The a la cart menu: quick nibble, no mayo

Maryland Journal

Hot dog stand has been at busy city corner since 1983

January 01, 2007|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,Sun Reporter

Ted Kastanakis flips the lid on a compartment of his hot dog cart. It opens with a clang, sending a cloud of steam pouring into the cold winter air. With metal tongs he pulls out a pink frank and nestles it on a bun.

The blond woman and young girl standing nearby watch carefully as he squirts a bead of ketchup along the frank and dabs on some mustard. The hot dog is for the girl.

"Can you turn the dog a little so the ketchup won't spill over?" the woman asks. "And a lot of napkins, please."

"Sure thing," replies Kastanakis, his Greek accent still evident after nearly four decades in the U.S. The woman pays $1.25, and the pair walk away past the signs that mark this spot as the corner of Redwood and Greene streets.

Behind them, black letters fastened to the top of Kastanakis' hot dog stand read: "Serving you here since 1983."

Street vendors are woven into the fabric of Baltimore, but on this corner, Theodore Kastanakis is a true institution. Here he's sold hot dogs to thousands of passers-by, weathered the elements and watched the city change around him for 23 years.

He arrived in Baltimore in 1969 at the age of 13, when his family emigrated from the Greek island of Rhodes. He left Patterson High School after 10th grade to work on an assembly line making women's shoes. A couple of years later, he took a job pressing suits at the Jos. A. Bank clothing factory.

When the factory laid him off, a friend's brother offered to sell him a hot dog cart. "He was moving back to Greece, and he asked if I wanted to buy it," Kastanakis says with a shrug. "I said OK." The deal included a city permit giving him exclusive rights to sell food on the corner he occupies today.

Weather and daily use eventually took their toll on that cart, and Kastanakis had to go shopping for a new one. He decided against a full-scale hot dog stand that would have provided shelter from the elements and a place to keep a stool.

"To do what?" he asks, pointing his tongs at his new stainless steel cart. "This one is light. Other people sell other foods, even gyros. You know them? But I sell only hot dogs."

Across the road, the afternoon sun is sinking behind the brick walls of University of Maryland Medical Center. In Kastanakis' Ford Expedition, parked on the street next to his cart, his wife, Hrisoula, tries to stay warm.

The couple met when Kastanakis' family visited Hrisoula's family at their home on the Greek island of Samos. They were married on the island in 1979.

Most weekdays during warm weather, they tow their cart from their Greektown home and open for business from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. An umbrella attached to the side of the cart offers a modicum of protection from drizzle and sun, but when it rains or gets too frigid during the winter, they stay home and watch TV. During a cold snap last month, "I only came for a couple of days," Kastanakis says, stuffing the steamer with more franks.

A nurse in a white hospital coat and purple scrubs orders an all-beef kosher frank with chips and a soda. Cars roar by, and the sound of helicopter blades chopping the air echoes between the buildings. "It's every day," he says, glancing toward Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where the state's seriously injured accident and shooting victims wind up.

Kastanakis whips the hot dog together, puts it in a brown bag with the chips and pulls a soda from its ice bath inside the cart.

"That's a great lunch," the nurse says with enthusiasm, as she hands over $3.25 - which goes into a metal cash box.

Most of Kastanakis' customers are friendly, he says. He's never been mugged, although years earlier another street vendor a few blocks away was shot and robbed. Kastanakis toyed with the idea of getting off the street - and out of the weather - by opening a full-scale restaurant. But he decided against it.

"Restaurants are too much of a headache," he says, shrugging again.

Besides, this corner is a good one. College students, professors, doctors, nurses and patients flow past his stand year-round. The medical center alone employs 5,800 staff, and the hospital sees more than 300,000 patients per year.

"This is good," he says. "A lot of people know me. I try to be here every day. I'm fighting sometimes the weather to be here."

Over the years, new buildings have sprouted around Kastanakis' stand, bringing new customers. In the early 1990s, a parking lot across Baltimore Street yielded to Veterans Affairs Medical Center, with its glistening black windows. UMMC added a wing on Greene Street soon after.

From his stand he can see the University of Maryland School of Law, and just around the corner are the pharmacy, dental and medical schools. The busiest times are late spring and early fall, when the students' classes coincide with warm weather.

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