Friday, July 15, 2011

Sophia's and Looking for the Twilight Zone

This week we went back to downtown Birmingham. I must confess that I really enjoy going downtown; and as far as hot dogs go, there are lots of choices. It seems that hot dogs have gotten a great deal of "press" recently after the death of Gus Koutroulakis. It was one of these articles that led us to Sophia's Deli.

But before I get to Sophia's, the article that led us there is in the July 2011 issue of Birmingham Magazine. You can read the article Here. Robert and I noticed a couple of inaccuracies in the article, but it is a fun read with lots of good pictures. Take a look.

So where is Sophia's? It's right at the corner of Reverend Abraham Woods Jr. Boulevard and Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard (previously known as 8th Avenue North and 21st Street). They are right on the corner on the lowest level of the parking deck at the Jefferson County Court House. Those who have had to serve jury duty, buy a car tag, renew a drivers license or handle other county related business have likely seen this place.

The surprise is that it when you go in, it is bigger than it looks from outside. Another surprise is that there is a George Sarris look-alike who works there. The owner, Howard Faulk named his deli after his wife, Sofia, who happens to be the sister of George Sarris, the very successful owner of the Fish Market restaurant on Southside. But, it doesn't end there, George's brother, Nick Sarris works at Sophie's, thus the George Sarris look-alike. I must say, these Greek restauranteurs in Birmingham not only know each other, but all seem to be related. That is something that the Birmingham Magazine article alludes to, even if some of the details are wrong.

Howard Faulk & Nick Sarris

Here we were at Sophia's. Sophia was nowhere around due to family issues, but her husband, Howard did a wonderful job of greeting us. We always enjoy interacting with one of these proprietors who is a "people person", and Howard is one. We didn't have to go out of our way to interact with him.

He has been in the hot dog business in Birmingham for decades. Before opening Sophia's he had Toms Hot Dogs located on the southeast corner of 19th Street and 2nd Avenue North, right across from Pizitz. He is proud to show off the first prize ribbon and certificate he won in a competition between all the downtown hot dog stands many years ago. Several of the businesses he competed with are no longer in business; the competition is down. But the fact is that Howard and Sophia were judged to serve the best hot dog in Birmingham many years ago.

How are they today? They are still good. They are served hot and freshly grilled unlike many vendors who serve them warm after they were grilled at some point in the past. Robert was also impressed that they had real fresh lemon available for tea. Sophia's, like all the other hot dog stands in Birmingham, makes their own hot dog sauce, with their own recipe, similar to the others yet unique. These recipes are a closely guarded secret by each maker. Sophia's sauce is prepared by Sophia herself and even Howard isn't sure about the recipe. Her sauce is different, unlike any we have encountered so far. It is loaded with various seasonings and has a flavor that definitely makes these dogs stand out. As usual we ordered both a chili dog and a regular hot dog all the way. There was no discussion as to what they should put on them. Robert and I agreed that we preferred the hot dog to the chili dog at Sophia's. That's a switch for me because I tend to like the chili dogs better.

On this visit for some reason I noticed particularly the pricing on drinks and chips. Both are priced at $1.99; you might as well say two dollars. This is typical for fountain drinks especially where the customer can get refills like at Sophia's. Even so there is a healthy markup making drinks a profit center. The chips (small bags) at two dollars a bag seem a little high to me. I don't particularly like playing games with prices, but this isn't the only place where this happens, so I certainly don't want to reflect negatively on Sophia's.

It was interesting to talk with Howard. He really whetted our appetites for learning a little more history. He was adamant that he could tell the true history of the Birmingham hot dog stands. It has made me want to interview not only him but the other old timers at length. Who knows, maybe we will be able to assemble the definitive history of hot dogs in Birmingham. There is most definitely a unique history here compared with most cities.

A couple of final thoughts about Pete's Famous Hot Dogs. It looks like Pete's will never reopen as it was. Gus had planned on taking his secret sauce recipe with him to the grave and seems to have done so. The wonderful neon sign on his shop has been removed and is reported to be on it's way to the Barber Motor Sports Museum. Yes, Birmingham will miss this unique establishment; but there are still some great hot dogs being served by some long time vendors in town. Try Lyric just a couple of blocks away and Gus's over on Fourth. Sauce is just sauce. I don't think there is any recipe that is so good that it shouldn't be shared with heirs; nor do I think that a flourishing business should die simply because the owner dies. Of course that's only my opinion.

Finally, despite the challenge, we didn't make it to the "hot dog guy at Mazer's on the weekends". We tend to do these excursions during a weekday lunch and don't get together on weekends. We actually pulled in the Mazer's parking lot Friday at lunch; but the hot dog guy wasn't there so we headed on downtown to Sophia's. I wonder where this guy is during the week? Could he be the illusive hot dog guy at Cooper Green that we could never find? Maybe he or they are actually residents of the Twilight Zone.