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Not many cities have a signature hot dog. There’s Chicago (poppy seed bun, relish, pickles, tomatoes), Detroit (essentially a Coney Island dog with chili, mustard, raw onion), and New York (relish, sauerkraut, brown mustard).

Then there’s the Birmingham dog, or as it’s been called through the years in numerous hot dog stands owned by Greek immigrants and their offspring, the “Special Dog.”

It’s a griddled dog—one with a good snap from a natural casing—in a steamed bun with sauerkraut, yellow mustard, seasoned ground beef or chili, and a signature house sauce usually made from a secret recipe.  

A Special Dog from Lyric Hot Dogs (The Collins Bar/Facebook)

In the first half of the 20th century, Birmingham’s Greek community practically cornered the city’s hot dog market, relishing in the entrepreneurial opportunities presented by a growing labor market in the city center.

As high-rise office buildings sprang up in the Magic City, hot dog stands followed nearby, dishing portable, inexpensive lunches to workers.

They’re a tasty chapter in the story of Birmingham.

Tony Kandalis opened Tony’s Coney in 1919 on Second Avenue North; Harry Pasisis, who married Tony’s granddaughter, Tasia, ran it from 1953 until it closed in 1984.

In 1939, Pete Koutroulakis used $300 he won in a card game to buy into a business that he later renamed Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs. Constantine “Gus” Koutroulakis, Pete’s nephew, started working there in 1948, eventually taking ownership. “Uncle Gus,” as he was known, stooped over the griddle for 63 years, working until the day he died in 2011. It closed soon after.

You can still get one of Gus Alexander’s Special dogs at a tiny stand on Fourth Avenue North that he opened in 1947. The original Gus’s Hot Dogs has had four owners over the years, all with roots in Greece including today’s proprietor, Lee Pantazis.

A Special Dog being made at Gus’s (Gus’s Hot Dogs/Facebook)

Birmingham-based Sneaky Pete’s, a franchise with locations throughout north Alabama, may be the most familiar outside the city. It was founded in 1966 by Pete Graphos, followed by locations owned by his brothers, Sam and Jimmy, and other future restaurateurs like Greg Pappas (Pappas’s Grill in Vestavia Hills).

Pete sold the franchise in 1986, and became a successful Realtor. Sam rebranded his Homewood location as Sam’s Super Sammiches, but still dishes his family’s signature Special. Jimmy, who died in 2016, renamed his location Jimmy’s Hot Dogs and Burgers.

Jimmy and his father, Ted, learned the hot dog business working at—and eventually running—Lyric Hot Dogs in downtown Birmingham’s theater district. Greek-born John Collins opened it in 1957.

Collins’ son, Andrew, owned Lyric dogs for some 30 years before he was forced to close it in 2013 amid renovations to the historic Lyric Theater where the hot dog stand was housed.

Andrew revived Lyric’s dogs in 2017, putting his father’s franks on the menu of his downtown cocktail establishment, The Collins Bar.

Not all hot doggeries that serve Birmingham-style dogs trace their roots to the Peloponnesus peninsula in southwestern Greece. You can find them at Tony’s in Pelham, The Standard Birmingham inside the Pizitz Food Hall, and Bama Hot Dogs in Tarrant.

When you bite into a Birmingham dog, you’re not just getting the flavors of seasoned meat, soft bread, crunchy slaw, and savory Greek spices. You’re tasting history.