Top Dog

Top Dog in Knoxville, Hot Dog Styling Courtesy of D&B Hot Dogs

In search of the Smoky Mountain Market hot dog

I know a weenie man,

He owns a weenie stand,

He sells most anything,

From hot dogs on down!

Someday I’ll join his life,

I’ll be his weenie wife,

Hot dog! I love that weenie man!

On a recent drive south on Chapman Highway, I noticed that the Smoky Mountain Market has been torn down and only a vacant lot remains. Tears swelled up in my eyes and I made an immediate right turn down Hawthorne Avenue and suddenly experienced a flashback to my childhood.

As a young boy, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother and grandfather at their home on Hawthorne just a half a block from Chapman Highway and the great Smoky Mountain Market hot dog. Every afternoon Nannie would take me by the hand and we would walk together up the hill to the market for lunch. It was a reward for being good all morning. One hot dog with chili, mustard, and onion and a Grapette for me and the same for Nannie. Even today, that is one of the happiest memories of my childhood and my all-time favorite lunch choice.

In college at UT, I spent many late nights choking down three dogs and a Coke or a quart of chocolate milk at good ole SMM, and it was a great spot for a cheap date. Norma and I often had a late night dog after a movie date at the Tennessee Theatre. I ate SMM hot dogs well into my professional years until it closed in 2002. In case you are new to these parts or lived a sheltered life in the west, north, or east ends of the county, the SMM was a South Knoxville institution at the south end of the Henley Street Bridge. It was an open air market with lots of watermelon and bottled pop out front in large open top iced coolers and, inside, a counter that sold a hot dog every 30 seconds, night and day.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve passed by the overgrown and neglected property many times and recalled the great tastes I enjoyed there and the sweet smell of Kern’s bread baking across the street. All of that is gone now, but I’m still in search of the elusive taste of the greatest hot dog in the world.

Although I often eat hot dogs for lunch, I have been involved in a marathon lately in preparation of this article. I’ve been all over the county to make sure I could accurately report to you where you might find a close equivalent to the hot dog I’ve loved all of my life. I’ve thrown up just twice and, after I finish this article, I may not eat another hot dog for a year.

To understand my search, it’s important that you know that there are two types of hot dogs. There is the simple dog and the grotesque dog. Frankly, I prefer the simple hot dog, but respect those who prefer the sloppy, overdressed, and oversized grotesque dog. A simple hot dog, eligible to be considered in my competition against the SMM hot dog circa 1952 – 2002, must meet some basic requirements. Now, hold it right there. Can you believe a grown man is writing a stupid article like this about hot dogs? But, I’m in too far, I must continue.

First, it must have a soft, fresh, and steamed bun. At SMM, the buns were from Kern’s Bakery and they were kept under a stainless hood and steamed constantly from the hot water warming the weenies and chili as they waited to be married to the warm soft bun. I’ve watched this ceremony a thousand times.

Second, the weenies must be soft and limp. Never try to sell me a hard rigid weenie. Cheap weenies make the best hot dogs. The good ones are all beef, standard length, and of small circumference. There is nothing worse than a fat expensive weenie unless it happens to be a mettwurst sausage with white beans (perhaps the subject of a later article).

Top Dog in Knoxville, Hot Dog Styling Courtesy of D&B Hot Dogs

Third, special attention must be given to the chili. Next to the weenie, the chili is the most important part of a SMM hot dog. It was a magic elixir that no one else has captured. 

It must be thin and soupy with minimum body and absolutely no beans unless they are pureed and not visible. I love dark, chunky, and beanie chili with hot tamales, but it disqualifies a hot dog in my competition. Lastly, the onions must be super diced and the mustard must be the standard yellow French’s variety. Deli mustard is good, but it never made it to Chapman Highway.

Using my juvenile taste buds as my guide, I’ve searched Knoxville for years looking for the perfect duplicate for the SMM hot dog and, although I’ve failed to find it, I’ve discovered some close competitors and a few very good non-qualifiers.

