If you've walked by the corner of 4th and Tryon streets in Uptown during any season but winter, you've at least heard Victor Werany's voice, and chances are, you've had a conversation with him.
Werany, better known as Vic the Chili Man, has been peddling his dogs there coming up on 13 years. His customers can't get enough of his boisterous charm, and that's not to mention the amazing chili dogs.
Vic's corner can be a lonely place in winter, so we visited him at his home to chat him up about home cooking, profane hot dog names and how he stays busy with his charity in the cold season.
Creative Loafing: How have you seen things change for street vendors over the 13 years you've been serving hot dogs Uptown?
Vic the Chili Man: It's actually funny. It's one of the most interesting things to me. When I first came out, the people looked at you in the same way that they look at a beggar or a hobo who's asking them for a dollar. I would make eye contact with people, they'd be walking by — and at that point you had Ms. Maddie, you had Abram, you had Donnie, those were your main hot dog and food vendors.
When people saw somebody new — and I'm very upfront, I look at people in the eye, I'm a very touchy-feely kind of guy — people would walk by, they'd be looking at my menu and I'd smile at them and they would drop their gaze and walk by real fast. They did literally everything but grab their wallet because they thought I was going to steal it. Sometimes I would yell, "I'm not asking for your money, I'm asking for fair trade. My good hot dog for your cash."
It was really such a bizarre kind of feeling, because I'm from New York, to see that you come down here and people were just not there yet with food from a cart or a truck. And then over these 13 years, the proliferation of food trucks has made people so much more comfortable and willing.
It was a tough start, no doubt. Any food guy or gal that comes out today has a much greater shot at success than when I started. That's food notwithstanding. It's just people's capacity to want to stop and buy something.
How'd you land that sweet spot at 4th and Tryon?
My spot — it's right near Cam's building, it's right near the Bank of America — I'd be lying if I didn't tell you I lucked into that spot. I brought in my application and my picture and menu and all the stuff that I was required to bring in. I must have been just on the heels of the person who was there before.
That guy, it was an uncle and niece team that were selling hot dogs, he just happened to be a white guy, about 6 feet 2, kind of slim (I was much slimmer then) and wore his ball cap backwards. He and I looked a lot alike, or were very similar in stature. So he must have just left and I must have just come back in so they gave me this spot and I when I got there in the spot for the first couple days people thought they knew me.
You got creative with some of your specials this past year. How often do you try to experiment outside of just hot dogs?
Basically, because of health department rules and regulations, I have to only do precooked, encased meats and their toppings. I've tried to make interesting combinations in the past and found that the way I was doing them was incorrect. So for a while I was just like, "I'm just going to cook chili dogs and screw everything else." But in these past couple years I've had kind of a resurgence, and instead of looking at the rules as if they're a problem, I look at the rules as if they're a competition, and it's my job to work within the rules.
If you've seen some of my specials this year, they've been completely out of hand. My last one was called the Pho Q Dog. It was based on pho soup. My son calls me and say, "Yeah, I tried pho," (pronounced fuh) and I'm like, "What are you talking about? It's pronounced fo." He says, "No, my best friend is Vietnamese and he says it's fuh, so it's fuh." Ok, fair enough. So what if you put barbecue on it, then it becomes the Pho Q Dog, and I got to thinking about that.
So at Dudeapolooza with Wilson from Wilson's World [on WCCB] I introduced the Pho Q Dog. [laughs] It was so freaking good. I made a chicken sesame aioli, then the hot dog, then rice noodles. I can do rice noodles because they are not a potentially hazardous food product, they're just noodles. So I cooked the noodles, I put sesame oil in them and I bag them so they can sit and stay warm in the cart. I put them on top of the hot dog, bean sprouts, fresh jalapenos, green onions. Then the Q part: I made a Sriracha ginger barbecue sauce. I put that lovingly on top and people were losing their shit.
This summer was completely off the charts with banh mi, and I did one with braised spinach and sautéed mushrooms. I've done them with just everything this summer. I'm always up for a challenge of making things, and I make it a competition with myself to stay within the rules. At first I saw that as a barrier, but now I see it as, that's almost more fun.
What's your favorite thing to cook at home when you're not limited by those rules and regulations?
I am a taco-making machine. I am so in love with tacos. I love playing with those flavor combinations. When I'm not cooking the hot dogs, I'm a meat guy. There's no doubt I do a lot of barbecue. I just made my first pork belly and I gotta tell you, it came out smashing.
I would say tacos and barbecued meats are probably my two favorite things. Just like chili and hot dogs and barbecue and things like that, I like to cook things that have soul. I like to put my time and effort and love into the food. You're never going to see foam, not that there's anything wrong with that, but you're never going to see microgreens. I'm just that kind of soul cook. I like to cook things that I love, using my time and effort and all that.
The people need to know, what are you doing all winter once you close up shop on your corner?
I've been focusing solely on my charity. It's called SHRED: Skaters Helping Realize Extraordinary Dreams. We raise money for families whose kids have extraordinary medical needs. It has morphed over the years from a skateboarding event to a skateboard art show and auction. We get a bunch of skateboards, raw blank boards, and then I pass them out to real artists, fake artists, whomever. I work with the Piedmont Open IB Middle School Honors art class. They have worked with us every year. They've produced 16 to 17 pieces of art per year. People donate prizes and other pieces of artwork. I also work with the Charlotte Art League.
This year it's going to be on Feb. 11 at Unknown Brewery. We will have a one-day art show and sale, with about 200 pieces of artwork. The bulk of them will be on skateboards but we have canvasses, we have pizza peels, we have ceramic skulls, we have heavy metal iron sculptures. We have a kid doing glass artwork. We have live art, food, beer, live music, a DJ, a kids area, and in that one day over seven hours we will be raising money for three families.
We're going to have a special guest Skyping in from California, Josh Bridgewater. He's an adult man in his 30s who was born with spina bifida and he skateboards. He's an inspiration. Even when things are real bad for him, he's out there working with kids with autism, teaching them how to skate or he's getting out there with the adaptive sports people.
I hooked up some time with him. One of my friends is bringing in a 120-inch inflatable screen and we're going to Skype him in and we'll have a prepackaged introduction to who he is, and then he'll be talking to the boys. Two of the boys that we work with were born with spina bifida.
It's a way for me to give back to the community and the universe, because I live a pretty good life. But also, it's a great way for people to see skateboarders not just as punks, but as good folks. You can't believe the outpouring of love from the skate community that goes into this — from the art community, food and music communities as well, but there's few communities that automatically get a bad raplike skaters. No matter how nice or good the skateboarder is, they're automatically possibly a bad kid.
So this year, what we're looking at is about 200 pieces of art, about 150 raffle prizes. We're looking to raise about $20,000. It's phenomenal.