These are the trailing days of summer, when dusk crowds into the afternoon and tourists head back to France, Dodger fans begin to contemplate their team’s annual slide, and the end of peach season is nigh. A million backyard grills char 5 million salmon kebabs, at least half of which slip through the grate into the coals. Teenagers actually look forward to back-to-school sales and Crunchy Taco Tuesdays.
This is the week of the year when the consumption of hot dogs becomes less a pleasure than a sacrament, an attempt to hold on to as much of the summer as you can before it inevitably slumps into fall. A hot dog is flavored with equal parts nostalgia and garlic, childhood and salt.
Which is why — yet again! — I find myself on the hot dog trail, seeking a transcendent frankfurter, and the satori that comes only with encased meats. Some people’s path to enlightenment lies in meditative concentration and the noble Eightfold Path. Mine seems to involve pondering the difference between grilled Dodger Dogs and steamed Dodger Dogs, between Pink’s and Chroni’s, between the true Oki Dog at the Pico restaurant and the false dog at the north Fairfax pretender.
Even the longest journey begins with a single step, and the first step today is back to The Infield, the baseball-themed Sherman Oaks restaurant that is, as you may recall, the spiritual home of the Twinkie Dog, a frankfurter sandwiched between two deep-fried Twinkies and decorated with aerosol cheese, which, again, is better than it sounds: The salt, fat and oil do wonders for taming the creation’s abundant sweetness, although probably not for your triglycerides. The Infield recently posted a help-wanted notice on Craigslist advertising for a Web designer to build them a “viral amazing” MySpace page, incidentally sneaking advanced word of a fried-banana-and-peanut-butter hot dog that is apparently out of the R&D stage. I hope the amazing viruses are kept separate from the hot dogs.
Anyway, I went back to the Infield because on my last visit, I had inadvertently forgotten to taste the S’mores Dog, which I considered a serious lacuna in my hot dog education. I needn’t have bothered. S’mores Dog is unfortunately not a euphemism, and as it turns out, chocolate syrup, graham cracker crumbs and miniature marshmallows do not particularly enhance the flavor of a frankfurter. Who knew?
The next stop was at Yaki’s, a Burbank teriyaki stand apparently renowned for a singular creation called the Bulldog, which I learned about, oddly enough, from a comment attached to a totally unrelated article in The New York Times. A Bulldog, for the uninitiated, is a hot dog wrapped in a slice of American cheese, further wrapped in a wonton skin, and then deep-fried into an oozing, golden cylinder whose contents are hot enough to sear away half the roof of your mouth if you’re not careful. It is served with a little plastic container in which teriyaki sauce and Thousand Island dressing are swirled into kind of a yin-yang pattern, two sauces that are unlovely enough on their own but coalesce into an unholy Third Way when stirred into oneness with the Bulldog. Enlightenment clearly lies elsewhere.
Back in Sherman Oaks, I learn that while it is possible to order a hot dog from Brats Brothers, a storefront operated by two actual Bavarian-born brothers yearning for a second career frolicking among the wurst, it is pretty much beside the point — Brats is a place of custom-made bratwurst and smoky Bavarian wurst, venison sausage and Cajun-spiced alligator wurst, along with a very respectable “Swiss” weisswurst you can drench with the restaurant’s house-made curry-flavored ketchup.
“Dude, they have the French sausage today!” said one longhaired teenager to his identical-looking companion, and they both danced around the store like the punk band Redd Kross, circa 1982.
“We have excellent hot dogs here, of course,” one of the Brats Brothers confessed, handing me a sausage, “but they’re mostly for our customers’ kids. Why would anybody order a hot dog when they could have a bratwurst like this instead?”
“To tell the truth,” says Jeff Rohatiner, the owner of Jeff’s Gourmet Kosher Sausage Factory, just south of Beverly Hills, “a hot dog may be the single hardest sausage to make. A more coarsely ground sausage, like our fresh chorizo or our spicy Moroccan merguez, is intrinsically meatier than our hot dogs, whose meat is fully emulsified, and we typically use just a few strong flavors instead of the complicated spicing of the hot dog. A hot dog does not tolerate any variance in texture. And smoking them can be tricky, too — you want a definite flavor but not too much.”
Jeff’s is insane on Friday afternoons, as packed as a Pico bus at rush hour: local yeshiva kids and modestly dressed young women with double-wide strollers, burly men with leather yarmulkes and business dudes whose tallises occasionally peek out from beneath their suits, all eager to get in a hit of tasty chazzerai before Shabbos pushes the weekend over to prayer, contemplation and bubbie’s 10-ton kugel. (Jeff’s closes tight at 2 p.m. on Fridays and doesn’t reopen until Sunday at 11 a.m.) Rohatiner is one of the few deli guys in Los Angeles who makes his corned beef, salami and pastrami from scratch, and it is possible to get any number of ordinarily trayf foodstuffs — tacos, hot wings, chili fries, fajita wraps — reinvented as kosher eats. A burger with chili, mayo and smoky pastrami fried crisp as bacon? Yours, maybe with a schmear of habanero sauce for an extra two bits. The snappy kielbasa, the veal bratwurst, the Italian sausage are all made in-house. But Jeff’s may be all about the hot dogs, thick ones and thin ones and spicy ones spiked with jalapeño chiles, tucked into crisp-edged buns and served by what seems like the thousands. Jeff’s hot dogs are endless summer on a bun.
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Brats Brothers, 13456 1/2 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 986-4020 or www.bratsbrothers.com.
The Infield, 14333 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 501-1850.
Jeff’s Gourmet Kosher Sausage Factory, 8930 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 858-8590 or www.jeffsgourmet.com.
Yaki’s Bowl, 904 W. Alameda Ave., Burbank, (818) 845-1016.