

I will confess that occasionally we have a report or past experience that somewhat turns us off from a place. That was the case here; we avoided Gus’s for months due to a report of an unusually long wait one day when Ernie wasn’t there. How wrong we were! This place is definitely a top tier hot dog stand in Birmingham.

Somebody really captured this guy in a drawing.

Ernie is a hands-on owner operator who is committed to serving a good product. He is also a heck of a nice guy; talk with him when you are there. He is a long-time player in the Birmingham hot dog scene.

So, what did we have? Our usual initial order, a hot dog all the way and a chili dog. The hot dogs are great with their unique sauce. I’d say the thick sauce easily places Gus’s of Crestline’s “Regular” dog into the top dogs we’ve tried. Chile dogs are mild but good especially after you add a little red pepper. We also had a corn dog which Ernie apologized for since it wasn’t his usual product. After talking with us he insisted on serving us a slaw dog. Robert and I split one and thoroughly enjoyed it. They use a sweet slaw that would not be the choice for either of us as we would tend toward “sour slaw”, but theirs is good on a hot dog. All of our dogs were served hot, not just warm. This is better than many others do and shows an attention to detail. We ended up having four different items and agreed that our hands down favorite was the regular dog, all the way.

Regarding corn dogs: Fresh, hand dipped corn dogs are wonderful; like you get at the fair. There is actually a brand name for those; “Pronto Pups”. It’s a shame that there isn’t enough demand for fresh corn dogs for someone to prepare fresh, hand dipped, never frozen, corn dogs. I would sure like to find a corn dog that didn’t come out of the freezer.

I can’t wrap up this report of Gus’s without commending Ernie for his choice of ice for the drinks. I once tried to find a modestly priced ice maker that makes ice like this. I found that it is called “flake ice” and the machines that make it are very expensive, too expensive for me to buy for home use. They don’t make a junior/small model. Regardless, this ice is perfect for those who enjoy chewing/eating the ice after the drink is gone.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Kool Korner for Cuban Tamales

This week we decided to peruse another tamale (we have called Mexican hot dogs). We decided to visit Kool Korner, in the Publix shopping center at 790 Montgomery Highway. This isn’t a hot dog stand or a specialty tamale vendor but they come up prominently in an internet search for tamales in Birmingham. Kool Korner is a Cuban Sandwich shop that also serves tamales, presumably Cuban tamales. They also have a desert pastry, a guava and cream cheese pastelito. One of these can be observed in the background of the photo below.

Here we were at a Cuban sandwich shop ordering Cuban tamales. Let’s back up for a little bit. There was once a business located in Birmingham known as Mancha’s. They served these wonderful hand rolled tamales prepared for gringo tastes. They came soaked in an orange sauce that added flavor. One could also order various presentations of these tamales including corn chips, chili, cheese and various sauces. It was a real loss to Birmingham dining when the owner lost his life and the business subsequently closed as no one stepped forward to continue hand rolling the tamales.

Mancha’s, right or wrong, has been our standard for judging tamales. The ones we got at Kool Korner were presented to us plain. There was a bit of a language barrier between us gringos and the young lady taking our orders. It seems that she could recognize the names of things on the menu when spoken in English, but couldn’t answer many questions. Maybe we ask too many questions. With that said, we attempted to inquire about possible toppings or sides and were directed to 2 bottles of Mexican hot sauce, one mild and one “extra hot”. These sauces did add some flavor; but as a gringo I must admit that I find plain tamales just a little too plain. I like to eat tamales with a little something else to add flavor and supplement the high corn flour content. This could be chili, cheese, thick salsa or some other addition. I noticed they had on the menu a couple of soups and salads. These might be ordered to compliment the tamales; but the match isn’t made on the menu so you need to do it yourself.

Another thing which surprised us is the way these tamales are made. After doing some research online, it appears that this is the standard for Cuban tamales. Where Mexican tamales have a meat and chili-pepper concoction in the middle, wrapped with masa, Cuban tamales have the meat simply mixed-in with the masa so the tamales have the same consistency all the way through. . . not unpleasant, just different from our “standard”.

We had a long delightful conversation with Ildefonso Ramirez, the owner. If you go there try to meet him and hear his story. I am convinced that he is serving the real thing when it comes to Cuban food. He has been in the US for decades and moved his business to Birmingham from Atlanta to be closer to his son. We compared notes and both know and respect a local Cuban gentleman who came to Birmingham in the 1960s.

