From the other side of the counter, the kitchen at Hot Dog Heaven looks impossibly small. Food-truck small. Someone's grilling sausage. Another guy's slicing pastrami. Steamed poppy-seed rolls come out of one stainless steel compartment. Hot dogs from another. The dogs are set on a partitioned wooden tray, where they're dressed with mustard, fluorescent-green relish, onions, pickles, tomatoes, hot peppers and celery salt.
Hot Dog Heaven's fully dressed Chicago-style dog ($3.49) is what every hot dog aspires to be. Made with the all-beef Vienna dogs that got their start in the Windy City in 1893, they're skinless, but snap with every bite. It's unclear which Chicagoan invented this salty, spicy, meaty combination of flavors, but I think I could eat three of them.
But then, I'd miss the char-broiled salami ($6.89), on which thick slices of Vienna Beef salami are charred and served on French bread with mustard, cooked onions and the hot pickled-vegetable mixture known as giardiniera.
Owners Barry and Pamela Star will be starting their 35th year at Hot Dog Heaven on June 19. It is a South Florida original, and a restaurant we ought to treasure. Thousands have stepped into the 5-by-18-foot room that seats a dozen diners perched on stools. This isn't the kind of place you linger.
The menu, says Barry Star, who grew up in Chicago, hasn't changed much in 3 1/2 decades. At one point, he offered chicken sausages with apple and Havarti, but when the company stopped making it, he didn't go looking for a replacement. His customers never noticed.
Some variation of the classic Chicago dog remains the No. 1 seller. Chili or cheese dogs ($3.49) are second.
"I've tried not to be new and improved," he says. "Most people come here because they had something they liked the first time they came."
He does wish, as I do, that more people would try his thinly sliced hot pastrami ($10.25). It has a crispy edge and is loaded onto rye or French bread. The tender Italian beef sandwich ($7.49) is made with thinly sliced beef piled on to French bread and topped with tomato sauce, sautéed green pepper and cooked onion. It's thick, wet and impossible to eat without a fork.
Any meal can me made a combo for $2.89, which gets you a medium soft drink and a choice of french fries, coleslaw or fruit cup. Upgrade to cheese fries for 89 cents, and you get a splash of something indecently cheeselike.
Toward the bottom of the menu under "On the Side" is an item called Chicago beef tamale ($1.49). I was curious. They're 3-ounce cigar-shaped rolls. No corn husk here, just cumin-seasoned ground beef wrapped in a corn mixture. They're about as far from authentic Mexican as you can get. Star remembers them from childhood, when his parents would give him $1. That would buy two hot dogs and a soft drink, and he'd have enough left over to buy a 10-cent tamale. "It's an acquired taste of our past," he says.
After three decades, the Stars know what they're doing, and that sometimes means not caving to every whim of every customer. That would slow down the efficiency that is Hot Dog Heaven.
No, they won't toast your bun. They don't own a toaster. Toasting would take up valuable grill space, and what if the guy behind you sees your order and wants all 30 of his dogs done the same way?
The same goes for slicing your hot dog and grilling it just like your mother used to do. Not at Hot Dog Heaven.
101 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
Cuisine: Hot dogs and sandwiches
Hours: 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Reservations: Not that kind of place
Credit cards: D, MC, V
Sound level: Noisy when busy
Outside smoking: Yes
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot