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Dogtown, USA

Times Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES is burgerville, but we love our hot dogs too. A lot. This is the No. 2 dog-eating town in the country, right after New York. It’s no accident that Wienerschnitzel, the world’s largest hot dog chain, was born in Wilmington.

We have our old-time dog houses such as Pink’s in Hollywood, Cupid’s in Northridge and the notorious Oki Dog, with its indefensible topping of pastrami and cheese. A lot of Angelenos are waiting to find out what will happen to Hollywood’s famous Tail o’ the Pup stand, which has languished in a warehouse since 2005. Look on the Internet and you can read of the grief felt when Sherman Oaks’ 36-year-old Wiener Factory closed last New Year’s Eve.

(Speaking of the Internet, there’s an L.A. hot dog lovers’ blog, www.hotdogspot.com. Hot Dog Spot posts are infrequent, but the site crashed briefly last month for excess traffic, indicating a willing if not well-served fan base.)

Finally -- love ‘em or hate ‘em -- Dodger Stadium would not be Dodger Stadium without Dodger Dogs.

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Hot dogs are the ultimate vernacular food, you’d say, but these days they’re going gourmet. The L.A. area now has a number of doggeries that extol special features of their sausages. City Bakery in Brentwood has an organic beef dog; Cafe Surfas in Culver City uses smoked venison.

I’m all for this phenomenon. Our wienie scene is long established, but it can use new blood. The Cupid’s chain I grew up on seems to be declining, and I’ve never been a fan of the sausage they use at Pink’s (I know, I know, it has a million fans; so shoot me). Let a million franks bloom, particularly when they’re as good as this new wave. It can only enrich our lives.

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Riding the snap

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Most of the new places insist on natural lamb gut casings, which snap when you bite into the sausage, providing a burst of sausage juices in the mouth. “Without the natural casing,” insists John Hooper of Skooby’s in Hollywood, “a hot dog is not a sausage, it’s just a Kraft meat product.”

Several newcomers follow the New York grilled dog tradition, but there’s a surge of interest in the Chicago school: a boiled dog on a poppy seed bun, seasoned with mustard and celery salt and piled with chopped onions, tomato chunks, a pickle spear, pickled sport peppers (a variety of small green peppers) and a lurid green pickle relish.

Local branches of Chicago chains Portillo’s and Mustard’s have opened -- the former in Buena Park and Moreno Valley, the latter in Los Alamitos.

L.A.'s new breed of dogateurs don’t just set up a counter and some stools, they tend to have a vision. “I use the slogan ‘Fast Food for the Discerning,’ ” says Marty Davidson of Marty D’s in Beverly Hills. “I thought of it as a place for people who want to have a nice experience and not spend a fortune.”

“Our motivation was to pay homage to the hot dog as an iconic American food,” says Murray Wishengrad of the Stand chain (Encino, Century City and Westwood), “to elevate the hot dog in both quality and environment. All our places have beer and wine licenses, so you can have a glass of Merlot with a great hot dog.”

We’ve been familiar with wieners (or frankfurters, whatever you want to call them) at least since 1888, when they were first mentioned in The Times -- well ahead of the world’s fairs of the 1890s that supposedly introduced them to this country, by the way -- in a jokey column about L.A.'s reputation as a rough place where hogs were supposedly fed on stolen registered mail and then turned into “wiener wurst.”

And we’ve had premium hot dog stands before. Jody Maroni’s, on the Venice boardwalk since 1979, spawned a chain and a national brand of sausages (Maroni is health-conscious these days, so you might want to some salt on his dogs). Johnnie’s Pastrami in Culver City, vintage 1952, still features a huge, meaty grilled dog.

The Carney’s railway car restaurants in Hollywood and Studio City, which date from the ‘60s and ‘70s, have a dog with an impressive snap, followed by rich juices, as if you’ve bitten into a very warm Slim Jim.

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Some of today’s ambitious dogaterias seem to be stretching the definition of the hot dog to mean any sausage that fits in a hot dog bun.

Properly, though, it’s a mild, smooth-textured sausage of beef, pork or a combination, lightly smoked and flavored with paprika and a sweet spice such as coriander or nutmeg. Old recipes don’t always include garlic, but it’s now standard.

The hot dog originated around Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in the mid-1600s and made its way to Vienna around 1804. It arrived in this country from Germany and Austria simultaneously, which is why we call it either a frankfurter or wiener. Some American sausage makers now make the distinction that a wienie is blander than a frank.

It’s made by grinding the meat very fine with seasonings and ice water, stuffing it in sausage casings, giving it a smoke flavor and cooking it in hot water (all hot dogs are precooked).

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The DIY dog

You CAN make respectable hot dogs yourself if you have a sausage stuffing attachment on your meat grinder and can get lamb gut sausage casings. Butchers who make their own sausage may sell you some, or you can go online to sites such as www.sausagemaker.com or www.leeners.com, which also provide hot dog recipes.

The traditional frankfurter was smoked in a smokehouse, which requires adding “quick cure” (also called Prague powder No.1), a precise mixture of table salt and sodium nitrite, usually dyed pink so nobody will mistake it for regular salt. If you smoke sausage with no sodium nitrite, you face a serious danger of botulism poisoning.

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But don’t worry. Guests are always amazed when you can produce something like the commercial product they know, so they’ll actually be more impressed by your franks if you add just a few drops of liquid smoke, the way commercial hot dog companies have long done. For once, the easy way is the splashiest.

