Restaurant Scene: The chopped wiener is the most iconic Chattanooga dish of all time

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Mona and Al Hammonds hold a hot dog and a chopped wiener plate at Memo's on Thursday.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Mona and Al Hammonds hold a hot dog and a chopped wiener plate at Memo's on Thursday.

Last summer it took three rounds and 524 votes for Chatter magazine to crown the burger at Tremont Tavern as "the most Chattanoogan food."

First and foremost, the buns from Niedlov's can live on their own merit alone. Second, you can tell the ground beef was formed into patties by somebody's hands and not a machine. Third, their combinations of adornments like havarti, gouda and pimento cheeses, guacamole, ancho dressing, horseradish-infused mayonnaise, onion straws, bacon, green-leaf lettuce, jalapenos and fried eggs transcend these burgers to heights worthy of such acclaim and recognition.

No offense to anybody, but I think voters may have missed their mark, and the wrong champion was crowned.

I can name 10 other cities where I can get fried chicken that maybe isn't on the level of Champy's or Bea's but definitely on par — most notably Charlotte, North Carolina, at Silver Express convenience store and in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City at Charles Pan-Fried Chicken.

I can also name 10 other cities where I can get a steamer pack of Krystal burgers like in Villa Rica, Georgia, or Mary Esther, Florida.

Aretha Frankensteins is one of my favorite places in Chattanooga, restaurant or otherwise, but there are noteworthy pancakes in other cities, like the ones at Olympic Flame Pancake House in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, or Smoky's Pancake Cabin in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. (They have a pineapple upside-down pancake.)

The same applies with barbecue that's served at Forkers BBQ. I'm sure it's succulent, but again, I'm sure we all can name a dozen other cities with restaurants where you can get a pulled pork sandwich, like Joe's in Kansas City, Missouri, or Fox Bros. in Atlanta. I can also get a MoonPie from almost any gas station: the strawberry-flavored one, the chocolate and even the double-decker banana one.

However, there is one dish that you'll probably never, ever have a chance to eat outside the city limits of Chattanooga. To call the chopped wiener obscure is an understatement, even more obscure than Spam musubi, which I never thought I'd ever see outside of Honolulu until it popped up on a menu at Broken Mouth in Los Angeles.

I scoured the world wide web, and there's no evidence of chopped wieners anywhere else. Not in Louisville, Kentucky, or Coos Bay, Oregon. Not in Jacinto City, Texas, or Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.

Cleveland, Tennessee, is a mere 35 miles from Chattanooga, but the dish is so insular, so exclusive to Chattanooga that there aren't any remnants, not a drop of gravy, sauce or chili or whatever those sliced hot dogs are drenched in. And anytime I asked anybody from Cleveland about chopped wieners, it was met with a strange, perplexed look.

Roosevelt "Chief" Jude, an employee at Memo's since the 1970s, validated my theory on the WUTC 88.1 radio program called "Stories From the Big Nine."

"Chattanooga is the only place you can get a chopped wiener," he said.

photo Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ A hot dog and chopped wiener plate are seen at Memo's on Thursday.

In a 2002 interview promoting the Choo-Choo Chop-Off, Sherrie Gilchrist, president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce, echoed Jude.

"We want to celebrate the fact that the chopped wiener is indigenous to Chattanooga," she said.

"Chief" credits the invention of the chopped wiener to a restaurant owner named Justino Pica. However, in the same interview, he said Pica was from the Virgin Islands, when in fact Justino Pica immigrated from Humacoa, Puerto Rico, in the 1930s and opened Pete's Casaloma at 508 E. Ninth St., one of professional wrestling champion Lou Thesz's favorite places to eat barbecue while in town. When Pete's Casaloma closed in 1970, the late and legendary Richard Williams Jr., the owner of Memo's Grill, picked up where Justino Pica left off.

"My dad used to patronize Pete's Casaloma and kind of took his idea and improved on it. He made it into a plate," owner Vic Williams said in a phone call.

He later drove home my philosophy: "It's a Chattanooga trademark! People move away, and when they come back to town, this is the first thing they get!"

Even if Memo's has chicken wings, ice cream sundaes and other offerings, the chopped wiener plate, or just the chop plate or "a chop" is the essence of Memo's Grill. Williams estimates that 75% of their business is chopped wiener plates. The dish is screen printed and embroidered on the uniforms worn by the staff.

At its core, the chopped wiener is a deconstructed hotdog. They even give you a mini plastic ramekin of yellow mustard on the side (and hot sauce). Except they swap out the hot dog bun for a hamburger one.

WHERE TO GET CHOPPED WIENERS IN CHATTANOOGA

Memo's Grill

Nothing short of an institution. This is the place that made the chopped wiener famous.

— Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

— Location: 430 East M.L. King Blvd.

— Price: $9.50 for the large chopped wiener plate.


Wright's Barbecue Kitchen

Family-run barbecue restaurant that offers some of the best barbecue ribs in town.

— Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday.

— Location: 1515 Dodson Ave.

— Price: $13 for the large chop wiener.


Miss Griffin's Foot Long Hot Dogs

Serving Chattanooga since 1939 with specialty hotdogs, bowls of chili and homemade brownies.

— Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.

— Location: 5600 Brainerd Road.

— Price: $10.25 for the large chop plate.


Chatt Smoke House

No frills barbecue joint in the heart of the M.L.K. district.

— Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

— Location: 416 East M.L. King Blvd.

— Price: $12 for the chopped wiener plate deluxe.

Even though Williams described it as a "chili sauce that my mom and dad developed over the years," it's more "sauce" than traditional "chili" and weirdly enough it reminds me of a good egg foo young gravy, and the dish as a whole is in the same vein as beans and franks, one of my all-time favorite meals. The coleslaw is standard issue, delicious and tastes like the kind I'd eat on a North Carolina-style hotdog. Since Williams assures you that there's no wrong way to eat a chopped wiener plate, there will be a bunch of scooping, scraping, dipping and licking going on, whatever method works for you.

Memo's Grill might have revolutionized and popularized the chopped wiener plate, but there are other places in town that also serve this dish. Miss Griffin's, now located in the food court at Eastgate Mall, offers a chopped wiener alongside their "kitchen sink" hot dog. Aside from having some of the best ribs in town, Wright's Barbecue Kitchen's chopped wieners come with a chunkier chili made with ground beef in a style most of us are accustomed to when we think of chili. A few blocks down on M.L. King Boulevard is Chatt Smokehouse, which not only has the chop wiener plate, they doubled down and upped the ante with the chopped wiener deluxe plate, which adds diced onion and shredded cheddar cheese, to the already iconic plate.

Contact Andre James at ajames@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Sign up for his weekly newsletter, "What to Eat Next," at timesfreepress.com/eat.

  photo  Andre James