Malcolm Jolley enjoys hotdogs, tacos and dumplings in the California sunshine.
The chili dog I ate 3:30 in the afternoon of my 46th birthday last month wasn’t the best thing I ate on my last trip to LA. The best thing I ate on my last trip to LA was probably the vermillion rockfish with potato, clams and stinging nettle at Providence a few hours later. As a matter of fact I ate quite a few things on the trip that were, technically speaking, better than the chili dog. Any of eight or so kinds of Korean dumplings my family and I tried at Myung In, a small place in a strip mall off of Olympic Boulevard, were delicious, familiar, and yet new at the same time. If you Google the restaurant you’ll see it was featured on one of Anthony Bourdain’s shows, which is (of course) how we were turned on to it and sought it out. Also delicious were the various tacos I procured from the line of food trucks that regularly meets on Wiltshire Boulevard in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, including the Filipino inspired ones made with a pork adobo from Spoon and Pork. But I digress… let’s focus on the chili dog.
The dog came from Pink’s, a half stand, half shack by the corner of Melrose, on La Brea Avenue in Hollywood. It was, according to its website, established in 1939. It has, I think, done well because although I have passed Pink’s many times I had never been until the afternoon of my last birthday. The reason I have never been, despite a healthy appreciation for the tube steak, is that every time I have passed by it, in the 20 odd years I have been sporadically visiting my friend Ben in LA, there has been a big line-up. I do hotdogs, but I don’t do line-ups – big ones, anyway. This day, in what can only be seen as an auspicious beginning of my 47th year, as we drove our Griswolds’ special rental up to the red light at Melrose on La Brea, we saw there was barely a line-up at all. The kids demanded we try a dog, even though lunch had barely ended a couple of hours before, and my wife and I acquiesced. How could we pass up what might be a once in a lifetime opportunity?
By dint of circumstance my nuclear family will at times have the opportunity to travel together to big well known cities. We’ve been to London together twice, mostly because my wife has family in the UK, and we both have friends who live there. And now we were in LA to visit and stay with family friends and attend their middle son’s bar mitzvah. That my birthday fell near to the celebration was a bonus and so were the five relatively cheap flights we managed to secure (in part because apparently flying on Valentines Day is not popular). On these visits I have seen, while observing my sons 14, 12, and 8, the power of cultural capital and recognition. In London it’s usually landmarks that trigger it, like Tower Bridge or Big Ben. There is a thrill (which I share completely) of seeing a building, or a streetscape, that one has only ever read about or scene in pictures, television, the movies or by some other medium. As a kid growing up in the suburbs of Toronto in the 1970s, I felt that way about the CN Tower: if I could see it, even from just a car window, I knew I was downtown and part of a bigger world. LA has this effect (at least on me and my people) in its own spectacular way because of its role as the as the visual entertainment capital of the world. It’s been filmed and videoed so many times that the whole city seems to produce that thrill of recognition, how ever silly the thing is one is looking at. The Hollywood sign is probably the best example. It’s just painted plywood spelling out the name of the town, but I doubt there’s anyone who’s spent any time in front of a screen who doesn’t get a thrill the first time they spot it in the distance on the drive in from LAX. I think it’s just human nature, and it extends to all facets of culture, including food, which is why we soon found our selves trying to make a left hand turn across three lanes of traffic to get into Pink’s parking lot and buy a bunch of totally unnecessary hotdogs at 3:30 on a Monday afternoon.
The corollary of the thrill of recognition of cultural capital is, of course, disappointment. In my experience, sampling a “signature dish” is a pretty hit and miss affair, at least gastronomically. The real joy of these encounters has more to do with striking it off the bucket list than achieving culinary nirvana. Sometimes it’s because whatever good thing once rose to prominence has been commodified and cheapened into the gustatory version of a tourist trap (served in a real tourist trap). Other times, I think it’s just hard for a famous product to love up to its hype. For instance, the kids insisted we go to In-n-Out Burger for a late lunch the afternoon we arrived in LA, because they had seen or read or heard this is what people do (see again Mr. Bourdain, who has also taken his show to Pink’s). To be fair, they loved it, and gave the burger very high marks. The Mrs. and I less so: it’s a perfectly good, even superior, burger for a fast-food burger. But it’s still closer to Ronald McDonald than anything you might find served on a China plate. I expected the chili dog at Pink’s to run along these lines, and suspected that the reason people lined-up was just for the right to say they’d been, and a bite or two of the dog would grant me the privilege and that would be the end of the affair. The bubbling slurry pot of mystery meat chili in the tiny ‘kitchen’ by the order window only confirmed my bias.
I was wrong. The chili dog at Pink’s is very good. We were lucky it was chilly that day and we passed by it when there wasn’t a big line. On future visits I would be willing to wait in a longer (but maybe not too much longer line) to repeat my chili dog experience and branch out and try some of the other hot dog and topping variations. Each one is made to order by a small army of Latina ladies, and the clientele is a mix of locals (mostly dudes) and tourists (particularly Japanese, for whatever reason). I opted for the chili cheese dog, as I understood it to be the Pink’s ‘classic’ and embellished it simply with mustard, chopped onions and sliced pickled jalapenos. The mustard and onions might be standard with the order; I don’t remember. I do remember asking questions and being given friendly answers. The whole ordering and pick-up process was pleasant and welcoming in a perfectly casual American way.
The seating area at Pinks’ is behind the order counter and is sort of half inside, half outside. We picked a table and I got down to business. The white bun was soft and fresh. Cradled into it were slices of American cheese, which softened from the heat of the boiled or steamed hotdog which rested on top of it. On top of the meat tube was a thick line of yellow mustard studded with white bits of onion. All of this lay under a carpet of Mexican seasoned chili con carne that was generous enough to lather the whole of the bun without too much falling off. And finally, all of this was garnished with a generous plastic gloved handful of jalapenos. It looked good and it tasted good. The hotdog was salty, moist and had a touch of smoke to it. The mustard, onions and jalapenos gave sharp relief and some crunch against the umami hit of chili and the soft salty fat on carb meld of the cheese and bun. The chili cheese dog at Pink’s was the opposite of dissapointing, and that realization was extremely satisfying. I ate the whole thing. Quickly.
In my mind, I had undersold Pink’s and they had over delivered, which is why of all the things I ate in LA, the dog was the thing I wanted most to write about.