Snapper throats at the Bright Star, broiled oysters at Lovoy’s, a slice of coconut cream pie at Johnny Ray’s, a hot dog all the way with a bottle of wine [Grapico] at Pete’s Famous-Birmingham, Alabama has plenty iconic dishes but one went missing last year when Constantine “Gus” Koutroulakis passed away at the age of 81.
As fate would have it I managed to wedge in one last visit to Gus’ legendary hot dog shop just a couple months before he died. He was in a fine feather, getting caught up with an old buddy, and not afraid to have a little fun at my expense either. When I asked for permission to take some pictures inside his hot dog shop he replied “sure, you got any money,” I sheepishly pulled out my wallet and he barked “I’m just having some fun with you, pay up and you can put your billfold away.”
Gus was a character and an anchor tenant on 2nd avenue north in downtown Birmingham. I lost count of how many rock bands I led to his joint over the years. When it came time to feed the band Pete’s Famous was always a good solution to a pack of musician’s hunger pangs.
The history of Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs ran all the way back to 1939 when Gus Koutroulakis’ uncle Pete bought Louis Lunch with the proceeds from a card game. The reported price was $600. Pete’s run was just shy of a decade and nephew Gus took over the operation in 1948.
He remained there til his death in April of 2011.
Most people are unaware of the fact that Birmingham, Alabama has a huge, long running and thriving hot dog industry. Dozens of shops dot the landscape of the city and each one has a unique approach to vending wieners. The secret is almost always in the sauce, and Pete’s had a unique version that reminded me of Christmas. Odd, but it really worked well in confluence with onions, sauerkraut and mustard. Perhaps an acquired taste, but one that thousands of Birmingham-ians relished on a weekly basis.
The classic sides for a Pete’s Famous Hot Dog were a bag of Golden Flake potato chips and a bottle of Grapico. Anyone visiting Birmingham should consider a visit to the Golden Flake factory. At the end of the factory tour, you’ll be given a big paper bag filled with fresh potato chips hot from the fryer. A small cellophane bag purchased with your dog at Gus’ was just as good.
After Gus’ death the little shop in downtown Birmingham closed and the much beloved neon sign found a new home at the Barber Sports Museum.
While news of Gus’ death filled many hot dog lovers with despair, there are still plenty little joints in Birmingham to get your fix. My personal favorite is nearby Lyric Hot Dogs but Sam’s Super Sandwiches in nearby Homewood is also a very good source.
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