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Food & Dining

Tampa chefs creating hot dog masterpieces

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Published:   |   Updated: July 4, 2013 at 11:44 AM

Brothers Robert and Richard Bowe made sure to tag all the culinary bases when they created the menu at Twinz Big City Hotdogs.

Any respectable wiener joint must have a Chicago red dog with green relish, sport peppers and poppyseed bun. A natural-casing New York dog with hot kraut and spicy mustard is required as well. A chili dog, a slaw dog and a Coney added to the menu's legitimacy.

But the thing that made it local was the Tampa Bay Dog.

With a pile of creamy, homemade slaw, applewood smoked bacon, onions, potato sticks, barbecue sauce, mayonnaise and mustard.

"We were going for the melting pot of what Tampa is," Robert Bowe says. "We were looking to make something diverse and slightly extreme to see how the flavors went together.

"Far from their ancestors served from dirty-water carts on street corners, hot dogs are now a blank canvas for chefs to create new masterpieces. And after being out of favor among fast-food snobs, franks are back in vogue as playful, quick meals people can relate to and enjoy.

It's an impulse built on the Tampa area's rich wiener history. Coney Island Sandwich Shop on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street in St. Petersburg started serving its signature chili dogs in 1926. This week, Mel's Hot Dogs on Busch Boulevard in Tampa celebrates its 40th anniversary in business selling Chicago-style dogs.

It's a fickle business. In the past year, Frankie's on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa and Hot Willy's in Ybor City closed their doors. But Nathan's opened last week at the foot of the parking deck of the Bank of America building at 200 N. Tampa St. in downtown Tampa.

"Everybody loves a good hot dog, but a hot dog isn't usually fancy enough to put on a menu," said Greg Baker of The Refinery in Tampa.

Two weeks ago he put a homemade dog on the menu made with the heavily marbled muscle running around the outside of a center-cut ribeye steak. After grinding, he stuffed it into a natural hog casing, served it with a red bean and tomato molasses puree ("Essentially beanie weenies.") as well as a butternut squash mustard and kohlrabi slaw.

It was an idea he had toyed with as a meal for summer, when many are hankering for backyard barbecue foods.

"I was trying to find ways of dressing it up," Baker says. "People are trying to justify their love of hot dogs and also make it a value-added thing on the menu. Everyone loves a good hot dog.

Kevin Dunn, who operated the Americanwiener food truck in the Tampa area for two years before selling it to new owners last month, said hot dogs are part of the trend of diners wanting something new and different done with classic foods.

"They want new foods that taste different that they can talk about," Dunn says. "I don't think it's more than that."

The first dog on his menu that he taught new owners Amy and Ben Laffey was his Asian Dog, which is topped with dried nori seaweed, Japanese mayonnaise, grilled onions, Teriyaki sauce, pickled ginger and furikake seasoning.

The Capone Dog he created was his version of a Chicago dog, The all-beef weiner is dressed with yellow mustard, wild cucumber, piccalilli, sugar, juniper berries, bay leaf and apple cider vinegar.

"The Capone is one of the best dogs ever invented," Dunn says. "They're on fresh buns, not stale Chicago buns. We use Thai chili peppers instead of those bland sport peppers. It's a great seller."

The Laffeys said Pink's Hot Dogs in Los Angeles, their former home, will inspire them to remain creative when inventing new dogs to add to the menu Dunn handed them.

Pink's also inspired Chicago native Jason Esposito to put hot dogs on the menu at his Engine No. 9 restaurant and bar in St. Petersburg. But instead of a traditional Chicago-style dog, he went with such local ingredients as chorizo, corned beef hash, pico de gallo and cayenne and avocado cream.

Experimenting with wieners is a way of customers' childhood memories. It also helps that it's less costly than messing with an expensive steak or other pricier ingredients.

"We're not building rocket ships, so you have more room for error with a hot dog," Esposito says. "Plus, hot dogs make very good bar food."

They also make great after-bar food.

Brothers Willie and Sam Museitef opened Meaner Wiener on south Howard Avenue in Tampa nine weeks ago to tap into the stream of bar patrons hungry after a night of drinking. He still pulls in lunch and dinner customers, but the after-hours crowd craves hot dogs.

By day, the traditional Chicago Dog is king. By night, sloppy chili cheese dogs topped with house-made chili and coleslaw, cheddar cheese and fresh onions are the big seller.

"They want something to top their stomachs from all the alcohol," Willie Museitef says with a laugh. "I don't think veggies go with liquor."

He pops his most experimental dog once a month as a week-long special: a bahn mi dog. Like the Vietnamese sandwich of the same name, he tops it with a salad bar of relish, cucumbers, carrots, daikon radish, rice vinegar and sriracha mayonnaise.

Joseph Bitz, 35, of Tampa, visits Meaner Wiener as much as twice a week. A postal worker who delivers mail to Museitef's restaurant, Bitz can't get enough of the Chicago dog and the Texas Dog, which comes deep-fried with chili and slaw.

"It's hard to find a good dog," Bitz says. "I was born in Texas, but I lived in New Jersey and I went to Chicago a year ago. I was born in Texas, I ate New York hot dogs when I lived in New Jersey and I went to Chicago last year. I just like eating different dogs from different places."

jhouck@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7324

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