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Hot Dish: Head to Bill's Hot Dogs for unique taste of eastern Carolina

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Christina Ruotolo

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

It’s the dog days of summer when the mercury in the thermometer is ticking up and the grills are heating up, cranking out hot dogs and hamburgers at a furious pace.

Last week, on July 17, we celebrated National Hot Dog Day and tomorrow, July 25, is National Chili Dog Day, so it’s only fitting we talk about one of my favorite summertime and cookout meats, the glorious hotdog.

The National Hot Dog Council estimates that “during peak hot dog season from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Americans typically consume 7 billion hot dogs.” On any given year, it’s estimated that 20 billion hot dogs are eaten in the United States. That’s a lot of dogs, y’all, and Bill’s Hot Dogs in Greenville is one such place cranking out their own impressive numbers. Open since December 2018, they have already served up almost 200,000 hotdogs.

Bill’s Hot Dogs, 4300 Eastern Pines Road in Greenville, near Walmart is a quick take-out only restaurant serving up dogs in all their American glory. This is the first Bill’s location that is outside of the two stores in Washington, N.C. They got their start back in 1928. The original store is located on Gladden Street, not far from the Washington waterfront. Bill’s is a landmark in eastern North Carolina that extends beyond the creaky hinged wooden door, postage-sized front room, and group of devoted and long-standing dog divas including Miss Mildred, who worked at the establishment for over 50 years. People have been known to stand in line for long periods of time just to get a chance to say they ate a Bill’s dog while visiting our great state.

Owners of the Greenville location, Billy and Valerie Dunn, had the opportunity last year to open a franchise location of Bill’s, bringing the long-standing hot dog traditions and taste to Greenville and surrounding areas. The Dunns grew up in eastern North Carolina and have supported the Washington location for years. They were excited to take on the responsibility of opening up a local store. Honoring the roots that Bill’s original owner planted almost 100 years ago, Billy and Valerie are faithful stewards.

“We are serving the same red hot dogs, the same buns, condiments and even have the famous ‘secret ingredient’ chili the Washington store makes daily and delivers to our Greenville store. We may have a different atmosphere, but the concept and the food are the same,” Dunn said.

They even use the same vendors when possible and are making sure you still get that nostalgic bite you remember from you childhood every time.

Everyone has a Bill’s Hot Dog story. I remember the first time I tried a Bill’s signature red hotdog. I was on the Washington waterfront on a hot, summer day over 15 years ago. I walked in and up to the quaint old-school counter and watched as a group of feisty ladies made my dog all the way, wrapped it up, put in in a small brown paper bag and handed me a cold bottle of soda and napkins. I sat on a bench overlooking the water and was about to be changed for life. The blistered fried hotdog skin snapped when I took my first bite. It was a little spicy from the chili, a little salty from the dog, and a little sweet from the raw chopped onions. It is a true summer trifecta of flavor that you don’t forget.

You always remember your first Bill’s experience and over the years, you bring your friends and family back time and again and share it with them. This is how the mom and pop shops, or Bill for this matter, retain their rightful place on the eastern North Carolina food map for generations to come.

The menu at Bill’s Hot Dogs is a no fuss approach with just the right number of items and nothing more. Choose from the original deep fried red hot dogs, fresh sausage dogs, smoked sausage dogs, fries, chili cheese fries and homemade pork rinds. The Greenville location is the only Bill’s that serves fries, chili cheese fries and the sausage dogs. They wanted to add a few more items without diverting from the original menu and intentions.

Start with a simple assembly line, a vat of hot oil, just a few condiments, and let the cooking begin. The signature hotdog at Bill’s is skinny and bright red. They drop it in some sizzling oil and while that cooks, they slather your bun with your sides then nestle the fried dog into its rightful place.

All landmark food joints have their own lingo. When coming into Bill’s to order your “dog” there are only a few simple ways to order yours. “All the way” or a “Bill’s dog” means mustard, onions and chili. If you want a bit more chili or onions, just say “extras of ...” A “Fry Combo” is two hot dogs, french fries, and a drink for $6, or order a “Chip Combo” which is two hotdogs, a bag of chips, and a drink for $5. The Bill’s dog is $1.75 and a plain dog is $1.50.

Don’t feel left out vegetarians, you can come in and get a chili bun, which is their famous chili between a hot dog bun and nothing else. It sounds strange, but once you try the chili, you will understand why it by itself is a trip to a food theme park complete with spice and southern soul.

Now about that chili. It’s not what you expect. It’s the color of white gravy with visible secret spices running through it with a little bit of texture. It reminds me of what you would get on a smothered pork chop.

I can’t tell you what makes it taste so good, that’s a secret recipe. But I can tell you it it’s spicy, but a good kind of spice that builds on your tongue and I’m pretty sure you have never tasted anything like it.

I asked Valerie why Bill’s doesn’t put any other condiments like ketchup on the dogs. “They never offered ketchup at the original store, so it’s not on our assembly line, but if you need it, we have packets on the side,” Dunn says.

The main toppings are part of what makes Bill’s hot dog unique. It’s the right combination of flavors that work well together melding into one memorable bite. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, so leave the ketchup alone and do the right thing.

For my tasting I sampled (devoured) a dog all the way. I stood right inside the building at the one small wooden ledge beside an old-school photo of the original location. I ate my dog standing up, which in my opinion, is how it should be done. If you need a seat, they have some tables and tents outside and you can always sit on one of the two benches outside, which is how they did it at the original location.

The hot dog was just as snappy singing its summer song. The outside was that tight fried and blistered skin and the inside was warm and soft. I washed it down with a glass bottle of ice-cold Pepsi, or you can choose a glass bottle of Mountain Dew or bottled water. They also brew iced tea daily. There is something special about eating a dog wrapped in paper holding a glass bottle of soda. It’s a southern food right of passage. Want to get into Greenville? You must eat a Bill’s hot dog first, then welcome home!

After I went back in time eating the hot dog, I wanted to try the chili cheese fries. Start with a heap of crispy battered thick-cut fries, topped with a generous helping of chili and a whole lot of shredded cheddar cheese. Close the takeout lid and the hot chili melts the cheese creating a ooey-gooey box of cheese-fry-chili magic when you open it up. The fries stayed crispy and were surrounded by melted cheese and the chili settles in all the cracks. Holy hot dogs was this good. I may or may not have eaten all of that and then sampled a fresh sausage dog too. Might I suggest you take an antacid before you go so you can enjoy all the wonder that is Bill’s.

If you haven’t had a chance to try Bill’s, you will eat it once and be a Bill’s believer. It’s a wonderful trip down a food memory lane and I am so happy Billy and Valerie, as well as the owners and staff at the original location, are continuing and growing the roots for years to come, one patron (believer) and hot dog at a time.

Bill’s Hot Dogs is open Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. They are available to cater your next picnic, family reunion, tailgate party or any other event. You can call in large orders for pick-up or they can deliver in Pitt County for a small fee, and they will be partnered with Door Dash in just a few weeks. They also offer a link sausage tray you can order for your next event. Bill’s will be taking part in various events throughout the fall including the Boys & Girls Club’s Ultimate Tailgate football kick-off party on Sept. 6 and the PCC Holiday show in November just to name a few.

And don’t forget when you stop by to go outside and take a photo on the side of the building. They have painted hot dog bun characters that make for a great Facebook post! For more information follow them on Facebook or call 252-689-6987.

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