A few months ago, our local newspaper (the Tampa Bay Times) published this handy list of best places to get a hot dog in the Bay area. Being a Chicago native, I, of course, consider myself to be something of an expert on this topic and greatly welcomed the suggestions of the food press, especially since my experience with hot dogs in Florida thus far has been less than impressive (other than the one Brazilian-style dog I had at Padoka Brazilian Bakery, and, sadly, that place is no more). Of the restaurants on the list, I'd heard of Mel's (out near Busch Gardens) and Bruce's (out in Largo towards the Gulf), plus the Americanweiner food truck (which can be hard to find around town), but hadn't ever encountered mention of Coney Island Grill in St. Pete (one of the oldest food establishments in Florida, dating back to 1926) or Hot Dogs on Main in Dunedin. Regardless of their notoriety (or lack thereof) in my household, I made a pledge to eventually visit each and every one of them, starting with Hot Dogs on Main (the closest to the Canteen) in the hopes that my opinion of the west-central Florida frankfurter would be elevated.
I popped over to downtown Dunedin on a warm spring morning to find HDoM (505 Main St., no website), which is just up the street from more well-known eateries such as the Dunedin Smokehouse and Casa Tina. Chef Susan Norton has been serving up wieners from her small storefront (really small, that is - no indoor seating) here since 2010 with a focus on not only traditional hot dog varieties (such as the Chicago Dog), but more inventive combinations as well. I couldn't resist trying out two of these combos, the Chihuahua (featuring guacamole, onion, mango salsa, jalapeno melted cheddar, Greek yogurt, and crushed Frito chips) and the Reuben (with Russian dressing, swiss cheese, and sauerkraut), two crowning achievements of what can occur when you put together the right tastes and textures in a single package.
While not much to look at (and awfully sloppy - grab lots of napkins if you go), I can tell you that these creations really clicked, each melding the various sweet, sour, spicy, and rich components very nicely. The only complaint I had was with the hot dogs themselves, which were a little on the bland side. With a bare bones operation (no fryer or stove), Chef Susan is simply boiling the dogs behind the counter, and I've found that even the mighty Vienna beef dog (her house wiener) needs some char to make it stand out (her sausages are also skinless, meaning no snap when you bite down - I miss that, too). I'll need to give HDoM a second chance by trying out a traditional Chicago dog next time, but I have to confess a tinge of disappointment at the initial visit.
Next up for sampling was Mel's Hot Dogs, located in a much less bucolic setting down the street from Busch Gardens at 4136 E. Busch Boulevard. Unlike the newcomer HDoM, Mel's has been a mainstay in this neighborhood since 1973 and has a terrific backstory. Musician Mel Lohn traveled to Florida in the late 1960s on some gigs and decided (even back then, when the mosquitoes and gators still held seats on the local city council) that this was the place for him to be. A Chicagoan by birth, Mel started his own Chicago-style hot dog stand in Tampa when he was unable to find a proper one, turning a rundown structure on the old Henderson Air Field into the sausage palace that sits there today (albeit slightly expanded).
Mel also uses Vienna Beef dogs, the differences here being 1) these have a natural skin casing for a bit of added texture and 2) they're grilled just like the traditional Chicago Dog. With authentic toppings (down to the celery salt and the sport peppers that everyone tosses aside, plus no ketchup), a poppy seed bun, and a mound of golden, just-right fries, Mel's dog is the real deal, the best I've had in Florida. The menu even features such Windy City mainstays as Polish sausage, Italian beef, and the much-maligned hot tamale (all of which I'd like to try at some point) - if the next hurricane were to levitate Mel's operation and plop it at the corner of Fullerton and Kedzie in Chicago, it would not be out of place amongst all of the other local hot dog joints.
So, in summary, Hot Dog on Main wins the innovation award, but Mel's wins my heart. When that Portillo's goes up in Brandon next year, they should be aware that they're not the only Vienna Beef king in town...