In the time that it will take you to read this article, 54,000 hot dogs will be eaten in the United States. In spite of the new snootiness of American food, our obsession with freshness and our revived interest in good health, this nation continues to consume hot dogs at the rate of 50 million a day.
And it looks as if that number is about to increase. As our gastronomic patriotism increases, hot dog lovers are coming out of the closet. People who were once embarrassed to own up to their hot-dog habit can now be seen with mustard on their mouths. Old dogs are learning new tricks, and plain old hot dogs are threatening to turn into high-class haute dogs. These days you find hot dogs in the strangest places.
Consider, for example, Wally’s liquor store in Westwood. People drive there from all over town to buy wine, 20 kinds of olive oil and single-malt scotches. They have an incredible selection of Cognac, stock the wine cellars of some very important people, and offer seminars with names like “Caviar” and “Single Malt Scotch.” But what is this new sign stretched across their window? It seems to say “Wally Dogs.”
It does , in fact, say Wally Dogs. And proprietor Steve Wallace is very serious about his new venture. “I talked to a lot of people before I did this,” he says, offering me a chili dog. The dog part is plump and juicy, the chili part surprisingly grease-free. “Then I found out who supplied all the places that I like--Wiener Factory, Pink’s, Carneys. I got all their products and did tastings in the store. Every time a supplier came in to make a delivery, I’d get him to tell me which he liked best. I tried everything.”
Wallace pressed his customers into service, too; for a while it was impossible to get out of his store without at least tasting one of his hot dogs. You’d walk in and find celebrated gastronomes with chili on their chins. Whereas you might have expected people to say things like, “You expect me to eat that junk?” Danny Kaye’s reaction was fairly typical. “You’ve got to try the hot dogs at Nate ‘n Al’s,” he said. “Now there’s a hot dog.”
During the course of this experimentation, Wallace learned a lot about hot dogs. “I found out that you can’t keep hot dogs a long time; fresh dogs make a difference. And the kind with natural casings get hard if they get frozen, so you can never freeze them.”
Natural casings, to a true hot dog connoisseur, make all the difference. They add snap. And snap, as any hot dog eater knows, is very important. Cook a hot dog too long and it loses this important quality. Overcooking has other perils. “After half an hour in the steamer, the hot dogs lose their juiciness,” Wallace says. “They get smaller.”
This, of course, is assuming that you do steam them. “I’ve been selling hot dogs for 40 years,” says Ed Blake, who has been the proprietor of the Tail of the Pup for the last 14, “and I boil my hot dogs. Hot water is better than steam; you can’t get them as puffy with steam.”
Blake favors the Hoffman NC 7 hot dog. It is an all-beef hot dog, in a natural casing, and there are seven to a pound. (This is the same hot dog that goes into the Wally Dog.) The chili part “starts with a basic chili, but then we doctor it up with a secret recipe.”
Blake is more honest than most about the origins of his chili. While everybody claims to have a “secret recipe,” few are willing to reveal that the secret comes wrapped in plastic. “Few popular fast-food place makes their own chili,” Steve Wallace says. “Most use the same couple of brands.”
The brand that Blake uses tastes quite different from that of his major competition. His is meatier, chunkier, not so greasy. And his boiled hot dogs are plump. He serves them on a neat little frilled holder that makes his hot dogs seem both proper and proud. And although the new Ma Maison Hotel is supposed to displace the Tail of the Pup, the architect, Blake says, is trying to include the hot dog-shaped stand in his plans. And if he doesn’t? “I’ll move the hot dog.”
Pink’s, which probably sells more chili dogs than anybody else in Los Angeles, serves a very different dog. It is, for one thing, much skinnier: The day I measured them, the Tail of the Pup dog measured 7/8 of an inch in diameter, the Pink’s dog only 5/8 of an inch. And the charm of the chili, to which many people claim to be addicted, eludes me. The gummy stuff is so aggressively greasy that it stains the paper on which it is served, drips down your arms and finds its way into your shoes, where it colors your toes a vivid orange. While it has made Pink’s reputation, you can find similar chili elsewhere.
At Carney’s, for instance, the chili tastes suspiciously similar to the stuff served at Pink’s. You find something similar atop the Wally Dog, too, but with one important difference. “I use RC Chili,” Wallace says. “I tried all the brands; I even tried mixing the various kinds together. But we cook the chili until all the oil comes to the top and then we remove it.”
In the course of his research, Wallace made the ubiquitous pilgrimage to the Los Angeles chili dog shrine, Art’s. For it was here in Inglewood that the chili dog was invented. The way Art Elkind tells it, 50 years ago he was selling both hot dogs and chili from a pushcart, and when someone suggested that he put the chili on top of the hot dog, hot dog history was made. (I should report that there is some skepticism among other hot dog vendors about this.)
It is certainly true that Art’s chili dogs taste like nobody else’s. This is partly because Art has invented his own steamer, which keeps all the ingredients at the same temperature. It is partly because he uses a hot dog that is part pig. But it is mainly because his dog does not have a natural casing, which means that it has no snap. And thus, when you eat Art’s chili dog, all the ingredients sort of blend together; you don’t taste hot dog, roll, chili, mustard--you simply taste chili dog. It’s a sort of fast-food magic.
But the modern chili dog is too ambitious to stay in the fast-food lane. For sheer upward mobility, no chili dog in the state can top the one served by Cindy Pawlcyn, who makes her chili from scratch. She begins with big chunks of pork and beef and lamb. She browns the spices, as if she were making a curry, and then she adds beans and good beef stock. She puts the whole thing on crusty bread, adds a grilled Vienna Red Hot Dog, and ends up with the first $5 chili dog.
There is only one problem with all of this: You’ve got to go to San Francisco, to Pawlcyn’s Fog City Diner, if you want to bite this Yuppie Dog. But fear not; with restaurant industry newsletters running headlines like, “Move aside burgers, hot dogs make comeback,” and the Irvine Ranch Market selling hot dogs made of Black Angus beef, the day of the chic Los Angeles chili dog cannot be far off.