Gus’s Hot Dogs, Birmingham AL

That last time that I went to Birmingham, years and years ago, on a night that Bob Dylan was coming to town to play, I had no idea whatsoever where I was going, apart from a general recommendation that I should ask around and find Reed’s Books. This was before Google Maps, and since I’ve never cottoned to buying an atlas or anything like that, traveling anywhere back then meant pointing my car in the general direction and seeing what turned up. In Birmingham’s case, it meant driving back and forth down the mostly deserted downtown streets marveling at what appeared to be a heck of a lot of hot dog restaurants. The impression that I got was during the working week, the city has a thriving financial base which supports nine or ten hot dog businesses. I don’t know whether that’s true – I’ve never sat down with anybody from Birmingham and really talked about the town – but that’s the impression that I got.

The memory might have been cheating, but the impression was so strong that when I planned our little jaunt this past weekend, I figured we could pick one of those hot dog sellers for a midday snack before returning home. Then it just became a matter of picking the right one, and there were far fewer than I remembered – perhaps just five or six. Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs is the obvious tourist favorite, with its lovely old neon sign and eccentric interior, so thin and narrow that there isn’t room inside for a single chair. I read, however, that Pete’s wasn’t as great as it used to be – no way of knowing whether that’s true – and many correspondents and reviewers suggested we stop into Pete’s chief competitor Gus’s instead.

Gus’s is not much larger than Pete’s. It’s a teeny place, with window seating for maybe six and no view to speak of, unless you really like parking decks. They sell a variety of dogs for under two bucks apiece. My daughter, who has no adventure in her soul for this sort of thing and doesn’t like mustard, just had a plain dog with ketchup and pronounced it better than Brandi’s back home. Marie got a chili dog and raved about it for hours.

I got their special dog, which comes with mustard, onions, sauerkraut, ground beef and a mysterious, thick brown special sauce. We have no idea what’s in it. My best description would be to call it a cinnamony-barbecue sauce, but that’s probably not accurate. It was extremely good, but I wouldn’t say it beats Brandi’s.

There were two fellows working that day. The younger guy politely declined to get drawn into the rivalry between this store and Pete’s, saying that whose dog was better was entirely up to me. The owner, a white-haired guy named George who speaks in a ringing Greek accent, was a trip. He just as politely declined to give me a hint on what might be in that sauce. “Is top secret!” he shouted with a twinkle and a grin. “Like C.I.A.!” George bought the place thirteen years ago and, from what I’ve read, modified the sauce recipe, whatever it is, just a hair to make it less spicy.

As for Bob Dylan, who was in town that one time eight years ago, we didn’t see him then, although I made certain to take the children along to see him in 2006, and even obtained a bootleg of the show we missed within a couple of months. This time, we left town and, like complete dimwits, missed out on a great big crawfish boil. The B-52’s played. One of these days, I’m going to actually going to look at a city’s calendar of events for the day of our trip, and not just get directions to all the bookstores and restaurants we want to try.