The furthest point south on an epic weeklong hot dog road trip last summer, Alabama and Pete's Famous were like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Spotting the gorgeous neon sign a few blocks down the tree-lined streets of Birmingham, my amazing-hot-dog-joint radar was going haywire.
After several days of stopping at six or seven hot dog joints a day, you'd think that palate fatigue would set in and it'd all become a blur of Southern hospitality and creamy slaw. But it's a testament to the stubborn individuality of the hot dog that every single place offered something unique. Especially Pete's, which was strikingly different from every other Southern dog we had. It's one of those places where you walk in and just KNOW it's going to be awesome.
Pete's is a tiny place with a stainless steel counter and room for maybe six people at the most. Owner Gus Koutroulakis has been at the helm, cooking dogs on the tiny griddle from the same spot in the front window, since 1948.
A friendly hot dog man with just enough of the "signature rudeness" to make the experience authentic, Gus was happy to chat us up and talk about the history of the place, but quickly scolded me for not opening a soda for hot dog road trip accomplice Caroline. And when I asked one of the regulars about Gus's, a rival hot dog joint a block away, he told me he had no idea what I was talking about and gave me a look of terror.
The dogs at Pete's are skinless Zeigler wieners, cooked until slightly blackened on the griddle. The "special" is topped with sauerkraut, mustard, mildly seasoned dry ground beef, and Pete's signature "sauce," which could best be explained as a cross between NY-style red onion sauce (without the onions) and barbecue sauce. When asked about the contents of the mysterious sauce, Gus's reply was "huh? oh, it's just sauce."
Finished off with a dusting from the shaker of cayenne pepper on the counter (never seen that before) and the result is one the most unique dogs I've ever tasted, completely different from anything else in the South, at least outside Birmingham.
Southern Foodways Alliance Video: Pete's Famous
Pete's is only one piece of the puzzle of hot dogs and the Greek community in Birmingham—a fascinating history that has been well documented by the Southern Foodways Alliance in this short film and this article, where the interviewer attempts to pry the secrets of the "sauce" from Gus. Just picture Birmingham's hot dog men meeting after hours to discuss sauce secrets over fifths of whiskey.
You might be thinking, "yeah yeah, another greasy, ancient Greek-owned hot dog place with meat sauce that tastes like nutmeg." I was too. But if you don't check out Pete's, you're missing out. This place is detour-worthy.
Pete's Famous Hot Dogs
Hawk Krall is a Philadelphia-based illustrator who has a serious thing for hot dogs. Dig his dog drawings? Many of the illustrations he has created for Hot Dog of the Week are available for sale: hawkkrall.net/prints/.