Top Five Hotdogs

Aug 28, 2015

I love all things “food,” and almost everyone loves a good hotdog, so I embarked on a search for the five best hotdogs in the region. I realized early in my research that I was going to have to limit the search to Wilmington proper for now, as Carolina Beach, Burgaw, Rocky Point, and points beyond the city limits all have too many hotdog vendors for me to cover in one blog, but I will consider others in the future. I decided to stick to places that specialize mostly in hotdogs, and I tried to focus on eating local and stayed away from chain restaurants. 

I didn’t do this research by myself. I engaged two highly credentialed hotdog testers – Cameron Bush (who happens to be my husband) and Mary Virginia Swain (who happens to be my best friend since we were five). Isn’t it lucky that I have such distinguished tasters in my life! 

I discovered there are many, many ways to prepare a hot dog, so I decided to limit my judgment of hotdogs based on my background.  I am one of those rare folks who is actually from Wilmington, which means I am a Southerner – and, for a Southerner, a hotdog that is served “all the way” means mustard, chili, onions, slaw - in that order.  That’s it folks – no sauerkraut, salsa, grilled peppers, avocado, cheese, etc. – not saying those things can’t be good on a hotdog, but I had to limit the style of hotdog so they could be comparable. 

Merritt's Burger House

The first place we ventured was Merritt’s Burger House at 2338 Carolina Beach Road.  Merritt’s has been in business for as long as I can remember!  (For any older Wilmingtonians who might be reading this – it reminded me of the Mil-Jo on Oleander Drive.) Going to Merritt’s is an experience. It’s an authentic, old-fashioned drive-in. And, when I say drive-in, I don’t mean fast-food drive-through where you shout your order into a faceless microphone and drive away trying to juggle your food on your lap. At an old-school drive in like Merritt’s, you park your car, a car hop comes to your window to personally take your order, they bring the food piping hot to your car on a red tray hooked to the passenger-side window, and you enjoy a picnic in your vehicle. If you wonder what Wilmington used to be like before all the new folks moved to town, Merritt’s is the place for you – get ready to hear a true Southern drawl from people who haven’t figured out what the heck happened around here in the last 30 years!  And, when you ask for a hotdog “all the way,” they don’t ask you what that means – they know.  (Of course, that racked up the points in my mind.)  Anyway, the hotdogs were delicious - soft buns, creamy coleslaw, good Southern hotdog chili (which means there is a negligible amount of actual hamburger), and soft onions. It was tough driving away from there.

Trolly Stop Hotdogs

We also tried Trolly Stop Hotdogs downtown on Front Street.  I remember when Trolly Stop only had one location – at Wrightsville Beach near where the old wishing well was behind Newell’s (oops, I mean Wings.)  Of course, I couldn’t stop myself from ordering my favorite – the Surfer Dog  - but I managed to taste the North Carolina Dog because my fellow researchers ordered  that version, and I was able to snatch a taste away from them without losing my hand in the process.  As I heard a big “Mmm” from Mary Virginia as she bit into the hotdog, I knew Trolley Stop still knew how to make a darn good hotdog just as they have for almost 40 years.

Louie's Hotdogs

Louie’s at 204 ½ Princess Street was, of course, on the list.  It is a small place, but they make a mean hotdog.  The nice lady working there was helpful.  We asked for a hotdog all the way and - guess what – that is exactly what we got – no explanation.  We stood at the front, glass window and looked out at downtown Wilmington as we ate our delightful hotdogs. This was definitely some homemade hotdog chili, and we really appreciated that!

The Scoop

If you want to talk a lot of varieties of hotdogs, you are talking The Scoop at 365 N. Front Street. The Scoop is charming and cozy inside, but there is a lovely place to sit outside in the middle of the cobblestoned, historic Cotton Exchange. Lots of Cape Fear Community College students eat here. You have to go there to see and believe all the varieties of hotdogs and interesting sandwiches. Right away, I knew the dogs would be good because they serve Nathan’s hotdogs. In all my research, I think Nathan’s is the best brand. Anyway, I am going to admit that one of my research assistants (Cameron Bush) completely lost his head, veered off-course and ordered a peanut butter and jelly hotdog.  But, Mary Virginia and I persevered and ordered ours Southern style, and we thoroughly enjoyed the hotdogs.  

