About twenty years ago, I went to an old soda shop style restaurant in downtown Burlington named Zack’s. Their main fare was hot dogs and Cokes in ten ounce glass bottles. And everything was always served with a smile and a thanks.
Zack’s hot dogs has been a staple of North Carolina’s piedmont since 1928, when they first served their signature hot dogs to a very happy customer. Fifty-five years later, I discovered them, and even today, they are still serving traditional American food to patrons of all ages. Any time a restaurant is open for 75 years, owned by the same family the entire time, they are doing something right.
I’ll never forget the first time I ordered from them. I didn’t want just a plain hot dog, I wanted something special. Something unique. So I chose the cheesedog.
Visions of a hot dog covered in melted cheese danced in my head, lighting up my imagination. What kind of cheese would it be? Cheddar? American? Something exotic like pepperjack? Maybe that melty cheese that seeps into the hot dog bun like it thought it was chili. Or maybe it was a hot dog stuffed with cheese!
I got my ten-ounce Coke while I waited the few short moments it took for the kitchen to whip together my two cheesedogs and fries. It was an original Coke, with good old sucrose sugar instead of that corn syrup mix they use today. It was a little more expensive but it was so worth it, sliding down my throat with a few bubbles that elicited memories of a childhood long forgotten.
The cheesedogs arrived and I just stared at them. They weren’t at all like I expected. There, nestled in the middle of my steamed buns were bun-length rectangular slabs of hard yellow cheese. Sharp cheddar cheese to be exact.
They were slathered in piping hot chili and had my prerequisite mustard and ketchup squirted on top but they were missing something. Something important. There were no actual hot dogs in my hot dogs!
Correction – cheesedogs.
I looked over at my friend, John, and he was hungrily scarfing his lunch down. He didn’t look the least bit surprised at the cheesedogs he’d been served. I picked up the little red plastic bottle in front of me and squeezed some ketchup onto my plate for my fries, which were salted just right. I looked back at my cheesedogs and there was still no meat in them except for the chili. I asked for cheesedogs. I got cheesedogs. It was as simple as that. Nothing more.
I looked at John as he was finishing his first cheesedog and said, “So, it’s just cheese, huh?”
He looked back at me, wiping some chili off his chin. “Yeah. It’s a cheesedog.” Just like that, in a matter-of-fact voice, his eyes betraying a bit of annoyance that I was interrupting his meal.
I returned my attention to my cheesedogs, sitting there with their hunks of cheddar cheese slowly melting from the heat of the chili. The mustard and ketchup were oozing their way to my plate and I finally accepted the fact that I’d ordered a cheesedog. A real cheesedog.
After all, the menu on the wall above the counter didn’t say “hot dog with cheese.” It read, “cheesedog.” Who was I to assume anything different?
I ate my cheesedogs and fries in relative silence, taking in the fifties-style ambiance. Faded signs advertising products and services from yesteryear were tacked to the walls, probably still in their original spaces. The counter we sat at looked as though it had its original Formica and the wooden stools we were perched on were worn down to a smooth shiny buff. Seventy-five years worth of buffing.
I’ve had hot dogs with cheese many times since then but I’ve never had another cheesedog. I’ve never found another place that served them. Maybe Zack’s had hit on the vegetarian movement before it ever began. And then again, maybe the owner just loved his cheesedogs. Whatever the case, I’ll probably never have another one. Don’t get me wrong, it was good, for a cheesedog. I just love my cheesedogs with a hot dog inside.