"Mickey, make me a combo, will ya?" yells Coney Dog owner Mike Binder at a grill cook from his table midway across his bustling West Hollywood restaurant. Then he flashes a broad grin. "I've been waiting my whole life to have a restaurant, just so I could do that."
The combo soon comes out. It's a deluxe Coney dog nestled inside a Detroit loose burger (which is crumbled ground beef as opposed to a patty) in a freshly steamed bun, smothered with chili.
"That's the Rolls-Royce of hot dogs, right there," says Binder, who is better known as a comedian and director but whose passion for Detroit-style dogs has consumed him for the last year.
He's not alone. Los Angeles is in the midst of a hot dog renaissance, with a cluster of recent openings signaling a hunger for that most sentimental of meals: tender tubular meat in a bun covered with toppings, or naked except for mustard.
Like the burger before it, and in tandem with the current German sausage craze, the hot dog has gone gourmet, with restaurants taking it seriously enough to dream up all kinds of wild combinations. In addition to the tried-and-true, like Pink's and Tommy's dogs, diners can now nosh on the Sooo Cali at Dog Haus in Pasadena, which waters mouths with mixed greens, chopped tomatoes, tempura-fried onions, house-made spicy basil aioli and avocados; or the Vegan Weena, on the new hot dog menu at North Hollywood's Federal Bar, which is a meatless dog topped with chipotle, avocado, cilantro cream and tropical fruit salsa. Then there's the Picnic Dog at Pasadena's Slaw Dogs, which tops a humble grilled dog with barbecue sauce, onion, potato salad and a crisp pickle spear.
The purists also have a seat at the beefy banquet, with places like Coney Dog, Papaya King and Hollywood's Township Kitchen Americana & Saloon paying reverent homage to Detroit, New York and Chicago-style dogs.
The first two go so far as to ship in all their ingredients from Detroit and New York in order to replicate their favored dogs as closely as possible. Binder even had a machine custom-made in Detroit that steams the buns from all directions so that they become as soft as marshmallows and just as mild in flavor.
The raison d'etre for the recent boom, say wiener enthusiasts, is twofold, and butterflied in the same bun: economics and tradition. The recession is making diners search for value without losing flavor (see the recent food truck boom), while at the same time causing them to go gooey for the traditions of their simpler youth, which, if you were raised in America, were likely wrapped up in hot dogs at some point or another. And Los Angeles, according to the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, is the country's No. 1 consumer of hot dogs, beating out New York City and San Antonio/Corpus Christi.
"In this economy, people want to go back to their roots and have fun," says Andre Vener, who opened Dog Haus a year ago with partners Hagop Giragossian and Quasim Riaz. The original 55-seat restaurant was such a success (seating 600 to 800 people a day) that they just opened a second location, the Dog Haus Biergarten in Old Town Pasadena, which, in addition to beer, features handcrafted cocktails and an '80s party theme. Soon they plan to open a third location in Alhambra.
At Dog Haus, as with most hot dog places, you can get a hot dog, fries or tater tots and a classic soda for less than $10. And you'll leave full. The juicy all-beef dogs come in thick, buttery-sweet King's Hawaiian rolls and are smothered with ingredients. Sauces zigzag in fat lines across the top of most, and melty cheese and onions are plentiful.
"It's not hard to sell anybody on hot dogs or hamburgers," says Giragossian. "They've got that street-food-fun vibe."
Plus kids love them, so families are as common a sight during the day and early evening as clubgoers are in the wee hours of the sodden night, says Matt Erickson, vice president of restaurant operations for SBE hospitality, which opened L.A.'s first branch of New York legend Papaya King in Hollywood and plans to open more in Los Angeles and Nevada, Arizona and Miami.
"Families will drive here from across town, park outside and relax with their tailgates down," Erickson says. The Hollywood location has no seating, which is why Drew Barrymore was spotted one night munching a Papaya King dog while sitting on a curb.
Papaya King, which first opened in New York City in 1932, is known for its slender, all-natural dogs that come in skin casings that give a satisfying snap when you bite into them. The dogs are cooked on top of a foil-covered grill, which is said to enhance the snap. The bright red-and-yellow restaurant also serves as the tongue-in-cheek secret entrance to a ritzy invite-only music venue and bar, called Sayers Club, where such artists as Prince and Perry Farrell hop onstage for impromptu performances, a situation that adds sparkle to the stand's after-hours feeding frenzy. (Papaya King sells more than 600 hot dogs a day.)
Because it's in the middle of Sunset Strip, Coney Dog also feeds long lines of hungry glitterati late at night. Binder, who opened the business with friends and fellow Detroiters Tim Allen and Sam Raimi, uses his Facebook page to advertise specials, sometimes giving coupons for a free hot dog. His Coney dogs are 80% beef, 20% pork and have a little milk in them, but nothing else.
The Coney Island dog of Binder's youth offered two choices: a hot dog with chili or a loose burger. Binder thought he might do the same thing until he realized that such a scheme wouldn't fly in wildly diverse Los Angeles.
"Todd Phillips, the director of 'The Hangover,' came in and said, 'I love your food, but why can't I get sauerkraut?'" says Binder, who resisted at first but now offers all manner of variations, including a classic bacon-wrapped L.A. dog with jalapenos.
"Hot dogs and hamburgers are all about what you did in your childhood," he says, adding that he hopes to make Coney Dog a tradition for a new generation of L.A. youth.
The same goes for the trio of men behind Dog Haus. Since the first restaurant opened, Vener and Riaz's wives have had babies, and Giragossian has married.
"This place is filled with families and kids and babies and strollers," says Vener. "Every kid that comes in here gets a free Otter Pop."
Giragossian laughs as Vener's wife appears on the biergarten patio with Vener's tiny new daughter. "We need to get Dog Haus onesies."