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Thursday, September 28, 2023

The spirt of classic Huntsville restaurant Zesto rides again

For the last decade or so, Amelia Mathison’s friends have been nudging her. Encouraging her to bring back “dip dogs,” a corndog variation Huntsville residents grew up enjoying from Zesto, the bygone Five Points restaurant her parents, Earl and Virgina Noe, owned during the ‘70s and ‘80s.

But this time on a food truck, the mobile vending platform that’s been popular in Huntsville for the last 10 years. This summer, Mathison made that wish real when she, husband Jim Mathison, son Justin Mathison and Justin’s girlfriend Maria Gallardo launched ZestoAF.

Their first service was at Haven Comics Etc, a comic book store in Madison. Since then, they’ve been doing about two services a week, at local festivals, apartments and shopping centers.

“I’ve just been overwhelmed,” Amelia says, “with the people who come up and tell us stories about their Zesto’s experience, when they were a child and went with their grandparents. Or a gentleman came the other night and said he would skip school and go get dip dogs and his principal and asked him to bring one back for him. Such good memories. It makes people feel good and takes them back to a time when things were good.”

ZestoAF food truck

ZestoAF food truck’s dip dog and onion rings. (Matt Wake/[email protected])

Nostalgia is comforting, but you can’t eat it. And the dip dog ZestoAF makes is a fun and tasty eat. Fried processed meat paradise on a stick.

Like a corndog, a dip dog is a battered hot dog fried on a stick. But there are subtle differences. For one, there’s the curl at the end of a dip dog, akin to that on top of a Dairy Queen dipped cone. Also, unlike a typical corndog, the batter on a dip dog isn’t sweet.

ZestoAF also serves onion rings, another classic standby of Zesto, which was located in the Pratt Avenue space since rebuilt and now home to the restaurant 1892 East.

There are also new additions to the menu, including “potato ribbons,” an excellent side item that’s like a nude beach for potatoes au gratin. There’s a half-size “dog bites” dip dog variant and Conecuh sausage dog, too. They do service prep at MyKitchen HSV, a commissary on Meridian Street that 15 or so local food trucks utilize, Amelia says.

ZestoAF food truck

ZestoAF food truck’s dip dog and potato ribbons. (Matt Wake/[email protected])

Although “AF” means, um, something else in text/social media speak, in ZestoAF’s case the initials stand for “always fresh” and “authentic flavor,” as per the food truck’s logo.

ZestoAF has been years in the making. Amelia, whose day job is in human resources for a government contractor, formed an LLC about nine years ago. Then post pandemic, she and husband Jim Mathison, a software architect who’s worked with NASA, purchased a food truck from local eatery Hildegard’s German Cuisine.

Amelia handles ZestoAF’s business side – management, banking and tax stuff, handling digital mobile payment accounts, etc. Jim is the truck’s official driver. But both lend a helping hand on truck where needed.

Justin Mathison, Amelia and Jim’s son, does most of the cooking, while Maria Gallardo, whose nickname is “Pita,” works the truck’s window, taking orders and such. The Mathisons’ younger son Jay often helps out too, controlling the business’ social media and running food orders out to customers.

For the last 12 years, Justin has been working at local restaurants, including a couple pizza franchises. For the last seven years, he’s worked in the kitchen at Diamonds Sports Bar on South Parkway.

Although Justin was born after his family owned Zesto. But he has fond childhood memories of his grandmother doing dip dogs on her countertop fryer. “We would go up to Gatlinburg occasionally,” Justin says, “and she would make them up there for us, and for family reunion stuff.”

Before Amelia’s parents died, she asked them about classic Zesto items and how to make them. She jotted their recollections down in a notebook.

Since helping launch the ZestoAF truck, Justin’s learned there’s nuance to dip dog technique. “The biggest thing for me,” he says, “is having the batter the right consistency and making sure the batter is chilled. And there’s definitely a way to dropping it into the fryer. You have to go pretty slow and make sure the batter’s not flying off as it hits the grease.”

Justin’s developing new menu items, including a chicken parmesan on a stick, that put new spins on the vintage Zesto style. It’s was his idea to do potato ribbons, inspired by something he saw on TV’s Food Network, to give ZestoAF a spuds side that wasn’t just another French fry.

Huntsville restaurant Zesto

A photo of beloved, bygone Huntsville restaurant Zesto. (Courtesy Amelia Mathison)

Zesto in Huntsville dates back to the circa 1947. It started out as a ice cream shop franchise purchased by a local businessman named Roy Hones. Around 1951, under new owner Houston Goodson, Zesto developed its own fingerprint here, a sort of mini-diner serving items like dip dogs and a “dip burger” (aka turtle burger).

Huntsville restaurant Zesto

A photo of classic Huntsville restaurant Zesto. (Courtesy Amelia Mathison)

In the dining room, there was a classic-style counter with stools for customers to sit at as well as booths. An exterior sliding glass window allowed for walk-up service. There was seating outside, too.

During the Noe family’s tenure, Amelia’s mom would make chili. Amelia’s dad mostly handled the business side and repairs, although he’d step up and handle whatever was needed in the kitchen, too.

Huntsville restaurant Zesto

A photo of classic Huntsville restaurant Zesto. (Courtesy Amelia Mathison)

The Noes purchased Zesto from previous owner Goodson around 1974. Their family ran the restaurant until circa early ‘90s. Amelia’s aunt and brother worked there, too.

With a laugh, Amelia says she mostly enjoyed free food at Zesto, and instead worked at the five-and-dime store the family-owned next door. That said, she has fond memories of when, in Huntsville’s Panoply Arts Festival’s early years, Zesto would rent a Coca-Cola trailer to vend at the fest.

“My parents would bring big batches of dip dogs,” Amelia says, “from the restaurant to [Panoply site] Big Spring Park, where my middle school friend and I got to sell them out of the trailer window. We had the best time.”

Huntsville restaurant Zesto

A print advertisement promoting classic Huntsville restaurant Zesto. (Courtesy Amelia Mathison)

The Noe family sold Zesto — rebooted by other ownership later before the last version closed during the aughts — around 1990 or ‘91.

“It was just time to move on,” Amelia says of her family’s original tenure. “The fast food places were getting big and popular coming in and people were more into that back then. Now everybody wants the nostalgia and mom-and-pop stores are back.”

ZestoAF’s schedule, menu and other info available at the food truck’s Facebook and Instagram accounts.


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