I rarely get excited about the frankfurter. I’ve been to NYC once and only have a blurry recollection of devouring the age-old meat in bun concept. Hotdogs are just not one of those simple life pleasures I tend to crave. Yet, there is one place…and one place only, that truly promotes a certain childhood nostalgia which in turn, forces me to excitedly chow down on 100% pure Vienna beef dogs snuggled in perfectly steamed poppy seed buns. If you grew up in Tampa, you already know what joint I’m referring to. If you have lived here for even 5 years and have yet to experience the famous, the legendary, the ever-so righteous Mel’s Hotdogs, then you, my friend should be ashamed…brutally ashamed.
Mel’s hotdogs has been around longer than I’ve been alive. It’s the one indulgent spot my health conscious mom somehow justified taking her kids to on a Saturday afternoon. It is a place my father still brings up immediately when lunch options are discussed. It is a mom and pop diner that my brother would mention within five minutes when talking about his childhood in Tampa. It is a retro inspired eatery where the hotdog is a celebrated meat that delightfully snaps in your mouth with each glorious bite. It is my personal hotdog heaven.
I’ve long wanted to write a post, a declaration, for the greatness that is Mel’s. With a couple of tortuous, grueling, stomach aching years behind me with not a single Mel’s dog, it was time. It was time to experience that untouched, impeccably salty Vienna beef with that snazzy snappy casing, that supremely steamed soft bun and that oddly bright green relish topping. But going just once this month was not enough. It took two visits for me to feel even somewhat content in my Mel’s dog demolishing.
Visit #1. My boyfriend and I had an event at Busch Gardens to attend in the evening. No Busch Gardens visit is ever complete without a trip to its fantastic diner neighbor. Chris had never been. He has only lived in Tampa for four years; he is excused…by a hair; he is excused. A first timer on my hands, I already decided on two dogs we’d have to order. The third? That’d be up to him...because I am just that nice. After ordering at the counter where the kitchen is 100% visible to patrons, we sat down in one of the shiny red booths. In less than ten minutes, our number was called and our hotdogs were in hand.
The Chicago Dog; how I love you so. I can’t remember ever feasting on it as a child but my palate is far more refined these days. Yes, we are in fact, still talking about hotdogs. It takes special taste buds to appreciate the fully loaded concoction named after a great U.S. city. Onions, relish, tomatoes, pickle, hot sport peppers, celery salt and mustard create a dog’s dreamland of textures and flavors galore. With one bite, I was kicking myself in the rear for having gone a whole two years without visiting this place. Tomatoes on a hotdog have never been so good. This combo is one that Mel’s prides themselves in doing right. No skimping at all…every Chicago ingredient is generously accounted for.
Mel’s Special was also sitting so patiently before us. Good dog. Loaded with mustard, onions, kraut, relish and pickle, this hot dog is so special, it’s named after the hotdog genius, himself. That crazy green relish gets me smiling every time. With the awesome intensity of the sauerkraut and the onions, this hotdog is unforgettable in taste. A classic, go-to staple, it never disappoints.
Chris chose the Slaw dog as our 3rd delight of the night. Mel’s coleslaw is fresh and tossed with just enough dressing. Creamy and crisp, it paired awesomely with the soft warm bun and tasty dog that lay wrapped up inside. Chris loved his first time at the renowned Tampa hotdog joint. Who are we kidding…I knew he’d want to go back for more.
Visit #2. Another first timer on our hands. A double lunch date to Mel’s included my brother, Patrick and his girlfriend, Sloan. I could have slapped Sloan silly. There are no excuses for her poor behavior. Growing up in Lakeland, she was on thin ice for the absence of Mel’s in her life. Since she just might be a keeper in my family, I withheld punishment. Sloan ordered the never fails, Mel’s traditional model- the Mel’s Special. She deemed it deserving of a healthy living “cheat day meal.” I would have to agree. Patrick ordered the Chili Cheese Dog. I must’ve had déjà-vu three times just looking at that dog. My heart skipped multiple beats when he allowed me a bite. Straight from my childhood, the chili cheese dog is one decadent treat. Not for the heartburn sensitive, this dog comes smothered with tangy, spicy, meaty goodness. Mel’s Chili is the only kind of chili suitable for a hotdog as it is sans the beans and not overly extreme in heat or tomatoes. With cheddar and onions, this dog is a clear winner in the messy department. I’ll take the food-stained toddler face anytime if it means eating one of these guilt-worthy gems.
With so many delectable options, it is always so difficult to choose just one dog. That is why, once again, Chris and I felt required by Mel’s law to share a 3rd. Chris couldn’t resist. He prized the Chicago dog so much from our last visit he ordered it again. It was equally as delicious; Mel’s doesn’t mess around with consistency. That’s why they’ve been a much loved Tampa celebrity since 1973. I chose to create my own- the Mel’s My Way menu option. Grilled onions, peppers, swiss cheese and mustard were the name of my hotdog game. I had to toot my own horn for this stellar creation. With a drizzle of hot sauce, it was absolutely divine.
To share, we were extra gluttonous in our hotdog selection. After all, Saturdays are cheat-days from our normally healthy diets. The Bacon Cheddar dog was calling out to us. I take that back. It was screaming at us. Not that Mel’s dogs need any assistance at all….but a wise bird once told me that “bacon makes everything better.” Indeed it does. Must I even convince any meat-eater of this combination? I didn’t think so.
Mel’s Hotdogs is an honored tradition in this town. A tried and true tradition in my family and thousands of others alike, it is always a hit. A fan of these frankfurters for life, I’ll be taking my own children here someday. I have no doubt they will love the hotdogs just as much as I did (and still do). An atmosphere that radiates family, friends and fun with made-to-order dogs and over 1,000 topping combinations, this old-fashioned hotdog "stand" will forever have a special place in my heart.
This post is dedicated to my best friend, Megan O'Shea who accurately deems herself a life-long Mel's fanatic. Happy Birthday Megan. May you enjoy your frankfurter on your special day.