Densely packed buildings, well-weathered and decaying, line the corridors of the southeastern section of downtown L.A.'s commercial district. The streets and sidewalks are choked with traffic and people. Spanish names and phrases dominate the signage and snatches of overheard conversations. This is one of those places in the city where it would be easy to convince an outsider that Los Angeles is not functionally a part of the United States. It feels more like a satellite metropolis of Latin America, magically implanted north of the U.S.-Mexico line.
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Where's Toto? A grown-up Dorothy in the underground land of bacon-wrapped hot dogs
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Burned: Elizabeth Palacios, jailed for grilling, now baconless
Here, in the middle of the pedestrian traffic rushing by in the Fashion District, on the sidewalk along Los Angeles Street, between Fourth and Fifth streets, Elizabeth Palacios has built her business at a blue, beat-up mobile food cart protected from the sun by two bright beach umbrellas. She sells chips, bottled water, canned sodas and, until recently, the beloved but troubled icon of L.A. street food, the bacon-wrapped hot dog.
"I used to clean houses," Palacios says on a warm afternoon. "Then, a year later, I got the chance to work on a carrito. A month later, I started renting one. Four months of doing that, I had enough saved up. I bought a cart. 'What do I have to do?' 'Go around and around, and where there isn't a cart, put yourself there.'"
She did, 18 years ago.
"Back in those days, you didn't use the bacon," she says, indicating the hot dogs that lie unattractively in her golf-cart-like Cushman vehicle.
As she speaks, a customer approaches, peering at her meat bin. "No bacon?"
"No bacon," Palacios sighs apologetically, in accented English. "They don't let me."
She means police and L.A. health-department inspectors, but the customer doesn't need much explanation: He moves on. She turns and cocks her head, as if to say, See?
Not quite Mexican and not quite American, the bacon-wrapped hot dog, like the city that so fervently embraces it, has a curious romance about it. You can smell one from blocks away. The grilled bacon, twisted around a wiener, is topped with grilled onions and a mountaintop of diced tomatoes, ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. Then one whole grilled green poblano chile is plopped impossibly on top. You take a bite and think, This is so good, no wonder it's illegal!
Among working-class downtown shoppers, belligerent clubgoers and adventurous foodies, devotion to the famed "heart-attack dogs" is strong and strident, a source of raw L.A. nostalgia.
"I probably saw my first one while I was trying to pick up 18-year-old girls at Florentine Gardens," says Eddie Lin, a food blogger at deependdining.com, who has rhapsodized about the bacon-wrapped dogs on local public radio.
To get them, "I go to places like the 99 Cents Only store in Reseda or other Hispanic working-class neighborhoods in the Valley. Parks are good too. It's the only street food L.A. can really claim as its own," Lin adds. "It's illegal and yet it's a ubiquitous part of L.A. culture."
So you can imagine the frustration of vendors like Palacios, caught between the demands of the market and the demands of the law.
She would love to sell bacon-wrapped hot dogs — trust her — but a trip last year to the women's county jail, a trip she says officials orchestrated to "make an example" of her, finally pushed her to give up the bacon and illegal grilling device she used for so long. Instead, she prepares dogs the only way the county Environmental Health Department currently allows, by boiling or steaming. Not grilling. And grilling is the only way to make a classic L.A. bacon-wrapped hot dog.
"Honestly, I can tell you, I've been a working person all my life, I've worked since I was 9 years old," Palacios says. "I don't like being bothered, I don't like being arrested. Never in my life had I been to jail, and they threw me in jail for violating the laws of the health department."
She's not the only one. Ask any Fashion District hot-dog vendor and he or she is sure to have at least one story of being cited, arrested or even jailed for grilling bacon-wrapped hot dogs on the sidewalk.