Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Max's Yet Again and A Visit To Saw's

I can't believe it has been three weeks since I posted. I was planning to write a post on Wednesday April 27 but things didn't work out for that. Surely you know about the multiple storms that wreaked such havoc in our area on that day. We were not missed by these storms. One of the early morning tornadoes hit our neighborhood particularly hard. We are fortunate to have no injuries and a house that generally survived. We lost numerous trees and have some structural damage to the house but still consider ourselves fortunate.

One result of the storm is that we didn't have power for a week and eleven days later still don't have land line telephone service, DSL or cable. We have been so focused on basics that hot dogs have been pushed aside for a while.

But now it's time for important things. I want to tell about a couple of recent hot dog experiences. One recent Sunday my wife and I were joined by Susie and Aaron for lunch at Max's. Yes, the same Max's that I think has the best local Chicago style hot dogs. The purpose of the visit as far as Aaron and I were concerned was for hot dogs. Susie decided to not have a dog but the surprise of the day was when my lovely wife ordered a hot dog. Of course the hot dogs at Max's are quarter pound hot dogs so one dog is plenty to eat.

Aaron and I ordered the "Chicago double dog" which comes with two Chicago style dogs and a side of french fries. We added a side of onion rings that we shared with everyone. We each had one of the dogs but had been well fed by the end of the meal. My wife chose to order the "1962 dog" which is topped with onions, slaw and BBQ sauce. This is also served with a side of fries. She is not a big fan of hot dogs, especially when given as many alternatives as they have at Max's. But that day she ordered one and was surprised at how much she liked it and enjoyed it. Max's dogs are not only quarter pounders but are also all beef and are a cut above the usual. That day was an overwhelming success on many levels. We all enjoyed our food, we had plenty to eat and some at the table learned a little.

Now for a second recent excursion. Recently Robert and I have been having a hard time getting together for our hot dog trips, so a few days ago I was in the Homewood area around lunch and decided to try Saw's. Saw's is a bar B Q place on Oxmoor Road right in the center of the Edgewood district. I believe this is the same building that once housed Broadway's BBQ, the place where I first encountered a giant baked tater loaded with BBQ and other good stuff.

A friend had told me a while back that he had heard that Saw's has a really good hot dog. My first impression was that the BBQ smells real good. Secondly I sought out the hot dogs on the menu and I found two listings, one as the only kids item on the menu listed as "hot dog with chips". Then there was one for the more mature diner listed as "Carolina dog (chilli & slaw)".

It was immediately evident that I was about to have my first official "Carolina dog". According to Wikipedia; "In the Carolinas, hot dogs are traditionally served "all the way", which includes mustard, chopped sweet onion, chili, and coleslaw. Ketchup is rarely included on this variation of the hot dog, but may be added by the eater." This description matches what I have read other places.

The Carolina dog at Saw's was a large size hot dog, but no where near the quarter pound dog served at Max's. It comes with a generous topping of chilli, slaw and a little pickle relish but lacks the mustard and onion. There is so much chilli that I didn't even think about picking it up to eat. Rather I used a plastic fork and knife. I generally liked the dog but thought I would have seasoned the chilli a little differently. I couldn't help but think that someone got carried away with the cumin; a little goes a long way. I would like to try more "Carolina dogs" to get a better feel for them.

The big surprise for me at Saw's wasn't the hot dog at all, but it was the other sandwich I ordered. I also ordered a "smoked chicken sandwich with white BBQ sauce". This sandwich alone rates a return visit.

We have a couple of interesting excursions planned soon. One that I am looking forward to is preparing hot dogs for Aaron's class of 3rd graders this week. I hope to convince them to try something other than a kids dog. "Try it, you'll like it!"

Monday, April 18, 2011

Let's Put Chicago dogs to bed

I am not sure how many posts have been dedicated to the "Chicago Dog", I don't want to count. But here's the scoop.

We recently took two different former Chicago residents to try some of the local offerings. One went to college in the "windy city" while the other served as an FBI agent in Chicago for over a decade. What kind of reactions did I get?

First, there is no "standard" Chicago dog. They vary depending on the seller; so there's room for some variations on what some insist is "THE Chicago dog".

