Text messages ping. Tips flood Instagram. As I drive across Mobile Bay in Alabama, friends ask: Are you headed to Bayley’s down in Theodore for fried crab claws? How about a strawberry cupcake at Pollman’s Bake Shop in Mobile? Have you stopped at K&S convenience store, where they cook turkey necks until they give up a silken brown gravy?
My cell keeps buzzing: How about those smoked pork ribs topped with toasted peanuts at Southern National? Did you eat a flounder-and-grits breakfast at Cozy Brown’s Kitchen up in Whistler? Or the chicken-and-oyster gumbo at the Lighthouse down in Bayou La Batre? By the end of my wandering, I will say yes to all.
The most insistent messages come from fans and critics of the Dew Drop Inn in Mobile. Regulars tell me to order shrimp-and-okra gumbo with a side of fried oysters to drop in the bowl. Detractors say the 1924 vintage restaurant, set in a concrete-and-brick brutalist take on a Tudor cottage and known for its hot dogs, is just a nostalgia trap. (Spoiler: The pull of nostalgia here is strong, but the Dew Drop is more than that.)
A decade had passed since I last ate at the Dew Drop. I remember bright red dogs, smothered in grainy chili, cradled in toasted buns, topped with kraut. And greaseless cracker-meal-battered onion rings. Back then, remarkable hot dog spots were constants in my life. Things changed. Across the South, the joints of my Georgia youth, the spots that served shift workers, closed when factories closed. My attempt to open a hot dog cart in my adopted hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, flamed out. Great dogs, like they serve at the Dew Drop, went scarce.
Powell Hamlin, the owner, grew up in the restaurant. Now sixty-eight, he was sixteen before he realized his father owned the place. As a boy, he whittled the sticks that cooks used to swab mustard and ketchup. Working for a penny a minute, he sliced the buns and carted away the garbage. Before he took over in 1991, Hamlin built a life around hot dogs.
He traveled to the Oscar Mayer plant in Wisconsin, returning home with a wiener-shaped whistle. He visited Chris’ Famous Hotdogs in Montgomery and the Beacon Drive-In in Spartanburg, South Carolina. And, routinely, he traveled to the Varsity in Atlanta. “I’ve always wondered if my first wife left me because I took her to the Varsity too many times,” he says.
Most hot dog joints revolve around hot dogs. But three recent visits have taught me that, while the hot dogs are righteous, the Dew Drop defines itself by the other planets in its solar system. Take the crabmeat omelet sandwich, a favorite of the late Mobile writer Eugene Walter. (Ask the kitchen to cook yours soft; because omelets get fried on the flattop, ten extra seconds can spell ruin.)
If you aim to drop fried oysters in your gumbo, order the oyster loaf. You get a toasted hot dog bun, overstuffed with cornmeal-fried oysters. Inevitably, three or four will escape the bread. Drop those in the bowl. No digital prompt got me to order a side of rutabagas, an occasional special. Cooked in ham-bone stock and onions, they taste sharp and sweet and remind me of the power skilled cooks wield when they harness pork to deliver flavor.
Joana Harper wears a T-shirt printed with a tiara and the slogan KITCHEN QUEEN. She has worked alongside Hamlin in the tight kitchen here since 1988. “We don’t talk,” he says. “She moves left, and I move right.” In the dining room, Tamela Young, who began slicing onions and building hot dogs in 2005, weaves between wood-grain laminate booths. She greets gray-haired regulars who courted here in their teens and return to summon old pleasures, delivering stacks of onion rings, bottled beers, and bubble-lipped pony glasses.
The Dew Drop suggests that its burger inspired Jimmy Buffett’s carnivorous habit. I’ve never subscribed to celebrity endorsements. Who cares if Pat Sajak likes the catfish po’boys at that restaurant out by the highway? Regulars broadcast better endorsements. At the Dew Drop, brass plaques tell of generations of love and loss. In one booth, Cootsie and Bud “started a courting spree in 1943.” Inscriptions offer culinary insights, too: “Give me some of that good goo at the bottom of the gumbo pot,” reads the dedication to longtime regular Martha Callahan. She was born in 1904 and died in 1996.
Across the nation, dozens of other Dew Drop Inns sprouted last century, probably inspired by a 1919 silent comedy of the same name. Dew Drop bars and restaurants were so common that, to commemorate the nation’s bicentennial, Esquire commissioned a photo essay of spots spanning Fresno, California, to Caribou, Maine. Like the hot dog joints of my youth, many of those Dew Drops have since closed.
In a just world, every city would claim a Dew Drop Inn, or at least a joint that served comparable purposes as the Dew Drop in Mobile. People would argue, as they have in my Instagram feed, about whether that institution’s best days are ahead or behind. But the world is not just. To console myself at the end of my Mobile run, I haul home a half gallon of Hamlin’s gumbo. Now I have to pick up some oysters to fry.