Lyric Hot Dogs: A little Hall and Oates for your dining pleasure

Lyric hot dogsIt’s as if my whole reason for walking to Lyric Hot Dogs was wrong. I wanted a quick lunch — and a little adventure. Someplace I hadn’t been in all the years I have worked downtown. And in some hopeful breeze wafting through my ear, I heard something about it being national hot dog day.

Which it isn’t. Lies. All Lies.

So, here I am today, having visited an iconic hot dog stand* in Birmingham (on 3rd Ave. across from the Alabama Theater), availing myself on not just a hot dog but also giving their cheeseburger a try. And yes, I did have medicos standing by …

* Now, I do like a good hot dog, but for the most part … the most part … Birmingham’s hot dog history is more a story of successful Greek immigration to the area (follow the link to an interesting video by the Southern Food Alliance on hot dog stand history in Bham). It’s a better story than a dog, and today that story is quickly fading away as old hot dog stand** stalwarts like Pete’s and Tony’s Terrific downtown have gone the way of the bag phone. But for me, I prefer a real Chicago dog or even a Lucky Dog from Nawleans. 

** And have you considered that in the lexicon of food, you visit a hot dog stand, but you visit a burger joint, not a burger stand. I’d posit that we use those words for good reason. A stand connotes a food of individuality. Have you ever watched people eat a hot dog? They hunch over, with that nervous look. Come on now, in your mind, is it a food that you enjoy with company around you, or is your natural inclination to find a corner and devour the tube steak in a inhalation of gluttony.

Let me leave you with this, brothers and sisters: a joint is something where two or more things come together … let your mind wander on that one.

What came together at the Lyric was a hot dog that is served at a nostalgic, downtown stand. At that stand, it keeps its bastard cousin, the cheeseburger, around for grins and giggles. It’s us outsiders who see that the burger is just not as loved and not as popular as the favored son.

To keep a lyrical theme, the burger there is the culinary equivalent of Darryl Hall and John Oates. Guess who gets second billing, and for good reason. Or lets put it this way, if the burger had a bushy mustache, they’d almost favor.

The burger was a pre-made patty (so is the hot dog, which on some level I kind of appreciate). But, I kid you not, I had to open the bun and look inside to make sure that there was a patty. Upon inspection, the burger was bathed in “special sauce,” the same type of special sauce that bathes countless dogs in the city. A sauce which has its roots in Greek food – a sweet and spicy (almost barbeque quality), almost tangy sauce that is good. But in this town, there must be some ordinance that any food including the aforementioned sauce must be drenched/bathed/baptized/rolling in it.

Oh, and a pickle slice that nearly covered the entire patty. While it’ll give you an idea of the size of the patty, the pickle was too big for comfort. I was kind of intimidated.

I’d rate this burger in line with what you’d get at Milo’s, but a bit better. A bit. If you’re looking for a great burger, it ain’t here. To borrow for John Oates greatest piece, check out the  #7 song of the 80s according to VH1. I think this song speaks for how I feel.

Hot Dogs

Now, a few words from our sponsor, the noble hot dog. The Lyric is REALLY a hot dog stand. It’s a place to listen to the 700 Club and chat with others who work downtown. The hot dogs are good enough and for Birmingham, they are some of the more consistent and historic in town.

I prefer the special dog at the Lyric – no onion. That leaves it with mustard, meat sauce (which does give me pause, but if you’re hot dogging it in the first place, it’s best to check your fears and persnicketiness at the door) and that ever-present special sauce – that is special at Sneaky Petes, Jimmy’s, Gus’ and several other special locations around the city.

But sometimes, like when you’ve let yourself be convinced that its national hot dog day when it really isn’t … or you’ve been beating yourself up about goofy stuff and you just need some comfort food, then a hot dog can perk you up. It almost always makes me smile.

Ratings – I’m not going there for the burger at the Lyric. I hope you understand. It’s like kicking a puppy. If you want to go, get a hot dog.

But I will give special kudos to a very interesting website. If you want a quick primer about hot dog stands in Bham, read the history section.

