I never thought I’d write about hot dogs for the 4th time, but when in Toledo…
Truth be told, I’m not a fan of hot dogs. When I do eat them at places like Eli’s, or Chris’ Hot Dogs in Montgomery, Alabama, or even here locally in Cincinnati where chili cheese coneys RULE, I am basically eating hot dogs for the toppings heaped on them.
Tony Packo’s of Toledo was an exception. This time I was eating the hot dog to taste the actual meat, because Tony Packo’s hot dogs aren’t the typical processed meat scraps that usually constitute a hot dog. These are Hungarian sausages. And that makes all the difference.
Tony Packo (originally Paczko) was a native-born son of immigrants who were drawn to Toledo along with thousands of other Hungarian immigrants after the Malleable Castings Company transferred a number of Hungarian workers from its plant in Cleveland to Toledo.
Tony and his wife opened their first restaurant in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression. Tony’s signature sandwich was a Kolbasz sausage cut in half lengthwise. Cut this way, the sausage was roughly the size of a hot dog — hence the nickname “Hungarian hot dog.” He added a spicy chili sauce to the sausage on rye. The taste was very similar to Cincinnati chili (which is Lebanese in origin). Even better, I like Kolbasz sausage, so the meat and the chili were a fantastic combo.
Now, the sandwich comes on a bun, but that’s a whole other story. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Corporal Klinger on M*A*S*H
If you were wondering about Tony Packo’s connection to the 1970’s television series M*A*S*H, you may remember the lovable Corporal Maxwell Klinger who routinely dressed in women’s dresses as an attempt to be discharged from the Army. In one episode, Klinger spends time talking with a wounded soldier from Toledo. They reminisce about their favorite places, including Tony Packo’s. When the soldier returns home he sends Klinger a shipment of Packo’s hot dogs as a thank you gift.
Jamie Farr, the actor who played Klinger, is a Toledo native himself. He referenced Packo’s six times during the course of M*A*S*H. While I hadn’t realized that fact, I do remember Klinger salivating every time he reminisced about his favorite tastes of home.
In a 1976 episode, Klinger says, “If you are ever in Toledo, Ohio, on the Hungarian side of town, Tony Packo’s got the greatest Hungarian hot dogs.”
But like I said, there’s really no such thing as a Hungarian hot dog. Just great Hungarian sausage.
Back to the buns…
It doesn’t matter where you sit inside Tony Packo’s; you’re going to see walls full of hot dog buns signed by celebrities. Everyone from Barbara Bush, to ZZ Top, Mickey Rooney, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Sinbad, Jerry Seinfeld, and Dorothy Hamill. Packo’s is a ‘Who’s Who’ among celebrity paraphernalia. Kitschy and fun.
I made a game of it as I looked through some of the groupings. Would you rather have Wayne Newton sign your buns, or Alice Cooper? Jamie Farr or Danny Glover? They’re all here. Some with messages inscriptions, too. I can’t imagine the buns were easy to write on. Luckily, as they began collecting signatures, they switched to foam replicas.
So, why did they start collecting celebrity autographs on their hot dog buns?
When Burt Reynolds stopped into Packo’s in 1972, Tony’s daughter asked Burt for his autograph. He grabbed a hot dog bun and signed it. It’s been tradition ever since.
Toledo, which is located in on the border between Ohio and Michigan, is part of the Rust Belt that runs along the Great Lakes and surrounding states where steel was king. The area suffered economic downturns, like so many others, but Tony Packo’s has remained a constant since 1932. In fact, if you’re in the northwestern Ohio, look for their other locations. Unless you want to come back to the ethnic neighborhood where it all started, like I did. Shockingly, they didn’t ask me to sign their buns!
Have you heard of Tony Packo’s hot dogs or signed buns before?