Mel’s Hot Dogs
“When I was younger, I knew I could do anything- I could be President if I wanted to, but that was a stupid idea- I’d rather be a rock star.” – Kurt Cobain
A couple times in life you are going to be faced with a life altering fork in the road. Sometimes you go left and sometimes you go right, but Mel went straight. He gave up the traveling musician lifestyle and put his flag in the ground in on the west coast of a warm and sunny Florida. When he could not find work in Sarasota as a musician, he traveled north to Tampa.
When he felt homesick and looked for a Chicago dog and came up empty, he opened his own hot dog joint. 47 years later he is known around the city as “The Wizard of Wiener” among a handful of other clever names. Now, Mel’s Hot Dog’s in Tampa isn’t new to BTD, we’ve been here before and we’ve has the pleasure of snapping the original casing of Vienna brand hot dogs loaded with toppings.
We told the story and kicked out a solid review, but this never felt like a “done deal.” I knew I had to meet Mel Lohn when I heard his story. I tried to hunt him down, but our schedules never aligned.
I zigged, he zagged. I never stopped trying and almost 8 months after my original visit, I got to spend an afternoon with Mel, his amazing staff and a table covered in dogs, rings and Idaho potato French fries.
It is as much fun as two strangers can have on a Monday afternoon sharing stories and breaking seeded buns. This is Mel’s story. I’ve included my review from the original visit as well, but we already knew the food was good – the company stole the show this time. Steam your buns, nestle your meat stick and enjoy this week’s installment of “Behind the Dish.”
Our original review
Love is the one ingredient that is seldom talked about when cooking a hot dog. With such a simple idea how could something like “love” really make that much of a difference? Well, no one told Mel and Virginia Lohn that. Who are these people you might wonder; be patient, we will get there. We’ve spent the last couple of weeks dreaming of baseball and eating fancy hotdogs. Bacon wrapped; beet topped fancy pants tuxedo dogs. There is nothing wrong with a culinary masterpiece disguised as cheap street food. In fact, it’s all the rage right now and I am 100% for this movement. I will never turn down a simple hot dog covered in the toppings piled to the ceiling; wrapped, slathered and served in a steam punk setting with rock music. Not me, no siree Bob.
I started to look around and found that there are some pretty reputable places around the Yankees Spring training area in Tampa, FL. Makes sense – baseball town with lots of good baseball food, right? One place stood out more than the others- “Mel’s Hot Dogs” had a big red sign, an old school look from the curb and a promise of “Real Chicago Style Hot Dogs.” When you’re looking for a simple ballpark dog you can’t go wrong with a link of 100% all beef Vienna brand meat stick.
Classic, timeless and tasty, these puppies don’t need toppings or condiments to be consumed and I have been known to put down 4-5 in a single sitting. They are your “to the point” hotdog. They go down easy and sometimes you don’t even realize you’ve consumed what you consumed. These are contest dogs, simply meaning you would be facing a stack of these meat treats if you bellied up to your local July 4th hot dog eating contest. You get it.
Is a Chicago Hot Dog like deep dish or something?
Comments like that don’t even warrant a response. A Chicago dog at Mel’s is similar to a Chicago dog you would find anywhere in the Second City, but – again – we aren’t there yet. Let’s talk about Mel’s place before we talk about Mel’s food. Since 1973 when an afro rocking hippie and his band of merry misfits traveled the city of Tampa in search for a hot dog that didn’t yet exist, Mel saw a market in need of a hero. On July 3, 1973 Mel stepped up to the plate and gave Tampa its first Chicago Dog stand. This place is beautiful. It reminded me of an old 1950’s diner with bright reds, whites and shiny chrome.
As I parked and walked up to this small building next to a busy roadway I was first enamored with the red “hot dog mobile” looking thing parked out front. Like a hot dog on a Beetle bun, with shiny chrome hub caps and Mel’s logo on the doors. You couldn’t miss this place if you were blind and trust me, you wouldn’t want to. I walked up to the door surrounded by red awnings and a couple of Mel’s logo signs that can be seen from St. Pete and I was greeted by a warm welcoming smile from every person behind the counter. I did my usual Terminator scan as I tried to take in as much as possible and found a wall menu, plenty of tables and years of memories hung up in picture form. The system was traditional and that’s a good thing. Order at the counter and you will see your hot dog assembler grab a steamed poppy seed bun and fit it with a perfectly cooked Vienna beef link and put it in a stand made for piling the toppings.
