Last year, Tropicana Field and the Rays made a major announcement that shook the very foundation of the local fan community: The stadium would replace the Hebrew National dogs, previously steamed and bunned for fans, with Kayem beef franks. Shocking, right?
Of course, most fans went “meh.” Both options are tasty enough, especially when the food places a distant second to the excitement on the field. No matter how good the dog, it’s going to end up on the ground the instant Carlos Peña smacks one over the left field wall.
To truly enjoy a hot dog as culinary creation instead of as baseball adjunct, it’s best to concentrate and head out to one of the many, many places around the Bay area that specialize in this edible Americana.
Mel’s Hot Dogs
3.5 stars out of 5
4136 E. Busch Blvd., Tampa, 813-985-8000, melshotdogs.com.
If you start at Mel’s, I understand. For almost four decades the place has been Tampa’s standard-bearer for the humble hot dog, featuring the culinary fetishes of the Windy City thanks to owner and former Chicagoan Mel Kohn. The buns are steamed and lightly coated in poppy seeds, the dogs are natural-casing beef, and ketchup is strictly for French fries.
Mel’s best is the Chicago-style dog, topped with mustard, onions, neon relish, pickle, tomatoes, a splash of celery salt and “hots” — the mildly spicy pickled peppers that add a massive amount of flavor and tart refreshment to the mix.
4 stars out of 5
1604 N. 17th St., Tampa, 813-242-2700, hotwillys.com.
Hot Willy’s isn’t just a hot dog joint; it’s a “sausage and Italian beef superstore.” This brightly colored Ybor eatery serves Chicago-standard, natural-casing Vienna Beef dogs, with that distinctive flavor — a little beefier than most is the only way to quantify it — that separates that brand from all others.
Although there’s a definite Chicago tilt to Hot Willy’s, it’s not hot dog zealotry. You can have your dog grilled instead of steamed, there’s bratwurst from Wisconsin and Sabrett franks from New York (to go with the range of New York-style concoctions). Hot Willy’s doesn’t discriminate.
The dogs here, no matter which style you prefer, are excellent, especially the Sabrett loaded with onion sauce and sauerkraut, and the chili-cheese tater tots are worth a visit all by themselves, especially if you sit in the quaint little courtyard.
3.5 stars out 5
250 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N., St. Petersburg, 727-821-3052.
Don’t be fooled, the Coney Island dog comes from Michigan, not the iconic New York carnival area. Same with the iconic Coney Island in St. Petersburg, a landmark in the city for over 80 years. Here you’ll find massive and messy dogs that drip so much chili, onions and cheese you can almost have an entire second meal with what falls off your dog. The shakes here are almost as legendary as the dogs, and the other diner-style food is just as tasty at prices that seem more reminiscent of decades gone by.
4 stars out of 5
7204 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-345-9701, alesiarestaurant.com.
A French-Vietnamese fusion restaurant may not seem like the place to find one of the Bay area’s best hot dogs, but it is. Not Chicago- or New York-style, but French-style, with a little Vietnamese touch thrown in.
The thick, extra-long frank is tucked gently into a crusty baguette, topped with caramelized onions, drizzled with cheesy Mornay sauce and covered in a blanket of Gruyere that seals the top of the baguette-bun after a quick melt in the oven. The result is an astounding meal that will make you wonder why anyone bothers to eat a hot dog in anything but chewy, crusty bread; why raw onions instead of sweetly caramelized; why bland shredded cheddar instead of rich and nutty Gruyere.
It may not be the dog you fondly remember, but it’ll become the one you crave.
Twinz Big City Hot Dogs
3 stars out of 5
5707 W. Waters Ave., Tampa, 813-886-6189, twinzbigcityhotdogs.com.
Twinz doesn’t have history or a quaint location going for it, but the dogs are good enough to keep people coming back for more, There’s no geographic allegiance here, just the basic styles represented well, from a Coney Island covered in chili and onions to the usual Chicago and New York toppings. Whichever you choose, grab one of the decadently thick milkshakes to go with it.
3 stars out of 5
909 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, 813-425-3647, frankieshotdogs.com.
Like Twinz, Frankie’s doesn’t strive to be anything special, they just want to serve good food fast to regular folks. That makes it a great place to get a dog.
The Irish — stuffed with crisp bacon and cheese — is a winner, as are the wee Frankie’s Bites, perfect to pop into your mouth while driving to avoid the inevitable calamity of hot dog drip on your shirt. Besides the dogs, Frankie’s serves a cornucopia of nature’s delights battered and deep-fried, from zucchini to cheese cubes.
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