The hot dog. Frankfurter. Weiner. Frank. Most of us don’t remember our first hot dog, because it was probably diced up for us and placed on a high-chair eating tray, with most of the meaty morsels finding their way to the ground or our bibs before ever reaching our mouths. However, we can all think back to an early hot dog memory at a ballpark, a Labor Day cookout or the great American hot dog stand existent in each and every city. Mine? The world famous 10-inch Dodger dog, an exclusive product of the best franchise to ever exist in professional sports. I still eat Dodger dogs, and while I am so very aware they are far from the best hot dog in the world, a grilled Dodger dog is MY hot dog because it holds my heart.
Hot dogs were never meant to be anything special. An immigrant’s street food, the hot dog is the perfect embodiment of the cultural inferno that is Los Angeles, with hordes of regional varieties available throughout the city. Hot dog historian Bruce Kraig describes the hot dog as “America encased in a dream.” If you’ve ever been seduced by the ravishing scent of L.A.’s famous “danger dogs” wrapped in bacon, cooked over converted shopping carts and doled out outside concert and sport venues, you know what I’m referring to. These Latin American dogs are only one of many examples of a regional hot dog variety cooked and sold by immigrants. The sale of hotdogs is an American narrative, selling something cheap at a price higher than which you paid for it, all in the pursuit of the American dream.
While the origins of the term “hot dog” are unproven and disputed, the two stories that seem to carry the most truth come out of Germany and the United States. In Germany, Frankfurters became known as “dachshund,” translating to little dogs. The other story, however, is a little more unsavory. In early 20th century America, a widely popular book by Upton Sinclair titled "The Jungle" shed light on factory conditions in America, with multiple accounts of abominable practices in food preparation and packaging. Out of this, people realized they had no idea what was in the popular sausages, maybe even bits of dog meat. This running gag is reputed to have gained traction and the name stuck.
Before proceeding, I find it important to note the differences and similarities between sausages and hotdogs. A sausage, in its simplest form, has the very basic definition of a mixture of meat and spices in a tube casing. A hotdog is a type of sausage, but with unique qualifiers; most notably, a hotdog uses an emulsified filling, where meat and spices are ground up into a paste. Also, many hot dogs are sold and served with their casing removed, allowed for a smooth bite as opposed to a popping bite. In short, all hot dogs are sausages, but not all sausages are hot dogs. While Los Angeles has no shortage of delicious sausage, I’m choosing to focus on the hot dog – the everyman’s meal.
Hot dogs come in varieties of type and topping. Beef, pork or some combination of the two. With the casing or with the casing removed (casing provides a pop upon biting). Grilled, boiled or steamed. And endless topping options. While some purists will say you shouldn’t even be putting ketchup on a hot dog if you’re older than 11 (I happen to agree), others who aren’t so traditional are adding anything from French Fries to peanut butter. For the purpose of consistency, I’ve chosen to focus on a classic: The Chili Cheese Dog, a fabulous symbol of our nation’s freedoms and can-do attitude.
Art’s Famous Chili Dog Stand
Unassuming is the word that comes to mind when attempting to describe the South Central establishment with indoor seating for no more than seven people. Art’s, established in 1939, has been a constant in a part of town that has been anything but. South Central is a zone with a tumultuous reputation for violence, and is the heart of the 1992 Rodney King Riots. Art’s lives on the corner of Normandie and Florence, the intersection where innocent semi-truck driver Reginald Denny was yanked out of his vehicle and beaten in the wake of the ’92 riots that rocked L.A. to its core. It’s at this troublesome spot where we find the supposed first marriage of chili and hot dog. Founder Art Elkind claims to be the first to top a hot dog with chili, and while this story is entirely self-appointed and heavily disputed, it’s a fun narrative to follow. I like to believe I ate at the birthplace of an American icon. A stand-alone employee behind the counter will take your order, serving up their “World Famous” Chili Cheese Dogs on the cheap and on the quick. The dog itself is delightful, nostalgic and uncomplicated. I’ve written before on the theme of beauty through simplicity, and Art’s dog encapsulates this theme. Art chose to use a steamed, skinless pork dog nestled in a steamed white bun, the lack of pop or crunch, blends with the chili and cheese for a smooth, seamless bite. I enjoyed my franks with a Dr. Pepper and my pal, Cade.