Dig & Dive

We tried the Dig & Dive on 3525 Lancelot Lane, but it was not specifically a “hotdog place,” so I am not including it in our countdown. We ordered hotdogs, but the Southerner in me got a bit insulted when their version of a Southern style hotdog came with pulled pork BBQ on it.  I mean, I know pulled pork BBQ is a Southern staple, but it doesn’t mean it should go on a hotdog!  Come on ya’ll, that was a bit in my face - like going to Italy and getting Italian pizza with spaghetti for the topping.

Corbett's Burger & Soda Bar

We also made an excursion to Corbett’s at 1016 S. College Road.  We sat at the counter and ordered Southern Dogs, which were very good. The coleslaw was different – it was tangy because they put buttermilk in it.  At first bite, I screamed out in fury believing there was only ONE way to make creamy coleslaw but after a few more bites, I settled down and enjoyed it.  As an aside, you should see their huge collection of sodas – never have I seen anything like it.  They even had Kickapoo Joy Juice and yes, folks, that used to be a real bottled soft drink around here. I will admit that I brought home a New York Hotdog for my 99-year-old mother. She loved it but no wonder, she was the first Pittsburgh native that moved to Wilmington, and she deserved a taste of a delicious “up north” hotdog!

Sam's Hotdogs

We  visited a new hotdog place in town – Sam’s Hotdogs at 5917 Oleander Drive. Lots of times they have someone dressed as a hotdog in front so that folks driving by will know there is a hotdog stand there.  We all got HDATWs (HotDogs All The Way) with a spicy chili. They were delicious! Just a warning, though – if you go to Sam’s, you better just want a hotdog, because hotdogs are about all they serve.  Of course, in my mind there is nothing wrong with that.

Monkey Junction The Pit Stop

For years, Cameron Bush always wanted to stop at The Pit Stop at Monkey Junction at 4902 Carolina Beach Road, so we finally did. This place is basically a gas station and small convenience store but when we were growing up down south, gas stations had some of the finest hotdogs out there.  Well, The Pit Stop didn’t disappoint.  We asked for “all the way” and they came perfectly “all the way.”  And, the price was the best of any of the hotdogs we found in our research.

Charlie Graingers

We also went to Charlie Graingers at 702 S. 17th Street.  Very interesting place with lots of old pictures of Wilmington.  We ordered up the Hot Dog All The Way and it came just how we like it!   Nice folks, nice place.  (I’ll admit, I took one of their famous brisket sandwiches home  - you know, for a break from all the hotdogs and it was very, very good.)

Frontier Food To Go

Had to do it – had to go to Frontier Food To Go at 2633 Carolina Beach Road.  You have to see it to believe it.  It is an old trailer that has been serving dogs and burgers since before the Civil War – OK, nearly.  But, it is another place where you can get a real feel for how small and rural Wilmington used to be.  There is even a Roses across the street – the store that was a staple in every small town in North Carolina.   It was a delicious hotdog and the prices sure were good.  You are not paying for any frills in that place!

Ok, The Top Five Hot Dogs!

Are you ready for the top five hotdogs?  Well, these are not in order – just the top five.  There was no way the three of us were going to agree on the order of the five – too many artistic differences.  Also, remember that these are simply our opinions, and we only judged one style of hotdog.  Folks, THIS WAS HARD TO DO!  Every hotdog really was good, and you can’t go wrong at any of these places we visited.  

I know we missed some really good hotdogs so please feel free to email me some places I didn’t visit and let me and my research team know what you liked about the hotdog at bbush@whqr.org.

Frontier To Go, Merritt’s Burger House, Pit Stop, Sam’s Hot Dogs, The Scoop 

Barbara Bush of The Research Center for the Study of Delicious Hotdogs

P.S. I'm SO sick of hotdogs, y'all.