My father was obsessed with hot dogs, to the point of distraction, and although he could discuss Bellow, Shostakovich or Jerome Kern for hours, he was happiest, I think, expounding on the great frankfurters of his youth: the taut, garlicky specimens he grew up eating, on Maxwell Street and at the original Fluky’s in Chicago.
(Click to enlarge)
The Infield's unorthodox Twinkie Dog
(Click to enlarge)
Marty D's kosher frank
(Click to enlarge)
A classic model from QT Chicago Dogs.
“A proper hot dog,” he explained with the reverence I always imagined other fathers saved for the mysteries of Sandy Koufax or the Talmud, “is topped with yellow mustard, relish and chopped raw onion; sprinkled with celery salt; garnished with a spear of new pickle; and served in a soft, steamy poppy-seed bun. Hot sport peppers on top are not essential, but preferred — the vinegar leaks down and flavors the meat. The tomatoes may be either sliced or in wedges, but they have to be added after, not before, the celery salt. The hot dog, it goes without saying, has to come from Vienna Beef. No catsup.”
He closed his eyes and sighed. If he couldn’t have a Chicago hot dog, he could at least talk about one.
Not surprisingly, weekends were often dominated by his search for hot dogs in Los Angeles, and he would drive me and my brothers around for hours in the old Studebaker on the rare occasions he found a stand that he liked. He made regular trips to a favored stand way down in La Jolla. The greatest discovery of his last years was a Mexican lunch place in Brentwood, whose owners just happened to serve decent hot dogs, at least, until they dropped the Vienna product for an inferior frank.
So it was not surprising that I found myself in my truck last weekend with my children in the back seat and a fistful of addresses on the dash. For what does their heritage mean if it does not include hot dog expeditions fueled by cheap root beer?
The first stop was Marty D’s, a slick, cherried-out New York–style diner in Beverly Hills, whose hot dogs had been widely praised. In the ’60s and the ’70s, Beverly Hills was basically a wealthy Jewish suburb of Brooklyn, whose sons and daughters made up so much of the film industry. The Erasmus High reunions in the city were famously bigger than both the Beverly Hills High reunions and those thrown by Erasmus in Brooklyn itself. And there has usually been at least one Beverly Hills diner that served nostalgic Brooklyn cuisine, which is to say, hot dogs, egg creams and fried knishes, tuna fish sandwiches and chocolate malteds.
There is a lot to like about Marty D’s, from the excellent French fries to the hot-fudge sundaes made with Dandy Don’s ice cream, from the Brill Building songs on the sound system to the almost aggressively cheerful demeanor of the staff. The cherry rickey with fresh lime was pretty great, bracing and not too sweet, maybe the best version of the fizzy drink I’ve tasted since the old Dolores drive-in on Wilshire closed in the 1980s, and the egg cream was first-rate. Marty D. himself, a director known for New Yorky films like TheLords of Flatbush and Eddie and the Cruisers, was on hand, rocking local show-biz gossip, circa 1963. There was a crisp, formidable square potato knish. The hot dogs were perhaps the least interesting things about the restaurant, hefty but bland kosher franks riddled with black fissures, grilled at blast-furnace heat — they tasted like the hot dogs you may have experimented with in Cub Scouts, the kind you impale on a stick and wither in a bonfire. To his credit, Marty D. seemed concerned that we weren’t finishing our dogs. But we were happy enough with the “Frrrozen Hot Chocolate,” a slushy milk shake, one of the beloved New York treats of the 1960s, whose recipe Marty D. had managed to finagle from its innovators at the Upper East Side restaurant Serendipity 3.
The next stop, Portillo’s, was 45 minutes away, in the Buena Park Mall, in the parking lot of a giant Wal-Mart. It is a long way to drive for a hot dog. But Portillo’s is the only area restaurant of a genuine Chicago hot dog parlor, a chain that proliferates mostly in the endless suburbia that Midwestern radio announcers call “Chicagoland” but with a prominent outlet in the tourist-intensive River North neighborhood I had enjoyed a few years ago. Portillo’s is a giant, old-timey barn of a restaurant, filled with unnaturally pale customers who look as if they’ve just arrived from a leisurely, beer-lubricated softball game — in other words, like Chicagoans. If you ignored the fact that Knott’s Berry Farm is right down the street, you could be in Berwyn or someplace, grabbing lunch after a morning at the big-box store. The hot dogs too were authentically Chicago: the Vienna frank, the neon-green relish (by request), the sport peppers, the tomatoes and the mustard. On the walls were testimonials from Ann Landers and Jim Belushi. But the dog didn’t snap, nor did the condiments sing — it was just a hot dog, good enough to lend the general sense of well-being that accompanies a dog at Costco — not quite good enough to justify the drive.
Did we go on to Taste Chicago, Joe and Arlene Mantegna’s Burbank emporium of indifferent Chicago pizza, hot dogs and lemon ice? We did. We admired the signed photographs of Fat Tony and Bozo the Clown, who both asserted the excellence of Taste Chicago’s Italian beef. But the Vienna hot dogs, while classically dressed, were gray and flaccid, as if they had been boiling for days.
Vicious Dogs is a superbly named storefront in the NoHo arts district, on a block dominated by theaters; a few doors down is a big rehearsal studio whose clientele seems to make up most of the regulars — hollow-chested rock dudes inhaling half their weight in veggie dogs and thick, impeccably crunchy, seasoned fries. I’m not sure if Len, the ringmaster of Vicious Dogs, has even been to Illinois, but his version of the Chicago dog is very, very good, a big grilled Vienna hot dog in a soft poppy-seed bun, the green of the Chipco relish as vivid as a Bridget Riley op art painting, a profusion of sport peppers spurting spicy juice with every bite.
Was Vicious Dogs the wiener paradise we were looking for? Was frankfurter nirvana to be found instead at QT Chicago Dogs, a cheerless but admirably orthodox purveyor inside a Sherman Oaks liquor store? We were beginning to feel full.
My 5-year-old son found his own hot dog paradigm at the next stop, a baseball-themed stand called The Infield, decked out with stadium chairs, cooks in baseball uniforms and a sort of painted infield on the floor. (I was suddenly nostalgic for the old Flooky’s in Sherman Oaks, which improved on the concept by incorporating actual batting cages into the complex.) The Chicago dog was fine, crisp and juicy, just a few degrees skewed from the ideal.
But what captivated Leon was neither the Chicago dog nor the dog made with Kobe beef. What Leon wanted was the Twinkie Dog, which is to say, a hot dog sandwiched between two deep-fried Hostess Twinkies and drizzled with molten Cheez Whiz. When Leon bit into the ungodly concoction, hot grease cascaded down its sides like water from an Eric Orr fountain, and the crème filling traveled up his face like a demonic single-cell organism, a study in contrary motion that would no doubt have fascinated hydrological engineers as much as it horrified me.
Marty D’s, 230 S. Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills, (310) 273-7771 or www.martyds.com. The Infield, 14333 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. No phone. Portillo’s, 8390 La Palma Ave., Buena Park, (714) 220-6400 or www.portillos.com. QT Chicago Dogs, 4344 Woodman Ave., Sherman Oaks, (818) 386-0111 or www.qtchicagodogs.com. Taste Chicago, 603 N. Hollywood Way, Burbank, (818) 563-2800 or www.tastechicago.biz. Vicious Dogs, 5231 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd., (818) 985-DOGS.