Los Angeles was once famous for restaurants and cafés where you could eat inside buildings that resembled bull terriers or windmills or the front range of the San Gabriels. Dining rooms were tricked out to resemble medieval palaces or tropical rainforests; old cruise ships or disused Red Car stations were remodeled into places that came alive at Sunday brunch. There are wonderful scaled-down replicas of a few of these restaurants at the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire. A couple of the giant plaster chili bowls that once housed branches of a chili-con-carne chain still exist, now serving Cambodian-Chinese noodles and barbecued ribs. Clifton’s Cafeteria on Broadway at Seventh still has a forest-themed dining room. The crown of the hat from the old Brown Derby perches atop a Koreatown mall like a wart on a toad’s skull.
Carney’s is a restaurant in the real Los Angeles tradition, two ancient Union Pacific cars transported to West Hollywood at great expense and mounted overlooking the Strip, where a mad parade of bass players and catalog models, hustlers and high school kids, movie guys and industry suits stare out the windows of the old train, onto the profusion of German tourists and Japanese cars that flow down this section of Sunset so steadily that after a few beers and a chili dog or two, the train can appear to be lurching down the track. Whoo-whoo! The bathrooms, sure enough, are in the caboose.
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Why would you want to eat a chili dog inside an old train? It’s a pretty good hot dog for one thing, grilled to the color of old bronze (unless you’d rather have it steamed), crackly-skinned, bursting with a splash of garlicky juice when you bite into it, well-spiced, slender but considerable. The chili is of the thick, brown Los Angeles school, thickened with starch, glistening and oily, adhering to the surface of the dog like impasto to a Jasper Johns painting, flavoring but not quite saturating the bun. Mustard and a penumbra of chopped onions melt into the chili; a slice of American cheese exists less as a thing in itself than as a vivid-orange agent of enrichment, a mild tang that sinks into the morass, disappearing into the chili as quickly as the crown of whipped cream does into a Starbucks grande mocha. The only thing to do upon finishing a Carney’s chili dog is to eat another one, and the dude behind the counter always cracks up when you come back up to the counter to order the second dog that he had said you were going to get all along. They know their customers, those guys. They also sell chili burgers, and half-pound chili burgers, and chili-cheese fries, which may be the methadone of the Carney’s chili experience.
If stained fingertips and cumin-reeking breath are not among the benefits you expect to reap from lunch, you can get the hot dog as a modified and not especially successful version of a Chicago-style dog with mustard, relish and onions (but without the celery salt and emerald-green relish that mark the true examples of the breed), or what the diner calls “spicy style,” with griddle-warmed sauerkraut. A Polish sausage is available for a surcharge of 90 cents — it takes well to being split and grilled. There are odd, vivid-red burritos stuffed with a sweetish, Thai-inflected Chinese chicken salad, complete with a handful of toasted peanuts and a tentative squirt of what tastes like sriracha sauce.
On billboards, in newspaper ads and in radio spots that have been drummed into your head since you were a kid, Carney’s claims to serve “probably the best hamburgers and hot dogs in the world.” This may not be precisely true. Carney’s serves the best hamburgers and hot dogs available in a train car on the Sunset Strip, and this, most of the time, is enough. Don’t miss the chocolate-dipped frozen banana on a stick.
Carney’s, 8351 Sunset Blvd., W. Hlywd., (323) 654-8300 or www.carneytrain.com. Open daily for lunch, dinner and beyond. Beer and wine. Takeout and lunchtime delivery. Lot parking in rear. MC, V. Lunch for two, food only, $7–$15. Recommended dishes: spicy Polish sausage with grilled sauerkraut, chili fries, frozen banana. Also at 12601 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 761-8300.