Children growing up in Los Angeles found the spicy funk of grilling dogs as much a part of the Dodger Stadium experience as the first green flash of outfield, the buzz of Jerry Doggett from 10,000 radios, the crunch of peanut shells in the aisles, and the cool, fragrant fielder's gloves we always brought along in case a foul ball should come our way (it never did). We liked the way the tips of the frank protruded from either end of the bun, liked the snap of the dog and the slight flavor of char, liked to eat them with onions and Gulden's brown mustard, more exotic than the yellow mustard we used to have at home. My youngest brother liked them plain, and still does. On a return trip in '91, we bought a few grilled dogs, also a few steamed ones from the regular stands, and had a little taste-off – with and without mustard, washed down with beer and helped down with bites of a frozen Carnation malt. The result? They both tasted better than vegetables.
The Great Chicago Hot Dog
Here's to the cult of the Chicago hot dog, a slender, Vienna-brand skinless frank, steamed to sort of a medium crunch, never fried, seldom grilled, never boiled in beer, always served on a warm, steamed bun. The condiments must include yellow mustard, freshly chopped onion and a peculiar sort of bright-green relish that looks like something space aliens might use as a love lube. Garnishes must include two wedges of unripe tomato, a new-pickle spear that runs the length of the hot-dog bun, and a hot sport pepper or two leaking spicy vinegar. The final touch is a lashing of celery salt, generally enough of the stuff to sizzle around your fillings, but not so much that you actually sneeze. 10948 Weyburn Ave., Westwood Village; (310) 208-0204. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $6-$8. No alcohol. Takeout. No parking. Cash only.
Hot Dog on a Stick
You can find corn dogs at county fairs, junior high school cafeterias and – in Oldsmobile-size boxes – at the Price Club, but the model served at Hot Dog on a Stick would be instantly distinguishable in a blind taste test even if you hadn't tried one since you were a teenager. Institutional corn dogs tend to be on the wan side, but a Hot Dog on a Stick is fried to a deep chestnut brown that is several degrees past the doneness of its competitors – a full city roast, if you're into coffee metaphors – and the slight bitter tang of caramelization balances out the inherent high sweetness of toasted corn. The outer crust is smooth and crisp, more complexly flavored than you may remember, speckled with gritty bits of burnt grain that crunch under your teeth. The batter is slippery where it touches the hot dog, slightly rubbery, almost crepelike, resilient as the underskin of a really fresh bagel. At various food-court locations, including Santa Monica Place, Muscle Beach, Glendale Galleria, Sherman Oaks Galleria and the Westside Pavilion. Open daily. Hot dog on a stick, $1.75. No alcohol. Takeout. Catering. Cash only.
A couple of hot dogs wrapped in a tortilla with chili, pickles, mustard, a slice of fried pastrami and a torrent of goopy American cheese adds up to a cross-cultural burrito that's pretty hard to stomach unless you've got the tum of a 16-year-old, but is strangely delicious nonetheless. Oki Dog's teriyaki-steak sandwich must contain half a pound of sweet, grilled beef, thinly sliced and plopped into a torta roll with lettuce and mayo. But the best of the Oki creations, a Chinese-American-Jewish-Mexican thing made by Japanese cooks for a mostly African-American clientele, is the pastrami burrito, a foil-wrapped grease bomb the size and weight of a building brick, bursting with fried pastrami, sauteed cabbage, onions, peppers, mustard, pickles and a healthy dose of Oki chili, enough food to feed a medium-size family for a week. Oki Dog, 5056 W. Pico Blvd; (323) 938-4369. Open seven days, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $5-$7. Lot parking. Cash only.
Consider the Pink's dog, uncouth and garlicky, tapered and uncommonly slender, skin thick and taut, so that when you sink your teeth into it, the sausage . . . pops . . . into a mouthful of juice. The bun is steamed, just so, soft enough to sort of become a single substance with the thick chili that is ladled over the dog, but firm enough to resist dissolving altogether, unless you order your hot dog with hot sauerkraut. (I do.) Crisp chunks of raw onion provide a little texture; a splash of vinegary yellow mustard supplies the hint of acidity that balances the richly flavored whole. Pink's also serves hamburgers, but it is the dog that is its glory, the dog that deserves a historic-preservation act of its own. 709 N. La Brea Ave.; (323) 931-4223. Open Sun.-Thurs. 9:30 a.m.-2 a.m., Fri.-Sat. 9:30 a.m.-3 a.m. Lunch for two, food only, $4.50-$9. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only.
Rubin's Red Hots
Rubin's Chicago red hot is served in a steamed, seeded roll, moist but not soggy, with the requisite pickle spear, tomato wedge, chopped onion, and a schmeer of piccalilli dyed a violent green you might better associate with some of the less subtle Op Art paintings of Bridget Riley than with something actually eaten as food. Not bad: the goods, in fact. But the traditional celery salt is either missing or so subtle as to appear as if it is, and instead of the necessary handful of sport peppers there is a lone pepperoncini. And Rubin's Red Hots commits the mortal sin of using a kosher-style dog that, while large, is not Vienna brand, and whose casing does not snap when you bite into it! Still, in the dog days of summer, you could do lots worse. 15322 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 905-6515. Open daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Lunch for two, food only, $8-$12. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, MC, V.
The Shack is an archetypal beach hamburger dive, a crowded joint in the heart of Playa del Rey with sister restaurants on Oahu and in Santa Monica. The basic unit of exchange here is something called the Shack Burger, a quarter-pound of ground meat and a Louisiana sausage crammed together in a bun. The sausage is ruddy, spicy, grilled crisp; the hamburger patty is charred in a way that you may associate with backyard barbecues, totally carbonized but oddly appealing in its acrid blackness. There is lettuce, mustard, grilled onion on request, all the usual stuff, and a cold bun that tastes right out of the package. The Shack Burger seems repellent on the surface – and will seem repellent an hour after you eat one – but at the time, it is irresistible, all grease and smoke and snap: dude food without peer. 185 Culver Blvd., Playa del Rey; (310) 823-6222. Food served daily 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $8-$14. Full bar. Takeout. D, MC, V.