Lyric Hot Dog & Grill on Urbanspoon


Tony’s (Pelham) — A burger from the A-Team

I can’t completely explain why I love the burgers at Tony’s. When I was a kid, I had a similar experience, not with food, but with television. The 80’s were the peak of pointless, scripted programming. While these shows can’t hold a candle in the mind-numbing qualities of Jersey Shore, the Bachelorette or Toddlers and Tiaras, etc, I was mesmerized by the likes of Riptide, Manimal, Dukes of Hazzard* and … the A-Team.

* Though I should note that the Dukes of Hazzard did reach an unwatchable level when the brain boxes at CBS replaced the leads in the show with other redneck cousins. Maybe we can start a movement that when a show makes a stupid move like replacing its lead characters (Bo and Luke Duke in this case) we can say that the show has now “Coy and Vanced.” **

** Similar to how “jumping the shark” is used when a show, like the Fonz in Happy Days, makes a creative waterskiing jump from novelty to stupidity.

Tony's BurgersTony’s (located near the intersection of Valleydale Road and Hwy 31 in the Publix Shopping Center) is like the A-Team for me. I can’t completely tell you why I like it. The show made about as much sense as having Mr. T lead a Girl Scout Troop. Ex-special forces guys going around doing good deeds, shooting massive amounts of ammo and no one ever getting shot. Four guys living in a van. Plots as predictable as every episode of CSI or American Idol.

But I would still watch. Every week. The only difference between Tony’s and the A-Team? Tony’s is a lot more satisfying.

What I can tell you are things that really draw me to Tony’s. First, it is a true family restaurant – family in execution and ownership. On any given day (they’re open M-Sat, breakfast and lunch), you find the owner and his wife working the grill.

Tony’s has a burger/grill pedigree, it’s just not the one most people assume. Joe, of the Pelham Tony’s, has connections to Sneaky Pete’s owners, but he’s not related to the Tony of the now-closed Tony’s Terrific Hot Dogs in downtown Birmingham.

After a few visits, you’ll notice that the clientele at Tony’s consists of many regulars. There is no “Welcome to Moe’s.” But you might hear, “How’s your momma?” or catch Joe’s wife trying to make someone’s kid laugh.

Does Tony’s use only heirloom tomatoes? Only local cattle, hand-fed grass clipping from a velvet glove? Inspect every potato?

In a word, no. But when you eat a burger there, you won’t care, either. It is just – hands down – one of the best you’ll find in the area. The whole experience is one of the best. I’m also throwing a shameless plug for a good dog here. That aside, man I love me some Tony’s Jumbo Cheeseburger.

Tony's CheeseburgerAt Tony’s, you can watch them put your massive burger together. The meat is fresh, thrown on a grill, seasoned appropriately. The Jumbo Cheeseburger is straightforward – lettuce, pickles, tomato, onions on a sesame seed bun. He goes heavier on the mayo.

And the first taste is just divine. It’s a guilty pleasure of life. It’s one of those places where the burger is so good, so deliciously decadent in its simplicity that I look past possible shortcomings of the place.

And that’s where I understand it also. The burger is terrific. I’d put Tony’s burger up against Chez Fonfon, Stadium Grill and Green Valley Drugs. But I go back because eating there and being a part of the life of the owners and the people you meet there is like going home.

And that’s part of the allure of a burger to me. It’s not completely about going out and finding the greatest pieces and assembling the Yankees of the burger world (the best team you could buy). Sometimes, instead of a white table cloth and a polite waiter, I want an owner who comes over to my table to see how my kids are doing and pulls out a photo of her baby to show. It more than welcoming; it’s feeling like you are a part of the place.

You see, we can’t always put into words why some place makes us feel at home, but we know that comfort when we feel it. And that, my fellow burger lovers, is as organic an experience as you’ll likely ever have.

Meat – 9.25 … Hand-made patties, cooked on a grill to just the right amount of greasy goodness. The meat has a good, garlic/onion-salt flavor. I don’t know how they do it so consistently, but the mix of the burger, the seasonings on it and just a touch of mayo is burger magic. This place gets the Samuel L. Jackson “Tasty Burger” seal of approval.

Bun and fixins’ 8.5 – Nothing fancy here, but if you do it right, it doesn’t need to be fancy. They also serve a tasty bacon cheeseburger here.

