New York has pushcart dogs and the garlic knobelwurst at Katz's deli. Chicago has Vienna franks. Rochester has its white-hots, Cincinnati its chili-sluiced coneys. Sheboygan is famous for grilled brats. Santa Monica . . . Santa Monica is the birthplace of Hot Dog on a Stick.
Frankly, as regional hot dog styles go, Hot Dog on a Stick may not rank with Nathan's Famous in Coney Island or the red-hots served outside Wrigley Field, but no other hot-dog stand in the world has a spectacle that comes close to the sight of a mini-skirted Hot Dog on a Stick employee mixing a tankful of cool lemonade on a hot day. Hot Dog on a Stick is yet another gift Southern California has bestowed upon the world.
It would be hard to find a native Angeleno without primal memories of Hot Dog on a Stick: of Cheese-on-a-Stick dribbled on the midway at the long-gone P.O.P., of the smell of clean oil that has emanated from the muddy-red outpost under the Santa Monica Pier for more than 50 years. A summer behind the fryers at Hot Dog on a Stick is almost the archetypal first teenage job, and the garishly costumed employees figure in the teenage iconography as surely as lifeguards or cheerleaders.
“I'm at the mall buyin' shit/ Like Hot Dog on a Stick,” Ice Cube snarled last year in the song “Greed.” “These bitches all on the dick/Ice Cube ain't a lick.”
The high level of organization and the extremely limited menu – hot dog on a stick, cheese on a stick, fries, lemonade – could almost have been custom designed for the valuable slivers of real estate in the food courts of shopping malls, and at the Westside Pavilion or the Glendale Galleria it sometimes seems as if the Hot Dog on a Stick franchises attract more customers than all of the quickie Chinese and falafel stands combined. One high school senior shimmies to the Spice Girls as she burnishes the kiosk's metal to a high shine, and a second runs the cash register. A third twirls skewered frankfurters and cheese sticks through vats of pale corn batter, then plunges them into specially designed canisters of boiling canola oil.
Even within the skewed universe defined by Johnny Rockets and Tacones, Hot Dog on a Stick has always stood a little bit apart, bathed in the sort of unearthly glow that comes from underneath the lid of a Xerox machine. The high parabolic curve of the Hot Dog on a Stick cap may (or may not) allude to the elongated shape of the stand's principal product; the super-bright graphics may (or may not) derive from the cheerful color scheme of an old-fashioned beach ball.
“The hat seems sort of awkward at first,” confesses a veteran Santa Monica dog dipper, “but you really do get used to it after a while.”
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. The thick turkey hot dog inside seems quite bland, essentially a vehicle for garlic and juice.
This is rude food, resisting the attempts of civilizers far more strenuously than, say, the burrito or the triple-deck cheeseburger, though Vida's Fred Eric can sometimes be seen at chefs' events, meting out bite-size samples of corn dogs as if they were morsels of sauteed foie gras.
The Hot Dog on a Stick we love is a Space Age variation on the classic pig-in-a-blanket, Victorian-era American comfort food retooled to meet the demands of the California beach.
Hot Dog on a Stick, at various food court locations including Santa Monica Place, Muscle Beach, Glendale Galleria, Sherman Oaks Galleria and the Westside Pavilion. Open daily. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Catering. Hot dog on a stick, $1.75.