View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, “Slaw Dogs.”
On the second day of the Weekly's L.A. Weekend a couple of weeks ago, three of the greatest hot dog minds in Los Angeles gathered to discuss the ins and outs of encased meats, the many, many ingredients that need to come together to make the hot dogs that haunt Americans' dreams. The three people on the panel — hot-dog scholar Joe Fabrocini of Fab's in Tarzana, wiener impresario Duane Earle of Earlez in the Crenshaw District, and Let's Be Frank's Sue Moore, who parlayed her experience as the meat forager for Chez Panisse into a role as the conscience of Frankfurter America — couldn't have been more different in their backgrounds, their products, or in their customer bases. It is hard, in fact, to imagine a partisan of Fab's rippered franks becoming truly excited about the more austere hot dogs at Let's Be Frank, or the fans of Earlez' split-and-grilled chili dogs cheering Fab's version of the after-hours Danger Dog.
But as distinct as the approaches of the hot dog mavens might have been, as different as their visions were from each other, it was clear: They were all obsessed with process, and they all knew, with absolute certainty, what the perfect hot dog should be. I understand this certainty — my father would drive 200 miles roundtrip for what he considered to be an ideal Chicago-style hot dog, and he drilled the rules of construction into us far more diligently than he taught us the Ten Commandments.
This may have been why, at least at the beginning, I resisted The Slaw Dogs in Pasadena, whose basic orthodoxy is not to espouse an orthodoxy at all.
Lake Avenue, as it thrusts up toward Altadena, has long been where Pasadena sequesters its fast-food restaurants, and at the heart of it, you can find nearly every drive-through window that has ever sponsored a football broadcast. So it wasn't much of a surprise to see The Slaw Dogs pop up a few months ago in what had until recently been a very good Philly cheesesteak dive — a new, family-run doggery with a sideline in artisanal root beers and freshly cooked Belgian fries. The day, in fact, that I heard about the rapper M.I.A.'s run-in with truffled fries, which she'd apparently sampled at the Beverly-Wilshire, I had just eaten an order of The Slaw Dogs' truffle-oil fries, whose funky, cheese-enhanced kick coated the roof of my mouth for the better part of a day, giving me much fancier breath than I either wanted or deserved. I was puzzled by its constant crowds, its hundreds of Yelp mentions, and the attentions of dozens of bloggers. The Slaw Dogs, I never tired of pointing out, served hot dogs with habañero-kumquat salsa.
My mistake, I think, came with placing The Slaw Dogs within the context of the hot dogs coming out of places like Fab's and the Infield. Ray Byrne's restaurant is, instead, part of the new movement in Los Angeles cooking, the one where Asian-American chefs claim the chicken-pot pie, the taco and the Cobb salad as their own, relating the dishes back to similar ones in Thailand, Korea and Taiwan, but celebrating the differences in culinary culture rather than trying to bury them in a flurry of catsup and processed cheese. In the end, The Slaw Dogs has more in common with Kogi and the Starry Kitchen than it does with Wurstkuche, with Chego or Good Girl Dinette than with Let's Be Frank. The dogs, which are high-quality franks from Chicago's Vienna Sausage, are good, but the emphasis is clearly neither in their formulation nor on unusual sourcing — it is on what is done with them, whether wrapping them with jalapeño bacon in a Parmesan crisp as with the Holy Roller, tucking it under the pastrami in a classic Reuben sandwich, or burying it in barbecue sauce and potato salad, like a hot dog you'd find in an ice chest that accidentally tipped over in the back of the SUV. Are there kimchi fries? Of course there are kimchi fries.
The Slaw Dog's signature hot dog may include coleslaw and chile, but it isn't clear that Byrne has even heard of the similar West Virginia combination, much less bothered to emulate it down to the last caraway seed. The Green Monster may remind you of hot dogs you've had in rural New Mexico, but the combination of roasted green chiles, pepper jack and grilled onions, a kind of amplified rajas, is one you will find nowhere in that state. You could probably construct something close to a Chicago hot dog here — a natural-casing snap dog with sport peppers, tomato, mustard, dill pickle spears, relish and celery salt – but in the end, the formulation would belong more to you than to the restaurant or to that place out under the el, the cost of the extras would cheese you out, and in a way the success or failure of the dog belongs to you too.
Sometimes Byrne's aesthetic works — the spicy Thai slaw dog may be closer to what Tiara's Fred Eric sells as Thai Cobb salad than to anything you'd actually find in Thailand, but the crisp tartness of the cabbage is refreshing against the rich snap of the frank. Sometimes, as in the dog smothered in browned cauliflower bits and the kind of boiled peanuts you sometimes get as appetizers in Chinese noodle shops, it doesn't. A Pink's dog may be more emblematic, but sometimes only a Polish sausage with kumquat-habañero relish will do.
The Slaw Dogs: 720 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena; (626) 808-9777, theslawdog.com. Open Sun.-Wed., 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thurs/-Sat., 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. MC, V. License pending, but for the moment, no alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout. Hot dogs $3.49-$8.88; sides $2.49-$4.99; salads $7.99. Recommended dishes: Green Monster; Holy Roller; Thai Slaw Dog.