Sides – 7.5 … Huh??? When I was a kid, sometimes when I had to mow the grass before my favorite shows came on, I’d run out and literally run behind the push mower to get through quickly (which leaves a really bad mowing job). I usually eat my crinkle fries first, here … for similar reasons.

Service & Presentation – 8.5 … You might think that they wouldn’t get a lot of points for presentation, but to me, if you run a short-order grill and you serve things on throw-away plates and paper, that’s fine. And the people are the nicest.

Ambiance – 9 … Did you just read the review?

Bonus X – +1 … “Bless me, father … I confess that some of my children visit Tony’s and don’t eat a burger. They eat the hot dog. But I can’t make myself order a burger and dog at the same time for myself – though I REALLY WANT TO — it seems too sinful.”

Rating — AA-

Tony's Hot Dog's on Urbanspoon

Beautimous Besto Pesto Burgers — a Beautimous Original

Ever since my trip to Rogue Tavern and the somewhat disappointing experience with the pesto sliders, I’ve been making plans to make my own pesto burgers. Now, I didn’t start this blog – initially – to share the various things that I throw together for meals (though I have been cajoled more than once to write my reci … well, I can’t even call them “recipes,” usually, because mostly it’s cooking by the Force).

I am no professional chef. My experience at cooking is trial and an exceptional comfort-level with error. I’m not a card-carrying foodie, though I appreciate the ideals. But God love ‘em, it’s just not practical every time.

That said, I’m going to share my newest creation – following the Beautimous’ squire naming of it – the Besto Pesto Burger. For the complete meal, obviously, suit yourself, but I’ll share what I prepared. Let’s just agree at the onset that it’s more of a food guideline … because I didn’t use a recipe to make it.

Besto Pesto Burgers

I have a basil plant that is freakin’ out of control. So, as a wildlife management tactic, I dedicated myself to making homemade pesto. I consulted several recipes … and then pretty much like always, I modified. Normal or not, here are the “food guidelines” for my pesto:

Besto Pesto

  • 3-5 cups of fresh basil, cup up
  • 1&1/2 tablespoons chopped garlic (fresh or canned)
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 to 1&1/2 cups of shredded Romano cheese (any hard cheese will work).
  • 2 tablespoons parsley
  • 2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar or white wine vinegar
  • At least 4 tablespoons olive oil (extra virgin or light), probably more
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Note this will make a lot more than you’ll need for the burgers. You can save in the fridge for several days or freeze for a couple months.

  1. Besto Pesto -- Pesto Burger mixPlace all the ingredients, except the vinegar and oil (and s&p) in a blender (or food processor). Pour in the vinegar and 2-3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Blend on lowest speed. You’ll probably need to stop and scrape the side occasionally.
  2. Add more oil, as needed. What you’re trying to achieve is a certain consistency in the mix – chopped, wet, pasty but not liquefied (see the rough, gross photo for an idea … it’s the best I could do, the pesto’s almost gone!).  If you need more than 4 tablespoons, go for it … get it to the consistency that you want.
  3. Taste it … then add salt and pepper as you want (around a tablespoon or less). Voila. You’ve got pesto. What does it yield? I don’t know. A bunch of pesto!

Besto Pesto BurgerBesto Pesto Burger – Grilled
Yields about 6-8 patties

  • 2 lbs of ground beef (80/20 … don’t use lean meat and don’t go for the 73/27 either)
  • Besto Pesto Mix … and yes, you COULD use sto’ bought pesto. I won’t be around to tattle on you.
  • Sliced yellow tomato (or whatever kind)
  • Sliced Purple onion
  • Sliced mozzarella cheese
  • Romaine lettuce leafs
  • Loaf of French Bread
  • Condiments to suit
  1. Fire up the old grill and let it get to a good medium-low heat
  2. Thoroughly mix 2 tablespoons of the pesto into a quarter pound of the meat.
  3. Repeat until you have all burgers ready for the grill.
  4. Cook on low to medium-low heat 5-7 minutes on each side or until done to your liking. WARNING (Other than the ones that you should know about cooking safety … these burgers are oily and likely to have flash flames on the grill. Keep some water handy, don’t flip more than necessary and DON’T PRESS).
  5. Also place the purple onion on the grill. Prep in favorite way to keep it from sticking.
  6. Onion is done when it is has some scorching … this is delicious (caramelized sugars on the onion).
  7. When the meat is cooked, build your burger. Serve on French bread topped with tomato, some grilled onions, a slice of mozzarella cheese, lettuce and whatever condiments are to your liking (suggest mayo and very light mustard).