The spread at Mel's
It sounds like we are about to eat and I for one am excited.
Yes. This is the portion of the story where we talk about what we ate and how we feel about it. You’ve been here for weeks now and I still don’t understand why you haven’t pieced this together yet. I came out looking for a good “ballpark” style hot dog and man did I get exactly what I was looking for. Perfectly steamed bun, the dog was hot and had that snap you can only find in a natural casing and the toppings were both fun and tasty. Let’s start with the Chicago Dog since Mel’s is all about giving you that authentic experience of the Chi in the Bay. Poppy seed bun, natural casing dog, mustard, onions, relish (the cool neon green kind) tomatoes, celery salt and hot sport peppers. Let me tell you something- Mel takes his hot dogs seriously and you can tell from the first bite. The cold veggies and little bite of sport pepper hits just perfect right before your teeth snap through the skin of the meat. The bun is the final piece of the puzzle in a perfectly assembled Chicago dog. Next up I had Mel’s Special, a recommendation from the young lady at the counter in response to my go to question when I try a new place, “What’s the best dog on the menu.” Now in all fairness she did say the Chicago Dog, but I already ordered one and this was a “close second.” Steamed poppy seed bun snuggling a meat stick piled high with mustard, onions, sauerkraut, relish and a pickle. This one was equally as good, although somewhat similar in style and again I was more than okay with that. After weeks of bacon wrapped, cheese drenched, fried onion beet misses it was nice to have a salad and do something nice for my body.
Time out! This does not count as “eating a salad!”
Oh, but it does. Until you get a sweet logo and a catchy theme song, you’re going to have to sit this one out. Plus, I don’t know how many self-proclaimed “hot dog experts” can dedicate the rest of their lives to traveling the country in search of the best hot dog in America.
Yeah, yeah, yeah we know……
I think it’s fair to say Mel’s delivered exactly what they promised. An authentic, Chicago style 100% all beef Vienna dog with all the fixings. The restaurant is in a great location, right next to Bush Gardens and offers as much in aesthetics as it does in food. The staff was exceptional; so good I think this might be the first time we talked about it in a review. The venue is covered in nostalgia and the pictures are great. I loved the Beetle out front, the signage and the interior. They delivered on food too as the hot dog was everything I had dreamed about while spending an hour in the car driving up to Tampa.
I arrived hungry and left satisfied. I got a great t-shirt, a couple gummy hot dogs and a cool new place to send my loyal friends to. Mel’s wife, Anjuli was kind and helpful when I reached out via email to let them know we had selected them for a www.ballnine.com review. As if that wasn’t enough, they’ve been reviewed by everyone’s favorite morning news co-host Charley Belcher!
Go see Mel, his wife Virginia, daughter Anjuli and his hot dog stand that graces Tampa with an authentic Chicago style dog like the ones you can get on a Lake Shore Drive street corner. And don’t forget to tell em #thefoodguy sent cha! (They might actually care this time)
Stay tuned and Stay Hungry. #thefoodguy
The Wizard of Wiener and #thefoodguy™
‘Mel’s Hot Dogs: 4136 East Busch Blvd. Tampa, FL 33617
Rating: (Updated!) A clear cut “Oscar Wiener” – the rating system has changed since our original visit so I had to update the ranking!
Major League Teams: The Tampa Bay Rays
Minor League Teams: Tampa Tarpons
Other Baseball: Spring Training Home to the New York Yankees and the Tampa Baseball Museum, being built in Ybor City, Spring Training homes to the Blue Jays, Pirates and Tigers are close to Tampa as well.
How we rate our meat sticks
- Oscar Wiener (The Best, award winning)
- Best Supporting Meat (The Joe Pesci of hot dogs- never a star, but you need him)
- Nominated Dog (Hey- just getting your name called is a big deal)
- Honorable Mention (Average, Edible- No shame in the game- or bun)
- Drunk David Hasselhoff (You may be on the floor and incoherent after this one)
Also, I wanted to thank all of you who reached out the last couple of weeks. As my family finally got caught up in the Covid net and had to retreat to the friendly confines of our bedroom for two weeks we were blown away by the love and support from all of you. We are healthy, we were lucky, and we have returned to normal life. The amount of messages we got from social media blew us away and I can’t wait to one day thank each of you in person. Wear a mask, take precautions and stay safe out there. We have a lot of stadiums, hot dogs and amazing people to visit and we are humbled to have you tag along for the ride.