Regarding our local sellers I have a winner. The dogs at Mike's didn't rate any interest what-so-ever from these guys since they have been using canned tomatoes. The other two contenders were Tony's and Max's. I think they are both good... I have learned to appreciate the Chicago dog. When I watched the former FBI agent eat the Chicago dog from Max's I suspected we had the real thing. He immediately said; "This brings back memories". I also watched him eat a Chicago dog at Tony's. He had no complaints at all, but did finally comment that Max's was better.

I found it interesting that Max's does not use the "sport pepper" or any other peppers in their offering, yet it was the choice. It makes me think that there are some sport peppers being thrown away rather than eaten in Chicago. Steve, the proprietor at Max's told me how he was considering adding the sport pepper for his Chicago dogs. We had a discussion about "sport peppers" a couple of days ago and he and I see eye-to-eye; "why bother?" He doesn't like them either. I would suggest adding a sliced medium hot pepper to replace the sport.

So now you have it; if you want a Chicago dog in Birmingham go to Max's at the Colonnade. If you're not real hungry take a friend because when you order one you get two.

This week I picked up some of these dogs (take out) for a couple a folks I work with. The response I got was very positive. The hot dogs from Max's are definitely good. The "sticker price" is higher than a hot dog stand, but they are worth it.

A final note. I work in an industry that is somewhat intensive during "tax season". Hey... WE ARE THROUGH IT! I hope to step up the posts soon.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The End The Pete's Famous Era

I want to make sure and give the credit for the following article. This was a front page story in The Birmingham News today, April 6, 2011, copied here in it's entirety. The article can also be viewed on this link to The article refers to an interview with Southern Foodways Alliance. He was featured prominently in this video produced by them. Also the article refers to an interview by the Southern Foodways Alliance and can be found here. By the way, Southern Foodways is an interesting site. They are associated with the University of Mississippi and are involved with documenting our region's culinary heritage. If you look at their site take time to poke around. Now from The Birmingham News:

Beloved Birmingham hot dog man Constantine 'Gus' Koutroulakis, dies at 81

Published: Wednesday, April 06, 2011, 7:00 AM

By Carol Robinson -- The Birmingham News The Birmingham News

A huge white bow hangs on the glass door at Pete's Famous Hot Dogs -- a slither of space on a once bustling Second Avenue North where hot dogs, cold drinks and conversation have been served up for decades.

Constantine Koutroulakis, simply known to most folk as Gus, was found dead Tuesday morning sitting in a chair at his Homewood home.

On Monday, just a day earlier, the 81-year-old Koutroulakis worked his typical shift from morning until night. For 63 years he had worked at the shop, often with his wife, Kathy, by his side.

Cars continued to roll up to the curb on Tuesday as devoted customers of Pete's Famous made their regular pilgrimage, many hearing for the first time that the legendary man behind the counter had died.

"It just kills me," said 53-year-old Rod Pringle, a Texas man who stopped in Birmingham Tuesday to take his son to Pete's, just as his own father had done for him 20 years ago.

"My grandfather passed away a year ago, and he talked about this his whole life," said Logan Pringle, 23. "My grandfather was a foodie, and you paid attention when he talked about something."

Earlier Tuesday morning, he had called family members and his housekeeper to say he was not feeling well. The housekeeper arrived at Koutroulakis' home and found him dead.

"He was one of a kind really," said Birmingham restaurateur George Sarris. "I think if you would have asked him how do you want to go, he would have said he wanted to die in the store or getting ready to go to work."

The Greek community will miss Koutroulakis, Sarris said. "He was just like a fixture," he said.

Robert Aland, Birmingham president of the National Bank of Commerce and this year's Operation New Birmingham chair, was raised eating at Pete's Famous.

"I grew up in Birmingham and for as long as I can remember, it was a treat to come downtown and eat at Pete's," Aland said. "When I got married, and then when my daughter came along, I made sure to share Pete's with them. I even have a painting of Pete's Famous hanging in my office. Gus is certainly going to be missed."

The legend began decades ago when Pete Koutroulakis in 1939 bought the tiny shop on Second Avenue North, a 7-foot-wide spot between a former saloon and a clothing store. According to an interview Gus Koutroulakis gave to Southern Foodways Alliance, his uncle paid $600 that he had won in a Pinochle game, changed the name to Pete's Famous Hot Dogs and put up the blue neon sign.