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food@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Premium hot dogs: best of show

There ARE a million doggeries in the City of Angels (and Dodgers). Here are some of the places where you’ll find new-wave hot dogs.

Boa Steakhouse, with its stylish decor of gnarled tree trunks and colorful cylindrical lamps, has a Kobe beef steak and a Kobe hamburger on its entree menu. Just for fun, it also has 4-inch Kobe corn dogs as an appetizer, though an extra-rich sausage fried in corn batter is a little heavy for appetizing purposes. 101 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 899-4466; 8462 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 650-8383; www.boasteak.com.

Cafe Surfas, in foodie-favorite Surfas Restaurant Supply, offers an “haute dog” in its cafeteria-plain room. Its original haute dog was made from Kobe beef, but Surfas has moved on to smoked venison. Talk about distinctive -- it tastes like a cross between a kosher hot dog and a salami. 8777 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 558-0458; www.cafesurfas.com.

The City Bakery is basically a large space with antiseptic white walls, but it does serve hot food. Its dense-textured Niman Ranch organic beef dog has a wonderful beef flavor with notes of garlic, paprika and coriander opening up at the end. The dog is aggressively grilled and served on a brioche roll about 1 1/2 inches too long for it (brioche may be a tad too rich for hot dog bun purposes, by the way) with very sweet pickle relish, Dijon mustard and a couple of half-sour pickle spears. In Brentwood Country Mart, 225 26th St., Santa Monica, (310) 656-3040; www.thecitybakery.com.

Jerry’s Wood-Fired Dogs has a classic color scheme for a hot dog place -- mustard yellow and ketchup red -- though it does offer burgers and other kinds of sausage as well. Its specialty is a grilled beef dog in natural casings with decent snap, rather rich juices -- and as many toppings as you want, no extra charge. If you ask them to boil the dog instead of grilling it and request the right toppings, you can have a virtual Chicago-style hot dog (except for not being on a poppy seed bun). 2276 E. 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 245-0200; 1360 S. Beach Blvd., Suite C, La Habra, (562) 697-4644; and 1701 Corporate Drive, Suite C8, Ladera Ranch, (949) 364-7080; www.jerrysdogs.com.

Let’s Be Frank is a Culver City street cart, which you can find by following the mesmerizing aroma of frying onions. The grilled sausage is made from grass-fed beef, which gives it a slightly funky flavor some people prefer. The best thing about this dog is the outstanding “snap” of its natural lamb gut casing -- the sausage literally pops between your teeth, bathing your mouth with hot dog flavor. Helms Avenue between Washington and Venice boulevards, Culver City; www.letsbefrank dogs.com.

Marty D’s, based on the Brooklyn dinette where director Martin Davidson worked in his youth, uses a very meaty East Coast kosher beef dog, slashed before grilling and served on a toasted poppy seed bun with little pots of sauerkraut and lightly fried onions on the side. Extra kick is provided by snazzy Streamline Moderne decor and a genuine 1950s soda fountain. 230 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 273-7771; www.martyds.com.

Mustard’s walls are cluttered with Chicago Bears memorabilia, photos of Al Capone and such; this is a Chicago-based chain of sports bars with a hot dog specialty. The basic dog is a Vienna Beef frank garnished Chicago-style: pickled “sport peppers,” celery salt, neon-green relish and all. 3630 Katella Ave., Los Alamitos, (562) 598-1662.

Skooby’s, a 6-year-old operation right across Hollywood Boulevard from Musso & Frank, serves a grilled hot dog with an impressive snap and a distinctive, appealing note of cloves (the puffy bun is also grilled but can taste faintly underdone). At $2, it’s the cheapest primo dog around, though you do have to factor in the cost of parking in Hollywood. Strictly hot dog stand decor: red awning, red stools. 6654 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) HOT-DOGS; 502 Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach, (310) 376-1292; www.skoobys.com.

The Stand serves a sausage with an ultra-thin casing that doesn’t really pop very much. It’s a tasty dog anyway, meatier and more garlicky than an Oscar Mayer beef frank but with the same sort of mellow tang. Alongside the usual mustard, relish and sauerkraut range of condiments, it offers wilder toppings such as mushrooms, blue cheese and baked beans. 17000 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 788-2700; 2000 Avenue of the Stars (in the park at Century Towers), Los Angeles, (310) 785-0400; 1116 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 443-0400; www.thestandlink.com.

Taste Chicago, owned by Arlene Mantegna, wife of actor Joe Mantegna (and located not a million miles from the Valley’s film studios), is another little place cluttered with Chicago memorabilia. The huge menu includes ribs, pasta, Italian beef sandwiches and deep-dish pizza as well as Vienna Beef hot dogs with all the Chicago toppings, including genuine “sport peppers” and neon-green relish (on request). Excellent balance of elements makes this the most satisfying Chicago dog around. 603 N. Hollywood Way, Burbank, (818) 563-2800; www.tastechicago.biz.

25 Degrees, with its flocked wallpaper, red pressed-tin ceiling and sleek black reflecting tiles, looks like an 1890s sporting house morphing into a hip Westside restaurant bar (it’s the work of restaurant designer Dodd Mitchell). Though it moves mostly hamburgers, it does have a mildly smoky, ultra-delicate hot dog that tastes like some kind of elegant German veal sausage. The $9 price is a bit of a shock, but you’re right across the street from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, so deal with it, pilgrim. In the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, 7000 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 785-7244; www.25degreesrestaurant.com.

-- Charles Perry


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