‘If you want good hot dogs, you go to Big Frank’s.’
There is a hot dog stand called Big Frank’s on Ventura Boulevard just east of Topanga Canyon. I am known to frequent Big Frank’s on occasion, due to the fact that I consider the hot dog a food equal in significance only to the holy wafer they used to put on my tongue at St. Elizabeth’s.
I favor what Frank calls Da Biggie, a name hinting at its Bronx roots, which is a half-pound of hot dog on a sesame roll with mustard, onions and tomatoes. Sometimes I also order hot kraut, though I am known to prefer the purity of the dog itself, without exterior embellishment.
I have probably eaten hot dogs at most of the stands along the boulevard from Hot Dog Heaven to Queenie’s Wienie’s, but I have never found a better dog than the one served by Big Frank Birnbaum, the owner and sole employee of Big Frank’s.
The only hot dog I have found anywhere in the Free World equal to Da Biggie was at the Doggie Diner up in Oakland, and you could have knocked me over with a knackwurst when Frank said that used to be his favorite dog too.
Frank is a man who really likes hot dogs, unlike, say, a furniture store owner who does not give a damn about his love seats or his Lincoln-back rockers.
Frank creates a hot dog with the care of a master chef blending a delicate sauce, each all-beef dog nestled in the tempered warmth of a steamer set at precisely 200 degrees, each bun fresh that day, each tomato uncut until it is sliced for the dog that has been ordered.
Even the kosher dills are lined up on a cutting board in orderly array.
“It kills me when a guy wants a dog to go,” Frank says. He is 52 years old, 5 feet, 7 inches tall and wears a white cap with “Coke Is It” across the side. His longish hair pokes out from under the cap and he has a kind of modified walrus mustache that grows over his upper lip.
“You figure the guy is going to eat it on the run and probably won’t even take his first bite for 10 minutes. That is like sitting it on the counter for 10 minutes before serving. I don’t know why they order it to go that way. Ten minutes later, how can it be as good?”
I am with him inside his stand, which is immaculate. Part of the reason it is immaculate is that Frank never seems to stop cleaning. As he talks he wipes the stainless steel refrigerator or sponges off the counter top.
“I was the second stand on the block,” he says, meaning Ventura Boulevard. “People have copied my place. I caught another owner taking pictures of my menu once. I ran outside and got in the picture. But I still sell more hot dogs than anyone around.
“Seven years ago when I opened, there was only Flooky’s. Now there are maybe eight or nine places within 20 square blocks. Competition is tough. The pie is getting smaller for everyone.
“But you know what’s going to happen? Someone is going to come in from out of town and say, ‘Look at all the hot dog stands, people must like hot dogs here,’ and open another one. Pretty soon there are going to be 12 and we are all going to slide down the ladder.”
Frank shakes his head. The idea frustrates him not simply from the standpoint of economics, but also because the stands are going to be opened by people who don’t know anything about hot dogs.
“They take their retirement money from Litton and open a stand for the hell of it without knowing anything,” he says. “You need 20 years to figure out what you’re doing in this business.”
Frank has a bachelor’s degree in retailing and has been a lover of hot dogs since he was a kid in the Bronx.
“I was poor, and when the other kids stopped at the deli for a corned-beef sandwich, I would get a Hebrew National Hot Dog with mustard and kraut for a dime.
“They fried them on a grill in those days, and sometimes they were so black they looked like lumps of coal. My mother thought they would kill me, but they didn’t.”
Frank hitchhiked to Los Angeles when he was 20 and lived at the YMCA for 25 cents a night. He opened his first hot dog stand in downtown L.A., called Doggie Delight, and still owns it. Big Frank’s came 14 years later.
“I sell gourmet dogs,” Frank says, “and that’s all I sell. My hot dogs have to be the best. If they aren’t the best, why else would anyone come here?
“People say you can make more money selling fries. True. They say you can make more money selling burgers. True. But you lose your uniqueness.
“Baskin-Robbins sells only ice cream, Big Frank’s sells only hot dogs. If you want good ice cream, you go to Baskin-Robbins. If you want good hot dogs, you go to Big Frank’s.”
He opens a package of sesame buns, takes them out and rearranges them before putting them back inside the plastic container.
“It’s one of my idiosyncrasies,” he says. “I like the buns in a different order.” He wipes the stainless-steel refrigerator door for about the fifth time. “Little things count.”