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Frank Discussion 

A natural history of the chilidog

Wednesday, Nov 4 1998
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`If you grew up eating hot dogs in the swinging San Fernando Valley '70s, your family probably had allegiances to the Hot Dog Show or Flooky's or the Wiener Factory, which were as inarguable, as inevitable, as the question of Orthodox, Conservative or Reform.

My family was big into Flooky's, which prepared a creditable version of a Maxwell Street-style Chicago hot dog, but I didn't set foot in the Wiener Factory until my 20s; a friend who grew up going to the Hot Dog Show doesn't remember ever tasting a Flooky's dog, which is basically her loss.

But the biggest frankfurter cult of all was probably that belonging to Cupid's, a tiny Van Nuys chilidog stand that exuded a bravado, an allure, perhaps surpassed only by the impossible glamour of the far-off Tommy's. (It was only recently that Cupid's added bags of chips to its one-item menu.) Flooky's may have been where your father took you for lunch on Sunday afternoons; Cupid's was where you headed yourself as soon as you were old enough to drive.

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If you head to Cupid's today, either the superior stand on Victory near Van Nuys or the other stands in Tarzana or the Simi Valley, you'll see as diverse a crowd as may exist in this part of the world, Chicano families dining on the tailgates of their Suburbans, Harley-riding nomads with bedrolls strapped to their handlebars, surfers whose hair is still crusted with salt, Mercedes drivers, and 35-year-olds on BMX bikes.

The last time I went to Cupid's, the counterman appeared like an apparition out of a cloud of warm, hot-dog-scented steam that made the glass-enclosed kitchen look like the inside of a bong.

It is a beautiful thing to see a Cupid's dog assembled, to observe the counterman aligning buns four, five, six at a time in a special ridged tray, to witness the quick flick of his wrists as he lays in the hot dogs, smears each with yellow mustard, sprinkles them with chopped onions, then sluices them with a precise amount of chili, enough to flavor every bite - to soak into the top few millimeters of the steamed bun without necessarily slopping onto your shoes or even on your hands - before twisting the dogs like anniversary presents into layers of soft, white tissue. If you order the dogs with cheese, a soft flurry of grated orange substance is showered onto the hot dogs right over the onions, and dissolves almost immediately into the chili.

I'm not sure I even like Cupid's dogs all that much - give me Pink's toughskinned Hoffys every time - but the Cupid's dog is undeniable, an object manufactured with the sole intent of sliding uninterrupted down a customer's throat.

It would be possible, I think, to unravel the formula of Cupid's chili, the exact dose of cumin, the provenance of the chili powder, the molecular density of the emulsifiers, the source of the starchy viscosity. If you poked around boxes in the dumpster, you could probably discover the source of the hot dogs themselves, the baker of the buns, the brand of mustard.

But a Cupid's dog is more than the sum of its parts. With its well-steamed bun, its saucelike chili, the puddingish softness of its skinless frank, a Cupid's hot dog is a chilidog evolved to a perfect state of being, chilidog satori, no unwarranted intrusions of texture or of bold flavor, no rough edges, no beans. A Cupid's dog is a puffy, oozing cloud of gravy and meat, soft and comforting enough that consumption continues as if in a dream. The path of least resistance often involves having a third.

Victory Boulevard at Tyrone Street, Van Nuys. Open daily. Lunch for two, food only, $5-$8. No alcohol. Takeout only. Cash only. Recommended dish: chilidog. Also at 20030 Vanowen Blvd., Canoga Park, and several other locations.

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