Across the street from the enormous West Angeles Cathedral, next to a future Exposition Line stop and close by a Muslim school and humming office complexes, Earlez Grille is a major crossroads of the Crenshaw Strip, popular with politicians, poets and rap stars. If you sit at a table long enough, nursing a bowl of vegan chili and a tall paper cup of lemonade, all of South Los Angeles passes before your eyes.
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The Earlez show: From right, Big Will, Roland, Mike, Nancy, Duane, Hildred, Cary, Khaliq and Glen
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It takes a grilling: Spicy chicken hot link.
The attraction of Earlez may be less the cooking — it’s mostly hot dogs, although pretty good ones — than the fact that everybody comes through here: political vegans there for the veggie burgers and teenagers taking a break from Taco Bell, church ladies and observant Muslims, hip-hop freaks and businessmen in pressed suits, video-game geeks and dreadlocked intellectuals toting both a baby carrier and the latest issue of The Economist. Even while the Olympics played on a television at the rear, every eye in the restaurant was fixed on a screen showing vintage episodes of Soul Train, sound turned way up, all skinny flares and giant afros, distorted Delfonics and O’Jays and Ohio Players blaring from the speakers. You could cast a dozen John Singleton movies from the Saturday lunch crowd alone.
Earlez Grille, which started life as a hot-dog cart, went through a long phase as a hot-dog stand a mile south, and moved into the current spot, a former chili joint, a few months ago. It’s a project of the Earle family, of which three or four members are usually on hand. The Earles haven’t quite gotten around to taking the old signage down, so the billboard on the roof and the marquee still read Jack’s Chili Factory, with the actual name of the restaurant confined to an inconspicuous sign. And the menu is close enough to its predecessor’s that old customers could probably come in, inhale a chili tamale and leave without knowing that the restaurant had changed hands at all.
There is a protocol to ordering at Earlez, and it can take a couple of visits to get it right. The menu is not posted on a signboard but flashed on a video screen, which inevitably is stalled on desserts when you want to figure out what kind of hot dog you feel like eating. If you see just a single bowl of banana pudding left in the cafeteria-like dessert case, grab it, because it’s probably the last one, and you will be sad if it’s gone. If you are undecided, people are allowed to push past you in the order line. If you are really undecided, one of the Earles will probably come over and explain things to you, perhaps handing you a paper menu discreetly folded into quarters, perhaps evangelizing for the family’s hot dogs.
“I would really consider getting a hot dog,” Duane Earle says, mugging like a frankfurter-obsessed Dave Chappelle. “Nobody in Los Angeles does a hot dog like I do. We split it, we grill it and we put it in a bun. Simple, but not so simple. And there’s always a snap.”
“Spicy veggie link, jumbo hot dog, chili fries, the Thriller … hah!” says Hildred Brown, the matriarch of the hot-dog family. “We’ve got you now.”
The signature beverage of Earlez is a mixture of honey-rich fruit punch and lemonade, which sometimes goes by Playa’s Punch, sometimes by Pimp Juice and sometimes by whatever’s convenient.
“Would you like some Princess Juice?” Duane asked a 4-year-old girl in a pink tutu.
The hot dogs are made out of beef, turkey or tofu, may be ordered regular or jumbo or as hot links, and are customarily dressed with a pink sauce made of tomato-sluiced smothered onions that is a more soulful version of the stuff New York vendors put on their pushcart franks, although the thick house chili is a few ticks above the Tommy’s standard, even in its vegetarian version. The french fries are thick-cut steak fries except on Tuesdays, when Earlez serves skinny fries instead. One afternoon, I spotted a delivery truck from La Indiana, one of the better tamale-smiths in East L.A., and Duane confirmed the source — there is a definite Eastside funkiness to them that is usually tamed out of the masa on this side of town. (The deluxe tamale is nicknamed the Tummy Killer, two of the beasts buried under a blanket of chili, cheese and onions, and the sobriquet is well earned.) You can get a pastrami sandwich dressed with mayonnaise, lettuce and red onions if you’re into that sort of thing, although I wouldn’t tell your bubbie about it.
Is the green salad dressed with hemp? I’ve heard the rumors.
There is hardly a revenue stream that Earlez has overlooked. The screen next to the flashing menu is an electronic billboard advertising mobile DJ services and local restaurants. Light boxes surround the dining room at eye level, and you can display your wares or plug your concert there for a few dollars a month. There is a mobile grill available for catered sausage parties, Natural High poetry slams on Wednesday nights, karaoke on Fridays and lowrider-thronged Cruise Night when the Earles feel like it.
“You’re back for the hot dogs,” Duane said the last time I stopped by. “The first time, we get you; the second time, we prove it to you.”
“What about the third time?” I said.
“The third time,” said Duane, “is to demonstrate that the first two times weren’t a dream.”
Earlez Grille, 3630 Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 299-BUNS or www.earlesgrill.com. Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. (Wed., till midnight). No alcohol. MC, V. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $7-$15. Recommended dishes: beef jumbo dog, beef chili thriller, banana pudding.