(From our travel archives) Continued my southern chili dog quest, armed with suggestions from friends, Romans, and countrymen, this week I pretty much covered Mississippi and Alabama. I got deep into Georgia, as well, but time constraints actually prevented me from sampling the fare; the only thing I came away from Georgia with was a solid commitment to trying to ruin Neil Boortz’s career – boy, is that guy dangerous!
Since 1917, the fine folks at Chris’ Famous Hot Dogs, on “Goat Hill” (Dexter Avenue), two blocks form the State Capitol in Montgomery, have been peddling their version(s) of chili dogs to the public. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Empires come and go, huge corporations like Enron, Worldcom, and MCI tumble, but sell the world a hot dog, and you’re guaranteed longevity and (usually) not a hint of scandal. (Unless you include the various politician’s that have hung out at the eatery over the years, or the fact that this was Hank William’s favorite place.
There’s a geographically specific way to order dogs, and at Chris’s, or perhaps in “Bama, the phrase that pays is “gimme (quantity) all the way.” What is “all the way?” Did you think I wasn’t going to tell you? Pshaw. In Alabama, it means the hot dog is lain on a mustard slathered bun, piled with sauerkraut, “chili,” and chopped onion. “Chili” is in quotes, because I venture to say that in some parts of the country, Alabama chili wouldn’t be called “Chili” at all, but rather, perhaps, “hot dog sauce.” Chris’ is a smooth, meatless, beanless concoction, red in color, and tasting overwhelmingly of the subtle flavors of ketchup. You never thought you’d actually read an essay that discussed the nuances of hot dogs, did you? The frank was small, but most these days are (size does NOT matter). My benchmark for success is to be able to actually taste the wienie, which in this case, I couldn’t. It had no discernible flavor.
On to “Sneaky Pete’s,” an Alabama based chain, sporting 60 outlets in the deep South, some of which are franchised. Started in Birmingham by the Graphos brothers (there’s that Greek thing again), Alabama, at least, seems to have embraced the Sneaky Pete’s concept and menu. One can even purchase “Sneaky Pete’s” Secret Hot Dog Sauce in grocery stores. I have to admit something here, folks. While we are not talking gourmet cuisine, I do have SOME standards, and I further have to admit that I didn’t actually try a Sneaky Pete’s. Well, I tasted the chili, which was adequate, nothing to stand out. But after watching the “cook,” ring up orders, walk back to the freezer, grab two handfuls of hot dogs, throw them into the deep fryer, shake the fryer basket, and shove her hand into the chopped onions, I kind of lost my appetite. Where else those hands had been that day, I didn’t even want to contemplate. Three words: “plastic gloves lady!”
I couldn’t pass up Krystal’s version, mild curiosity. For those of you not living in the South, Krystal is to Southerners what White Castle is to Northerners (there are previous columns on this subject). I wanted to try the Krystal “Pups” just because they were cute – diminutive versions of the chili dog, small enough to fit three into a standard styrofoam container. There being only two in my foto is not to be taken as a sign that one was consumed. I, in fact, only ordered two. Should it surprise me that the included frank had the most flavor of any that I tried? Not really, I guess. In annual surveys of fast food joints, both Krystal and White Castle rate at the top of the scale for quality of food ingredients. They have “purer” ground beef that the McDonalds of the world, for example, so it made perfect sense to me that the “Pups” on their own, would taste good. The chili was better than most, but still not what I was looking for.
Birmingham provided an amusement with “Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs,” which the sign on the door claims “Est. 1920,” but the reality is it opened its doors in 1915, and the present proprietor has been on site since 1948. There’s not much going on in downtown Birmingham these days, lots of empty 12-15 story office buildings, so I imagine Pete’s has seen better days. Boasting it’s claim as the “narrowest restaurant in Birmingham” (good thing they didn’t say Alabama, Chris would give them a run for their toppings) – Pete’s is perhaps 24 feet long, and 6-8 feet wide, and also like Chris’, the key is to order them “All the Way,” which means exactly the same thing it does at Chris’ — the exception being that Pete’s sauce is a little thinner, a lot less red, and a bit more peppery.
Both Chris’ and Pete’s give the “appearance” of being spicier than they actually are, I think. I believe the texture of the sauerkraut leaves one’s palate with the misinformation that the ingredients contain more onion and pepper than they actually do. Just my perception.
My sole regret from the trip is that none of these restaurants which bear my own name offered merchandise for sale. I’m always up for apparel that might state something like “Enjoy Pete’s Wienie.” I’m big into the whole self-promotion thing. (insert appropriate audience response).