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Arts / Culture

The Zest Podcast: Mel's Hot Dogs Has Provided Fun on a Bun Since 1973

If you’re prepping for a Fourth of July cookout or seeking to recreate stadium-quality hot dogs at home, Mel Lohn can help. Alongside his wife, Virginia, Lohn runs Mel’s Hot Dogs—a Tampa institution for nearly five decades. He told us his story on The Zest podcast.

It all started in 1968. Lohn, a Chicagoan and woodwind player, visited Florida with his rock ‘n roll band. He liked the weather and decided to stay.

Lohn went in search of a hot dog stand—in his native Chicago, there was one on seemingly every block—but he came up short. So he decided to start a restaurant.

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He opened Mel’s Hot Dogs on July 3, 1973. “I did $99 worth of business on my first day,” he recalls. And the rest was history.

“Hot dogs have been very, very good to me,” Lohn says.

In the early days, Lohn sold only Chicago-style hot dogs. “I was a purist,” he says. But over the years, he acquiesced to customer demand. Today, the menu includes everything from chili dogs and veggie dogs to hamburgers and fried chicken sandwiches.

Lohn also experimented with Florida-inspired toppings like salsa and guacamole.

“But the reality is, most people want traditional-style hotdogs,” Lohn says. This includes Lohn himself. His favorite? A Vienna Beef hot dog with a thin line of mustard.

Lohn offers these tips for making a better hot dog at home.

1. Don’t be cheap. Use the best-quality ingredients possible, including the condiments. It all adds up to a better hot dog. At around $5 each, Lohn says his hotdogs are relatively expensive. But, he says, you get what you pay for. “Comparing my hot dog to what you buy in a convenience store is like comparing Golden Corral to Bern’s Steak House,” he says.

2. Use all-beef hot dogs. Lohn recommends ordering your meat from Vienna Beef, the Chicago company that’s the gold standard for hot dog aficionados.

3. Don’t overcook it. “A hot dog is a fully cooked item, so all you want to do is heat it up,” Lohn says. Submerge it in hot—but not boiling—water for three to four minutes. “If you boil it, you boil all the flavor out,” Lohn cautions. You can also throw the hot dog on the grill for a few minutes.

4. Steam the bun. Use a double boiler to steam the bun on your stove for two minutes. The result is bread that’s soft and moist. “You’d think they just came out of the oven,” Lohn says.

5. Enjoy immediately. “To me," Lohn says, "if a hot dog’s five minutes old, it’s not good.”