Besto Pesto Burgers with mashed potatoes and steam squashWe ate these burgers with a strange combo that only could have been demanded by family and what needed to be cooked in the fridge … homemade garlic cheese mashed potatoes and steamed summer squash.

Let me know how this works for you … It was a hit around here.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries – Therapy and a burger to bind them

Five guys burgers and friesI’m convinced that if I keep up this quest to find the best burger experience in Birmingham I’m going to need serious medication or serious therapy, maybe both. After a recent trip to Five Guys Burgers and Fries in Hoover, Alabama, I’m going to let you be the judge … about the therapy part (I’m still doing the reviews around here).

You don’t mind if I lay down on this couch do you? I’m old fashioned that way.

“It all began when I was a child. Well, actually, it began several years ago, when this chain-burger-place movement started. And I started having these dreams … I would be running in a field of flowers, the wind blowing through my chain mail. And I would come to this castle. Wrapped in shimmering samite, a burger would rise over the castle, and I would hear these voices.

“‘Seek out a true burger. But beware … One burger to rule them all. One burger to find them. One burger to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.’”

I’ve been scared of the bind part ever since … I get mentally bound by Five Guys, and to an extent all the other chain casual-dining burger places. I’m drawn by the seductive food, because it is typically good. But like the one true ring, it serves another master. You may be able to harness the power of those places and have a delicious meal, but you do it at the expense of individuality (like Smeagol being turned to Gollem).

And no, I’m not saying that these places are evil. For consistency and efficiency, they have a decent common experience that is still somewhat contrived and plasticized.

So my mania on this topic is crystal clear: I do like Five Guys food. The burger is cooked well, so there is no confusion on what you’ll get, but they also don’t allow the burger to become dried out or overcooked. Also they tout that they only use fresh meat, not frozen or pre-made (that’s clear from the patty). They are so proud of the freshness that — according to their website — there aren’t freezers at Five Guys.

It’s is a succulent experience of grease in all its beauty. They also offer a long list of toppings that you can choose, all at no extra charge, including all the usual suspects and unusual (free) ones like mushrooms, grilled onions, jalapenos and A-1 Steaksauce.

I had my burger with “The Works” – which is pretty much the burger equivalent of “the normal stuff.” Also note, the only real difference between the small and large on the menu is the number of patties on your burger, two for the latter.

Lest I go on about the burger, let me cut to the fries. Five Guys is proud of their fries, that they are fresh, made in-house and cooked in peanut oil (if you have a loved one with peanut allergies, consider this place unclean). They truly are a work of art – greasy art. When you walk in, you see bags of potatoes. When they emerge in their fry form, they are crispy, lightly salted, pieces of peel and with that hint of salty/sweetness that cooking in peanut oil brings.

First timers should know that a large fries is enough to feed several people. Unless I miss my guess, they fill a 16 oz. cup to the brim and then, per corporate guidelines (I assume) dump some extra into your paper bag. It leaves a greasy stain that I suggest ignoring. Focus on inhaling them before you put extra thought into things such as calories, fat — the large fry weighs in at more than 1,400 calories.

Probably this approach is best all the way around. While the experience at Five Guys may not be unique, it is consistent and a worthy burger.

Points are 1-10 (ten being the best)

Meat – 8.5 … This is an example of a burger place that uses fresh meat, but lets the meat do the talking. Not a lot of seasoning and served seared (sealing in juices).

Bun and fixins’  — 7 … Have it your way … A sesame seed bun and then whatever you select to go on it. Nothing really exceptional about all this part of the experience. And as a side note, I prefer places that offer the burger a specific way. It lends itself to a better feel for what really works on it.

Sides – 9.5 … As close to fry nirvana as you are likely to get. I guess you could improve them by not making them so bad for you.