I want to report on the guava and cream cheese pastelitos. I didn’t order one but Robert raved about his. In fact he thinks that they are the big attraction at Kool Korner. I really want to return and try a Cuban (smashed flat) sandwich with a desert pastelito.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Couple of Updates

I just recently got a few pictures from "hot dog day" back in May. I have added them to the post about that day. You might want to take a look back at that post, Here.

Now, the last post was about our visit to Gus' Hot Dogs in Irondale. I commented that I would like to return and order a chili dog and a special dog just to compare the two. This week my schedule put me in the area of Gus' when I was ready for a late lunch. So, of course I went in for a return visit. I must just pause and say; "I like this place".

I ordered both a chili dog and a "special dog" so I could make the comparison. There is definitely a difference. The "special dog" has a beef topping that is much less spicy than the chili dog; it tastes more like the beef topping that was served at Pete's Famous Hot Dogs. It's a plain beef and onion mix with few spices. I must say that it is much thicker than the beef topping that Gus served at Pete's, it has real body. It isn't a runny/soupy half liquid poured on top of a hotdog. I think John has gotten it right with his thick meaty consistency.

Take a look at the picture; the dog in the foreground is the chili dog and the one in the rear is the special dog. The chili dog still doesn't taste like chili one would eat in a bowl, but it's good. After making the comparison I like the chili dog more, but you might want to order one of each like I did and make your own comparison. Those who miss the special dogs at Pete's will find a similar flavor with more substance.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Gus' in Irondale

This week when we talked about a hot dog excursion, Robert told me he had discovered a hotdog place that we had previously missed. So, we went to Gus’ Hot Dogs in Irondale. Gus’ is located in the shopping center right across the road from Sam’s in Irondale. This shopping center was once the location of Walmart; but is now anchored by a salvage store and a garden store.

A note about “Gus’ Hot Dogs”; There are numerous hot dog stands with the name Gus’ in the Birmingham area. We have already visited two of them, one downtown and one in Helena. They are all individually owned and use their own recipes. Of the Gus’ we have visited, this one has been the best.

This Gus’ is owned and operated by John Musso (not of football fame). He bears a name, not unknown to folks around here, shared with his cousin known as Johnny Musso, the football player. A photo of Johnny (#22) is prominently displayed on the wall among several football photos. When we arrived we were surprised to find ourselves at the back of a long line. John definitely has a loyal following that makes their way to his line at lunchtime. The line moves a little slower than we would like, but; “Hey, it’s lunch, are you in a hurry to get back to your desk?” It wasn’t that slow, but helped get the apatite ready. We ordered our usual, a hot dog and a chili dog, both all the way. Robert ordered fries with his and I got chips (Golden Flake). I also ordered a corn dog that I split with Robert. We both love good corn dogs.

Now for some details; I have previously written about how some of the best dogs we have had have been the unexpected ones. This visit was a strange hybrid of the expected and the unexpected. I’ll try to explain. The hot dog (all the way) is very good, one of the best. The chili dog is different. They use a chili that you would never call “chili” at home if served in a bowl. It looks more like the beef sauce often served up on a “special dog”, only thicker. There appears to be no chili powder used, no red color or beans, BUT it is very good. It is well seasoned and is a great complement to a hot dog. The only question we had was; “What is the difference between a special dog and a chili dog at Gus’? I really want to return and order one of each, then try to figure out the difference.

This visit has caused me to rethink a couple of preconceptions. First, as we started this journey we thought one way to judge chili on a chili dog was to ask; “Would I eat a bowl of this?” We have realized that the chili on chili dogs isn’t always what you would want to eat a bowl of on a cold day. It’s a condiment. Take a closer look above; this doesn't look like what you usually think of as chili. Secondly, I have never been a fan of “special dogs”. The first one I ever had was at Pete's Famous Hot Dogs where the usual presentation included a runny, soupy, gray substance containing some beef, onions and a thin gravy. Lots of people like this; but it has never been something I would go out of my way for. Gus' has a chili without chili spices and seems to be the stuff that should be used on “special dogs” everywhere. This is good!

John is very friendly and works hard to make sure the meal you get is above average. It says a lot that he has a waiting line while being located in a shopping center that is less than 50% occupied.

Bottom line; this is the best Gus’ we have visited. It is also one of the best hot dog stands we have tried.