“I can think of all sorts of weird stuff to put on a hot dog, and we’ll see if it works,” says Tom Bagby. That’s the ethos, in a nutshell, of Hot Diggity Dogs, the newest restaurant to open in Avondale. Located at 420 42st St S, above Fancy’s on 5th — also a new addition to the neighborhood’s increasingly stacked lineup of eateries — Hot Diggity Dogs features a menu of variations on the classic hot dog, from the standard Birmingham Dog (topped with mustard, onions, kraut and sauce) to the “Emperor Gochujang” dog (Gochujang sauce, slaw, pickled onion and Korean barbecue sauce).
The menu is the brainchild of Bagby, a former chef and manager at the Bottletree Café — and it’s already drawn an enthusiastic response to the fledgling restaurant, which opened on July 29. Recently, Bagby spoke about the crafting the restaurant’s menu and what it means to be a hot dog joint in Birmingham.
Weld: What inspired you to create a restaurant specifically dedicated to hot dogs?
Tom Bagby: Hot dogs are a very Birmingham thing whether people know it or not. Most people outside of Birmingham don’t know just how big of a hot dog town Birmingham actually is. There used to be tons of [hot dog restaurants] all over town.
[But] Lyric Hot Dog closed, Jimmy Graphos [owner of Jimmy’s Hot Dogs] just passed away last year, Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs shut down… There were a lot of the classic places going by the wayside. I don’t have any idea that I want to be a new torch-bearer or anything like that, but just to be able to continue with it, along with some other people in town — it’s like, “Come on, it’s hot dogs, it’s Birmingham. Let’s keep doing it.”
Weld: A lot of the hot dogs offered here feature ingredients that aren’t usually associated with hot dogs, like pickled ginger or pineapple relish. How did you arrive at those combinations?
Bagby: Menus are something I do for fun anyways. If I’m in my off time, I’ll think of weird stuff to eat. With hot dogs, you have a palette. You have the bun and you have the frank. There’s your flavor profile. Well, here we’re using all beef dogs or tofu dogs, not pork or chicken. So there’s your canvas right there. What do you put on it?
Well, let’s think. It’s beef. That’s a solid structure. Beef is big in Japan. So will things like surimi salad and pickled ginger and seaweed work on it? Yeah, I’ve had those flavors blend before at a sushi place or a Japanese place. Okay, there’s [the Sayonara Dog].
[Another is] The Canadog. That’s got gravy. Well, beef goes with gravy. Potatoes, onions, cheese… Yes, do it! And it just goes from there.
We think about what’s going to be good [and] we’ll try it. If it’s terrible, we’ll take it off. So far, we’re one week in and nobody’s said anything was terrible, so I’m going to keep everything on there right now.
Menus are kind of like puzzles for me. I really like them. I’ve got notebooks full of them at home. I love reading menus at other places. I love reading cookbooks and going, “Whoa, they’re going to put this with that?” I’m a fairly adventurous eater, so there’s a lot of stuff I’ll try if it sounds interesting on a menu. To put a new twist or whatever you want to call it on a classic thing, that’s just something I think is really neat and special.
Weld: There certainly seems to be plenty of room on the menu for experimentation, moving forward.
Bagby: Once we get our feet a little bit more up underneath us, a couple of weeks in, I’m going to start bringing in other stuff, doing specials, things like that. We can bring in some boudin, some andouille. Oh, this guy’s making a shrimp and crawfish sausage, let’s look at that! I’ve seen salmon franks in the store, so there’s something interesting we can do with that.
I’m definitely going to be bringing in specials. The menu will be fairly lockstep, but we’ll have daily and weekly specials. And we’ve got rotating desserts… some really rock-solid dessert ideas with ice cream and goat cheese tarts and stuff like that.
Weld: How did you first start cooking?
Bagby: I started cooking at home when I was a kid. Both my parents worked and so a lot of times I would have to make my own lunch or breakfast, stuff like that.
As far as cooking professionally, it was purely by accident. I had no designs on going into this business as a career at all. I was actually working on cars, and had quit an automotive job and wasn’t doing anything and needed a job. And a friend of mine quit his job washing dishes at a restaurant, so I went and got his job the next day. And washing dishes turned into prep and prep turned into setup and setup turned into sauté, and sauté turned into grill, and then, “Wow, I actually do this professionally!”
I enjoy the people you meet working in this industry. I enjoy the super-crazy adrenaline rush when all of a sudden there are a hundred people all at once. Becoming a cook wasn’t something I intended to do, but I’m glad I did it, because I learned a lot by becoming a cook about life in general.
You get to see people at their best and their absolute worst. Anybody who works in this capacity who says they haven’t freaked out or cried or had a panic attack — they’re lying. There’s too much happening all at once for you to not have these wild emotional swings. You can have people who are rock solid, not showing any emotion, but I guarantee you some of them will go home at night and lay in bed and go, “Oh my gosh, what are we going to do about tomorrow?” It’s wild. It’s fun.
Weld: How did working at the Bottletree influence the direction of Hot Diggity Dogs?
Bagby: That was the first time I was really in charge. Me and [Bottletree co-owner] Brad Challiss were the two people who ran the kitchen. He was in charge of the nighttime, I was in charge of the daytime. So that was a big learning experience, where I wasn’t just another person on the crew, just working side-by-side with you. I had to come in and say, “Don’t do that ever again,” or be like, “Hey, you’re doing a really good job, keep up the good work.”
Without working at Bottletree, I wouldn’t have been prepared for the role I have here at all. And I’m still figuring things out here. I figured out three things when I walked in the door an hour ago. That’s the everyday discovery aspect of it.
Weld: And much like Bottletree, this location is in the heart of Avondale.
Bagby: The location is fantastic. It has a beautiful view of Avondale Park. I’ve got a view of the park from my kitchen! I mean, come on! Most of the time, you’re working in a submarine. It’s all just stainless steel and tile. Here, you can look out the window, take a deep breath — “Aah! There’s some geese.” I love the neighborhood.