Denton’s Big Orange always involves fond aromas and memories for me. The Nan Denton’s Orange Julius at the corner of Gay Street and Clinch Avenue was a part of my life until it closed in 1981. Although Sister Nan sold hot dogs, the big fascination for me and my family was with her corn dog and the Orange Julius drink. Brain freeze. Somewhere along the line, Nan gave it up and members of her family either sold off the Orange Julius name or the rightful owner came back to claim it. Whatever might be the case, today Denton’s makes a very good hot dog, which I consider quite competitive to those hundreds I ate at the end of the Henley Street Bridge. In the old Fouche Building and today on Kingston Pike near Papermill, you can buy a hot dog with probably the best weenie in town. The chili is a little thick and meaty, but, fortunately, contains no beans. The onions and the bun are first class and Denton’s gets extra points for trusting you with their mustard pump. I like hot dog joints where you get access to as much mustard as you want. I like mine on top where I can see it.

In my mind, the Denton hot dog is comparable to the dog at the historic “Original Freezo” at 1305 N. Central Street. When I walked up to the window, my mind traveled back to 1949. As a kid from Lincoln Park, I traveled North Central regularly in the late 40’s and throughout the 1950’s and must have stopped at the Original Freezo hundreds of times for ice cream or milkshakes. I don’t remember ever eating a hot dog there, but once had the world’s best banana split. Funny how you remember things like that. The hot dog was great with a soft steamed bun and a soft weenie. The chili was identical to Denton’s and could have used a little thinning out. By the way, if you intend to stop by the Original Freezo, understand that there’s no indoor dining and outdoor dining is a challenge. I sat in the back of the parking lot at a round concrete picnic table that was probably originally placed there by James White soon after he arrived here fresh from the Revolutionary War. I wasn’t sure it would hold me, but I got through it and, as usual, got a little mustard on my shirt.

Roger’s Place Bar at 8817 Kingston Pike has been one of my stop-off spots for years. It first caught my attention by advertising “The Best Hot Dog in the World.” I knew that was a lie because I had been taught better by Nannie. In Roger’s, you can expect thick cigarette smoke, which kind of contaminates the taste of what is otherwise a very good hot dog. Like at all of my other competitors, I order Roger’s dog with only chili, onion, and mustard on top. Two of Roger’s dogs and a glass of beer are all I need to make my day, but in my SMM competition it comes in high, but not first.

I have been quite impressed with the simple dog at Dave’s Dog House, 7409 Middlebrook Pike. The owner is very nice, but you have to eat in your car. I find that I get twice as much mustard on my shirt when I eat in the car. The dog is very competitive, but the bun is not steamed the way I like it and the chili is, again, too thick. Dave’s (actually Sherri Jenkins’) has many “specialty dogs” and smoked sausage, which did not interest me in the least until after the competition. Petro’s Chili & Chips also has a good dog that compares quite favorably with Denton’s.

Hot Dog Styling Courtesy of D&B Hot Dogs

I’ve interviewed a lot of people as I’ve staggered from hot dog stand to hot dog stand and most are happy to share with me their favorite hot dog joint. The older ones, however, agree with me that their personal favorite was good ole SMM on Chapman Highway. I have discovered, however, several Honorable Mentions that did not make my final cut. Curious Dog at 200 Jackson Avenue demonstrates a keen imagination in their hot dogs and sandwiches, but their wiener is too fat and the dog is too sloppy with chili for me. I got it all over my hands, arms, and shoes. A simple dog can be eaten efficiently in four bites without getting chili all over your face. D & B Hot Dogs and Ice Cream on Oak Ridge Highway at Solway has obtained national recognition for their decorated dogs. While I prefer a more simple taste (which they did have), most of their menu has dogs topped with every ingredient imaginable from tomatoes, peppers, kraut, and Thousand Island dressing, to pickles, barbeque sauce, and maybe even a fortune cookie. 

Although I have not tried it, Tellico Beach Drive-In in Tellico Plains comes highly recommended for their slaw dog, and the next time I get to Blount County I’ve got to try Woody’s Market & Deli on Morganton Road. Woody sounds like my kind of guy who’s been turning out simple dogs like I prefer for years. “Get Your Goodies at Woody’s”– I’ll be there soon.

Oh, by the way, I guess you’re interested in the winner of my little competition, and I’m happy to announce that for my taster – wait for it – the Vol Market #3 at 3400 Western Avenue makes the best SMM-like hot dog in the county. Beyond the hot dog itself, the guys at Vol Market #3 get extra points for creating an atmosphere that, like SMM, is conducive to eating hot dogs. No matter what time you visit the Vol Market, there’s a crowd of people eating hot dogs or standing in line to get one or three. It’s a friendly place full of friendly people from all walks of life, all after the same thing—a simple hot dog that’s close to what was served for 60 years at the south end of the Henley Street Bridge. What’s your favorite hot dog?   

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