There’s nothing conventional about The Oki Dog. A beast of this magnitude could only survive (and thrive) in Los Angeles. In a strange mixture of culture, Oki’s signature dish, The Oki Dog, is a flour tortilla filled with two skinless beef franks, chili, cheese, and pastrami. I’m an adventurous eater (understatement) and even I was skeptical of this cult favorite. There’s something so correct about the way the flavors and textures meld in this wrap that I wish I could eat every week, but will limit myself to once every six months. Supposedly loosely representing a regional snack, the Oki Dog is a unique creation that I am thankful for. Oki gained cult popularity in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with the bustling L.A. punk rock crowd, looking for cheap and filling grub after an evening of screaming, moshing and possibly fighting. I ventured here with one of the biggest eaters I know, CJ Stone, and his meal seemed to satisfy his supposedly limitless appetite. With an Oki Dog combo (fries and a fountain drink) coming in at $8 flat, I understand the draw. This place receives an A+ rating in the metric of “Bang for Your Buck” and another A+ in “Unconventional, Yet Delicious Ways to Transport Meat and Cheese to my Stomach.”
A notification on my Facebook account informed me that a friend of mine, BK, tagged me in a post with a comment “We need to go here." The video post was of the stereotypical Facebook clickbait format “YOU WON’T BELIEVE SO AND SO DID SUCH AND SUCH WITH SOME FOOD.” I’m usually skeptical of these types of posts, as they tend to sensationalize size, quantity and novelty over food quality - giant donuts, milkshakes with 67 toppings, etc. But this video captured my attention, as I saw Dirt Dog’s promotion and modification on “Los Angeles Street Food.” I saw the bacon wrapped “Danger Dogs” my Pops would buy me outside of Staples Center and the elotes street corn-cobs so ubiquitous to Los Angeles street food. With those classics, I also saw hot dogs with unique, well thought-out toppings, a modern and fresh take on street food. I excitedly took BK up on his offer and we made the drive out to Downtown, in the USC region of the city. All dogs at Dirt Dog start with a base of a skinless Nathan’s all-beef frank. Personally, I’ll 100% percent of the time take a beef hot dog over a pork dog. Great start. The choice of bun includes plain bread, Texas toast or pretzel. And then each dog offers specially-curated assortments of toppings with unique flavor profiles. I ordered the Dirty Chili Dog, which comes with all-beef chili, melted cheddar and bacon bits. The chili, cheese and bacon combined for perfection. I also highly recommend the buttery Texas toast bun – wow. BK ordered The House Dog and The Patty Melt dog, and while these weren’t part of my standard chili cheese dog routine, I sampled a bite of each, both excellent. I also got a side of an elotes corn-cob with mayo, cotija cheese, chili powder and cilantro – a great, atypical hot dog side order. Dirt Dog has a heavy recommendation from me. It's a truly delicious product.
Pink’s Hot Dogs
Writing an article about L.A. hot dogs and not including Pink’s would be like trying to write a definitive history of space exploration and leaving out the moon landing. While many may say Pink’s isn’t the best hot dog in the city, there’s no denying that Pink’s has consistently been the most popular. The Hollywood outfit came into existence the same year as Art’s across town – 1939. A similar concept to Art’s, Pink’s offered a cheap, reliable food option for the middle class during the time of the Depression. Paul and Betty Pink also began to top their dogs with Betty’s chili, further eroding Art’s claim at originality. Pink’s uses a fabulous all-beef frank with its natural casing still intact. For me, this is the perfect hot dog type. Beef is always my go-to, but the pop of skin is something I crave in a hot dog, making Pink’s the best dog I had in terms of the literal sausage. On Pink’s standard chili cheese dog, the dog and the bun are steamed, a slice of American cheese is placed directly inside the bun, the dog is placed on top (for effective cheese meltage) and followed with mustard, chili and diced onions. With the framed faces of 100 celebrity patrons looking down on us, my girlfriend Emma and I bit into a hot dog that millions have bitten into before us and will surely after us. Predictably, the dog popped, but unpredictably, I was filled with a re-appreciation with a hot dog I’ve had many times before. I’ve previously been to Pink’s and my high school would have Pink’s-catered events, so I knew the product, but without proper context. Having tried hot dogs all over the city, I was able to realize what makes Pink’s so very special. A mixture of an incredible base dog and a supporting cast of other fine ingredients legitimizes, in my book, Pink’s claim as one of the best. Pink’s is more than a tourist trap, with its lunch-line down the block and comically dated signed celebrity headshots, but it delivers a straightforward and delicious product. At its core, isn’t that what a hot dog should be?
This is the opinion of Niko Klein, a senior business management major from Los Angeles, California. Tweet comments to @LALoyolan or email email@example.com.