Being a restaurant reviewer, some may think my diet is fancy. But anyone who knows me is well aware of my genuine adoration for hot dogs and beer. That’s right. Sometimes I dine on homemade beef bourguignon and other times I’m wrestling a Hot Pocket into its crisping sleeve.
Balance is the key to life.
I’ve unsuccessfully tried to break into the downtown location of Trolly Stop several times in the past few months. Their relentless construction was sabotaging my pre-drinking supper, and I needed some answers. Suddenly, a new sign appeared above the eatery’s signature red gate: Sam’s Hot Dog Stand. Turns out Trolly Stop wasn’t closed for renovations after all. Sam’s, a small locally owned restaurant chain, first popped up in the Port City on Oleander about a year or so ago. Wth over 40 locations stretching from West Virginia to Georgia to Kentucky and beyond, their pre-existing Wilmington fanbase was armed and ready—with mustard, of course.
Thanks to aforementioned staple Trolly Stop ruling Wilmington’s hot dog world, Sam’s owner Mary Piepenbrink most likely knew she was up for a challenge. Ballsy move. Being a loyal Trolly Stopper myself, I was intrigued to say “What up!” to Sam’s dogs. And I did. One Saturday evening, I gathered some friends and held my very own hot-dog eating competition. The rules: honest opinions and an openness to walk in and order the entire menu like a boss. Sam’s happens to be a stellar spot for sampling a bit of everything, as each item (excluding alcohol and combo meals) is under $4.
We started with the “Straight Up” (mustard, onions and chili). The bun was warm, fluffy, and fresh as could be. As for the dogs, diners who are a “snap into it” kind of person may find these aren’t their jam. (Also, just go get a Slim Jim!) These all-beef links are reminiscent of fair dogs—don’t worry, that’s a good thing. Sam’s doesn’t say “I’m so fancy” by griddling or grilling; they’re all about the simple steam.
Our posse moved along to the “All the Way” dog, which contained my personal favorite combo of mustard, freshly cut onions, chili, and coleslaw. The chili tasted hearty, with a simmered-for-hours kind of vibe. As to not be influenced by outside flavors, I tasted two bowls (mild and spicy) on their own. The “spicy” version’s heat was non-existent, but it’s possible I was served two bowls of the mild. Oh, well. Worse things have happened. On its own the chili had a slow-cooked, dark-chocolate hue, deeply rich in meaty flavor. I wasn’t crazy about it in soup form, but as a sauce: spot on. The slaw (finely chopped and lightly seasoned) got the job done, but could have used a punch from vinegar or celery salt.
Next came “The Big Nasty.” Interesting name choice. Again, ballsy move, Sam’s! This bad boy starred every single topping on the menu (slaw, relish, mayo, kraut, chili, and beyond). Seeing as all these toppings belong in Hot Dog Land, every one of them was a welcome visitor. For diners who can’t make up their minds, crave a filling meal, or just dig the title “The Big Nasty,” this has your name all over it. For those who like to be in charge, Sam’s offers a “Make Your Own” style as well. Although, I personally would have enjoyed a bit more menu variety (who let the Chicago dogs out?), there’s plenty of picks to please those buns.
I happened to be with a real, live vegetarian—an ideal guinea pig, errr eggplant, for sampling Sam’s non-meat selection. One bite and she whispered, “Are you sure this is the vegetarian hot dog?” In a mild panic, I called over the manager on duty. Luckily he had plated them up himself. Even I couldn’t believe how distinctive this dog’s flavor was. It tasted like … wait for it … a hot dog! I wasn’t expecting in-house ground tofu and zucchini links or anything, but the hot dog-esque flavor of this non-meat item was startling. To fully prove his innocence, the manager brought out the veggie dog’s packaging (MorningStar Farms). I’ll be damned. Here are my final thoughts on the subject: Any vegetarian who has an aversion to the taste of meat should steer clear. But all meat-free, hot-dog, missers … well, you go Glen Cocoa.
Naturally, I had to order the NC BBQ sandwich with coleslaw and French fries. The barbeque certainly smacked of Carolina style: pulled pork in a vinegary sauce. Yet, it wasn’t exceptional. Don’t get me wrong: It was good. Just keep in mind Sam’s isn’t specializing in East Coast barbeque. Still, I appreciate it as an addition to the menu, but wouldn’t head there specifically for the ‘cue. The fries were crinkle cut, salted and nicely crisped. Thanks to an extended wait time for a portion of our meal, we were gifted an extra basket of crinkly wedges. Two points for customer service.
I ended as one always should—with a shake. Once I sat back down, I ordered the chocolate milkshake. The ice cream was hand-dipped (scooped as opposed to soft serve) and the dessert-like drink was frothy, classic and old-school. And to spike it up with a caffeine buzz, they have a Coke float with creamy vanilla ice cream. Frisky diners can enjoy a few cold brews to go with those dogs.
Laid back, Sam’s is great for family night, an inexpensive dinner with friends, or a quick solo lunch. The atmosphere is tidy, friendly and practically identical to its frankfurter forefather.
Sam’s downtown: I welcome you with open arms (especially because you’re open until 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays—boo-yah)!