Service & Presentation – 6 … A sack … and order at the counter. I don’t know if I am at a sit down place or at Hardees.

Ambiance – 6 … Décor at Five Guys is boring. Plus, I really dislike all the clips of their accolades in other cities. It’s overkill. And while I believe that they have a great product, why not just let a good burger speak for itself.

Bonus X – Not this time.

Rating – A

Five Guys Burgers and Fries on Urbanspoon

The Beautimous Grading System; or More S&P Vagaries for your Food Pleasure

If Satchel Paige had been a restaurant reviewer, he probably would have said “Don’t look back, because something might look different as you get farther away.” Or maybe Yogi Berra would have said it. For me, as I look back on the burger joints that I’ve visited since starting the Beautimousburger blog, it might be helpful for the intrepid readers to have a short-hand for my reviews. Sometimes, I might love a place and have a problem with the food, or vice versa. But what’s the bottom line?

Since a blog of this type offers one of the purest opportunities available to refer to oneself in the third person, beautimous will take the opportunity to be annoying as only someone writing in the third-person can be. For those who know and appreciate beautimous, you know it’s more likely than not that he holds disparate opinions of the same place at the same time: the “I love you and loathe you” in the same breath.

So, what beautimous has done is shake it all together and assigned a letter grade, kind of like the fairly random grades assigned by Harold Weber
in my grad school classes or by S&P. And since S&P and credit ratings seem all the rage these days, beautimous thought, “Why not me?  The grades are loosely based on the credit ratings assigned by S&P, Moodys and Fitch. And trust me, they are just as confusing …

For reference AAA is the highest rating – it’s the pinnacle, unchallenged and no chance of a bad experience at all. With ratings AA+, AA, AA-, they
represent the top experiences; Single digit “A’s” give way to BBB, the BB+ and so on. BB+ and lower and you’re in sketchy territory; a C (or lower) would be short for “caution” cause you’re in for something unpleasant …

For a brief overview of these ratings … consult the online encyclopedia

Without further adieu, here are the grades (in order that the review was completed):

Rogue Tavern – A+

Chez Fonfon – A+

Mugshots – BBB+

Great Southern Café – A+

Rotiers – AA

Stadium Grill – AA-

Hamburger Heaven (280) – BB-

Purple Onion (Southside) –CCC

Green Valley Drugs — A

Rogue Tavern: Just like the word — unexpected and charmingly one-of-a-kind

Burgers and words have a lot in common, another reason I like both. Burgers can be simple – meat and bun – and it’s still a burger. Cover it with an array of crap from every aisle in the grocery store; it’s still a burger. Burger/words are beautiful in their simplicity and sublime in their complexity. So, you know a place named Rogue Tavern (RT) – with a multiplicity of burgers – would have more than a passing interest for me.

Rogue Tavern (and if you are also limited in life by less than ideal keyboarding skills, you understand that by this point I’ve types Rouge as many times as I’ve typed Rogue) Tavern is part of a redevelopment effort on 2nd Ave. North in Birmingham (otherwise known as the loft district). It’s on the same block as the uber-delicious Urban Standard and Pale Eddies Pourhouse.

Rogue BurgerBut Rogue was the first, living up to it’s name. And the burgers on the menu at Rogue have always been part of their pub-ish fare. Even as a pub, they go rogue from the traditional, introducing novel, and delicious choices on the menu like Mahi, a chili-rubbed steak and more.

On the day I went at lunch with work friends, we went to sample burgers – and because it could make a case to be low-carb (I guess). I tried three different burgers, and I admit, I was roguish in my choice.

That day featured a special, pesto sliders. In biology, when a plant grows unwanted or unbidden, it’s a rogue; I kind of feel the same about sliders. But inspired by the place, I ordered it (though I will add that I asked if I could get it on a grown-up burger). In fact, we ordered two sliders (one pesto, one black and blue) and shared. Another ordered a Rogue Burger with blue cheese. Both come with Rogue’s signature chips.

Slider from Rogue TavernSliders can be misleading – IMO – you get less of a burger experience and more bun. On the ones we had that day, the triplets were like a trip to the beach: too much uncovered flesh. Several bites were really just meat and bun.

