Munch goes to Jim's Famous Sauce

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Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr or possibly Jon Bon Jovi once said the more things change, the more they stay the same when it comes to hot dogs. And wouldn't you know it, the very same week Franktuary announced it would be closing its Downtown location, Munch took a humid evening ride deep into the Mon Valley for a hot dog that has withstood not only the test of time, but also the worst our American century could inflict: the Depression, world wars and, of greatest local peril, the wane and collapse of steel.

Franktuary serendipitously came of age when the hot dog was transforming from a dirty-water ballpark staple into a decadent gourmet treat. Suddenly you could step up to a hot dog counter and order a frank in the traditional New York style, or in the old Chicago style, or Banh Mi style or draped in Buffalo sauce and bleu cheese. They came swaddled in bacon, topped by pierogies, dressed in truffle oil, rolled in cardamon, dolloped with creme fraiche, spackled with free-range lobster shavings. They came in pork and beef and turkey and vegan varieties. They came deep-fried or wood-fired or char-grilled. Any permutation was game, so long as it fit in an 8-inch bun.

All of which I'm fine with, and I've spent far more money at Franktuary than is prudent, but if you're yearning for a gentler time, and a simpler dog, might I suggest Jim's Famous Sauce in West Mifflin?

Story goes like this: Greek-born Tsambikos "Jim" Damianos came to Pittsburgh by way of Turkey in the early 1890s. A laborer's life did not appeal to him, so after a World War I tour with the U.S. Army, he married a nice French girl, brought her back to McKeesport, and opened a small restaurant and grocery near the old Tube City brewery.

That was 1927. Later came Jim's Restaurant, along Walnut Street in McKeesport, and then, after World War II, Jim's family made a final move into a two-story building at 2600 Skyline Drive in West Mifflin, convenient to Dravosburg and Duquesne and Braddock and the rest of the Mon Valley mill towns, which war vets were now vacating in favor of the shiny suburbs and their shinier Fords.

The "new" shop, which opened in 1948, went through several iterations. The restaurant and grocery became a soda-fountain-style restaurant, then, by 1953, the booths and stools had been ripped out (Jim didn't like customers who loafed over lunch), and Jim's Drive-In was born. Jim died in 1953, and passed the restaurant -- which today remains a drive-in, with outdoor picnic tables and a big parking lot but no indoor seating -- on to his kin.

But he neglected, so story goes, to pass on the recipe for his special sauce, which these days is more or less the hot dog shop's raison d'etre, selling for $5 a bottle (hence the final name change a few years ago). A significant oversight for sure, but the good news is that Jim, having been dead for a week, appeared to his son, Alex, in a dream and told him the secret ingredient.

(Again we stress the qualifying phrase: "So the story goes.")

That sauce -- sweet, smoky, spicy, acidic, with a ham and tomato base -- gives Jim'‍s hot dogs a special kick, but there's more to it than that. The hot dogs are grilled, not boiled, and the fully dressed hot dog is then placed in a broiler, toasting the final product so that the bun doesn't become too mushy or dried out. In other words, they'd figured out the toasted bun gimmick decades before Quiznos ever thought of it. (At Jim's they use Smith-brand hot dogs, manufactured in Erie by a company also founded, coincidentally, in 1927).

The top-seller at Jim's is the cheese dog. Decades ago, another of Jim's sons, Syl (as in, Syl Damianos, the famed Pittsburgh architect and artist) had the great prescience to blanket the hot dog in cheese slices before tossing it in the broiler. It came out browned, bubbly and delicious, and millions of them have now been consumed by generations of Pittsburghers. You can't go wrong with the hot sausage, either, smothered in cooked onions and red peppers, stuffed in a bun, and slathered again in that famous sauce.

And in a nod to Jim's soda fountain roots, you can still get a hand-dipped milkshake (along with hamburgers and chicken sandwiches and french fries and nachos, but really, the hot dog is the thing). Take-out orders come in sturdy white pastry boxes, a pleasant touch because surely all that sauce and cheese and grease would soak through a flimsy paper bag.

Leisure time is precious, warm summer evenings more precious still 'round these parts. But if you have a few spare hours you could do worse than a food tour through Pittsburgh's southeastern tentacle, carving a path through the lush saddle connecting Hays Woods and Streets Run to the old Bettis airfield. Hit Joyce's Copper Kettle Fudge, swing by The Scoop on Mifflin Road, grab a beer or two at the Skyvue lounge, and end the day with a sandwich at Jim's, as Pittsburghers before us have been doing for nearly 90 years.

Jim's Famous Sauce, 2600 Skyline Drive, West Mifflin. Information: www.jimsfamoussauce.com or 412-466-1644. Open seven days.

Munch@post-gazette.com or Twitter @ PGMunch. Become a Facebook Friend of Munch at www.facebook.com/munchPG.

Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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