When his uncle was ill, Gus Koutroulakis went to work there to help him out. Later he took over the business, just out of Phillips High School in 1948.

From then on, he was open seven days a week, except for Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day. He served his dogs grilled and covered with sauerkraut, onions, special sauce and a bit of mustard on a steamed bun. The special came with chili.

The majority of his customers washed down the famous dogs with a pint of milk or a Grapico.

His secret weapon, customers say, was the sauce flavored with a little bit of spice and always spread while it was steaming hot. It's what made his hot dogs among the best in town.

"Gosh, nobody knows his sauce recipe," longtime friend and customer, Birmingham businessman Joey McClure, said Tuesday as he stopped by the shop to mourn the loss. "He did everything here, but he made the sauce elsewhere and wouldn't tell anyone. He always said, 'When I'm gone, it's going with me.'"

The shop closed so rarely that when it did, it made the news, as was the case in 1995 when he took a three-week vacation to visit relatives in Greece. In 1998, he threatened to retire because his feet hurt. In 1999, then-Jefferson County Commissioner Mary Buckelew sponsored a resolution to honor him after word spread that he was retiring, which he didn't.

"I don't want to quit," Koutroulakis told The Birmingham News in 1998. "If you're not working, your brain goes bad. I've seen it happen."

He worked so long and hard, bent over the grill, that he was no longer able to stand up straight. "There was the shelf behind him which made him stoop," Sarris said. "I always told him to put it up higher but he said, 'Where am I going to put the bread?'"

Sarris said people often encouraged Koutroulakis to slow down and work less, but that wasn't who he was.

"That was his life. That's what made him tick. That's what got him up in the morning," he said.

Longtime customers marveled at how he never forgot their order, whether it had been months or weeks since they'd last been in the shop. "It didn't matter who you were, he always remembered," said 60-year-old Paul Maniscalco, who started eating two hotdogs all the way with a pint of milk at Pete's when he was a student at St. Paul's Catholic School.

"I'm heartbroken," Maniscalco said when he pulled up to the shop Tuesday, unaware of Koutroulakis' death.

Larry Cannon, 67, said he had frequented Pete's Famous Hot Dogs since the late 1960s. Once when serving on a federal jury, Cannon brought the entire jury to the cramped shop on lunch break. "They said, 'Where do you sit?' and I said, 'You don't.'"

Koutroulakis could be grumpy at times, coarse and impatient, but friends and customers say he had a deep love for people.

"Sometimes he was rough and gruff," Sarris said, "but he was a teddy bear."

A sign in the shop directed customers with complaints to go to "Helen Waite."

Birmingham businessman Eli Stevens, Koutroulakis' friend and neighbor since childhood, stopped by the shop Tuesday to salute his buddy -- literally.

"This was the place Gus loved," Stevens said. "He didn't have to do this. He did it because it was his first love."

The fate of the beloved hot dog stand is uncertain.

Asked in an interview years ago if he had someone lined up to take over, he said, "No, when I leave here, this place will be gone."

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Sport Peppers

It's been a little while since I posted but the tour has continued. This is a very busy time of the year for me making it hard to find time for far-flung visits and lengthy posts. But this soon shall pass!

I have finally had some "sport peppers". I ordered some direct from Chicago. I could hardly wait to discover just what makes this pepper the pepper of choice for the Chicago dog. My conclusion is that it is simple ignorance. Give me a good southern pepper any day! The "sport pepper" is a tough skinned very chewy pepper with an unremarkable taste. Really... these things are tough! Why would anyone want one?

I talked with Anthony Tortomaci, the owner of Tony's Hot Dogs in Hoover. He serves a Chicago dog and used to use "sport peppers" but found that no one was eating them. They all went in the garbage. He decided to substitute a jalapeno on his Chicago dogs and found that they were eaten. I have observed that other local "Chicago dogs" are also missing the "sport pepper". As far as I'm concerned it's no great loss. Max's, who serves a very good Chicago dog uses no peppers at all while Mike's uses sliced mild peppers without a tough skin.

So for me there will be no more wondering about the mythical sport pepper. I've tried it, don't care for it, and can't understand why anyone would want one.

Coming next: some former Chicago residents try the local Chicago dogs.