Nevertheless, the burgers at Rogue are some of the city’s best. The full burger at the table was MUCH better than my sliders, though if more attention and care were given in their preparation, they would be equally delicious. The place does get crowded, at times, and I’ve seen the wait staff stretched more than once.

In addition to being a place to find a tasty burger, it’s also a pretty good bar, with a decent beer menu and a good atmosphere for local music.

Points are 1-10 (ten being the best)

Meat – 8.5 … The meat had a nice flavor, not too salty. But they committed a personal pet peeve – in asking how I wanted it cooked and then not. I’m not sure that you can easily cook a slider medium. I also didn’t get a clear answer where the meat came from, except from a Sysco … Nevertheless, it was fresh and hand-made.

Bun and fixins’ 8.5 or 6 – This is a “what-there-was-of-it” vote. This bites that had fixins’ were great; the ones without were … lonely. I’d like to have a full-on pesto burger from there. Side note: the other full-one Rogue Burger was vastly superior to the pint-sized pretenders, meat more accurately cooked, sides more consistent, better overall taste.

Sides – 9 … “I love the chips at Rogue Tavern.” There I said it, I hope that this flash of honesty will inspire them to love me back … They are hand sliced and made there. Seasoned gently and crunchy, think of them as the really cute cousin of the fry.

Service & Presentation – 7 … The servers are usually a bit harried here because it’s busy. It’s not a complicated place. They try to make the presentation interesting, spice things up with “sliders” but really, why?

Ambiance – 8 … I have had more than one good experience here. The crowd is usually fun.

Bonus X – +1 … In my book, you get extra points for having a good beer selection with a burger. And since this IS my book, voila.

Rogue Tavern on Urbanspoon

Beautimous Burger Turn Offs — Let’s share …

I’ve eaten a lot of burgers in 42 years. I’ve had them with jalapenos, peanut butter or as blank as a beige wall. I craved them when I was a kid, even getting my grandfather to buy them for me for breakfast from McDonalds.

So, I know what I like; and I know what I don’t like.

I’ve been thinking about a burger place or restaurant: What would instantly get me lathered up? What starts the negative juices flowing? Here is a list, in no particular order, of things burger-related that get under my skin …

Places that ask you how you want your burger cooked only to cook it the way they cook all their burgers — I understand the court-inspired safety of medium well or well done. But if you ASK me and I say that I want it medium, then you’ve kind of set my expectation. If you’re going to cook it around well-done anyway, just don’t ask how I want it.

Too much salt – Ugghh. Salt should be to a meal like white noise is to going to sleep. If you notice it, you’re screwed and you’ll be listening to it. But when perfect, it’s almost unnoticed. Too much salt has become a cheap sales gimmick at a lot of bar/pub places (probably to sell more of the higher margin drinks) … see Mugshots/Tilted Kilt.

Pre-bussing my table – Okay, this isn’t really burger specific. I realize the need to turn the table. I realize that time is money, but I don’t like
being rushed (who does?). And questions like “You still working on that?” or variations on “Are you through yet?” drink me crazy. Ask if I’d like some of the stuff cleared, maybe, or better yet … wait until I’ve left.

Onions – The epicenter of my personal wishy-washiness about burgers is the onion. Some days, I don’t mind them, but often I find that the onion
overpowers all the other flavor of the burger. A strong onion will be the most dominant taste and it’s the taste that sticks with you. It’s the loud,
drunk friend of the burger world. You invite him to your party, but you know that he’s gonna get loud and completely blitzed, probably say things
you don’t want and be an complete ass. So, do you invite or not?

Uneven distribution – If you believe in all the stuff you’re putting on your burger, be bold, okay. Make sure that you spread enough around to go on every bite. If you leave sections untouched, I might get a less than tasty surprise.

Limp fries – There is a way too easy analogy here that I will just leave, as we say, hanging. Undercooked. Overcooked. Left in the heat lamp too long. I don’t care why. Crispy and hot are the only way.

From Beautilicious  … Ranch Dressing — She doesn’t do ketchup and ALWAYS asks for ranch dressing for her fries. Nothing worse than not having it or being charged for a ketchup-equivalent.

Do you have any special peeves that I missed? Leave a comment and share.

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