Dogged Pursuits

Taking a Stand for Hot Dog Culture

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Bobby Flay featured Pink's on the Food Network (to be fair, many other hot doggeries have appeared on that cable channel as well), and on any given day, you might stand in line during the lunch hour and see a Korean, Japanese, Mexican or other TV crew interviewing the owners and the customers. The line at Pink's has 30 people in it at noon and it doesn't get smaller quickly. At lunch, they are mostly workers from the film studios in the neighborhood. At night—Pink's is open until 2 a.m. during the week and 3 a.m. on the weekends—the crowd is from the clubs all around Hollywood. At any hour, celebrities come by. Martha Stewart's been there and now has a dog named after her (it's a 10-inch "stretch dog": mustard, relish, onions, bacon, chopped tomatoes, sauerkraut and sour cream); the honor came after Pink got mentioned on Stewart's TV segment. Bill Cosby is a regular and Cuba Gooding Jr. went for his birthday. Comedienne Ruth Buzzi drove by one day and got on a PBS hot dog-umentary, and head shots of stars and wannabes cover the wall of Pink's seating area.
Pink's is more in the tradition of the Chicago stands in that the toppings for the hot dog are many and the combinations make it hard to get your mouth, not to mention your mind, around some of the special dogs. The Lord of the Rings dog, for example, is a 10-inch stretch dog, with sweet barbecue sauce, laced through five deep-fried onion rings. Pink's also has a Baja Veggie Dog topped with guacamole, chopped tomatoes and raw onions, and a turkey dog. Hey, it's L.A. The Matrix Reloaded, once known as the Lakers Three-Peat dog, is three hot dogs wrapped in a giant tortilla with three slices of cheese and three slices of bacon, with chili and onions.
If Kobe Bryant and his team are out of luck on this score, Kobe beef is picking up the slack at the Old Homestead Steak House in New York City's meat-packing district. The 136-year-old restaurant now serves an 11-ounce, nearly foot-long "hot dog" made of 100 percent American Kobe beef. Marc Sherry, the owner of the Old Homestead, will not reveal the spices in the dog, though the flavor is in the range of a beefier-tasting New York dog. (Nathan, the bartender, recommends having it with a glass of Cabernet.) Sherry will not tell which ranch in Texas makes the $19 Kobe dog for the restaurant to its specifications, snap and all.
"The response is absolutely overwhelming," Sherry says, two months after he began selling the dish "We sold 1,200 in the first month. What I like about the hot dog is that I get a clean taste to it. Since I know exactly what goes into it, I feel good about eating it." The dog is served on a bun with chopped onions and red peppers, a truffle-infused Dijon mustard and house-made Kobe chili, with Cheshire cheddar cheese sauce on the side. Alongside are tater tots.
Kraig has enjoyed the Old Homestead's Kobe dog and says it's really a frankfurter because the meat inside the natural casing is "finely chopped, not emulsified." But that's not Sherry's point.
"For me, it was a thrill to put this hot dog in my restaurant," says Sherry, a native New Yorker. "I grew up at Nathan's. I love Sabrett's. I'm a Brooklyn boy. The Kobe beef line [there's also a best-selling $41 burger and $95 steak on the menu] has brought the Old Homestead to the highest level among steak houses in New York."
Ultimately, the hot dog culture in the United States is as much about the best hot dog—always the one you like—and about place. Where you ate your first hot dog with your family is often the place you remember as being the best, or at least your favorite. Maybe it's The Original in Pittsburgh or Nu-Way Weiners in Macon, Georgia, established in 1916, the same year Nathan's was opened. Perhaps it's Rutt's Hut in Clifton, New Jersey, which serves "in-and-outers," "rippers" and "cremators," the names reflecting the length of time the dog is left in the deep fryer and the resulting appearance. You'll read all the postcards at world-famous Walter's in Mamaroneck, New York, and relish the special mustard at this roadside stand that's been around since 1919. You might love the slaw dogs, a Southern classic, at Frank's in Columbia, South Carolina, or want to roll the dice on the half-pounder at Slots A Fun in Las Vegas. It costs 99 cents and is used to attract gamblers who might go to other casinos on the Strip. In Van Nuys, California, you can go to Law Dogs and on Wednesday nights get free legal advice from one of the lawyer-owners. The fact that the attorney has a piece of the hot dog stand builds a special kind of trust, customers admitted. What about an Alaskan reindeer dog sold to you by Michael Anderson from his cart in Anchorage? Whichever dog you think is best, you have plenty of company who think they have the right answer as well.
Back in Fairfield, Connecticut, Gary Zemola and John Pellegrino have had to compromise with success. In 2000, they traded in the Super Duper Weenie truck for "a little old house and opened a hot dog stand."
"Now the landlord says that I have to serve diet soda," Zemola explains, saying that he serves Boylan's, a boutique brand made in New Jersey. "He's diabetic and it's a condition of the lease."
And what about ordering ketchup on the dog? "If it's a kid, I'll let it slide."
Alejandro Benes's favorite hot dog is the "pig in a blanket" with deli mustard.
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