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If you’re like me, you probably assumed the torrid, energy-sapping, miserably hot days of August were called the “dog days of summer” because hounds, like my recently departed Labradoodle George, would spend their days lying in the cool shade, rousing themselves no more than needed for a crunchy chicken treat and a short walk.
And you, like me, would be wrong.
“Dog days” refer to the appearance in the summer skies of Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, which translates as “Big Dog” in Latin — and is said to be one of Orion’s hunting dogs. The “dog days” are astronomical, not meteorological, they say.
But I prefer to believe these are the “dog days” because it’s the time of the year when we eat … dogs. Hot dogs, to be specific. The quintessentially American dish that’s not American at all.
The hot dog has not always been a hot dog. The sausage, of which the hot dog is one of many variations on the theme, has been around since before the beginning. What we call a hot dog today can be traced back to the early 1500s, when sausage makers in the German city of Frankfurt am Main began producing a cured pork and bacon sausage that was referred to generally as a frankfurter.
By the 19th century, a longer, thinner version of the frankfurter had been created by a Viennese butcher named J.G. Lahner — a sausage that came to be known as a wiener. Credit also belongs to a German immigrant named Antoine Feuchtwanger, who came up with the idea of putting those wieners into rolls back in the 1880s, in his adopted city of St. Louis. By the beginning of the next century, wieners in rolls were an accepted part of American life, with the fad of ”wiener roasts” spreading from coast to coast.
By 1906, wieners were being served at New York’s Polo Grounds, thanks to the inspired vision of Harry Stevens, the ballpark’s director of catering, who heated the roll, added mustard and relish, and exhorted his vendors to call the resulting sandwich a ”Red Hot.”
And the final apotheosis of the frankfurter/wiener into a hot dog came just one year later. The generally accepted story is that the name owes its birth to a Hearst sports cartoonist named Tad Dorgan, who had a penchant for drawing talking dachshund/sausages in his cartoons — a not-very-subtle jibe based on the rumor that cheaply made wieners were filled with dog meat. He called his talking sausage a ”hot dog.”
The name became so universal that in 1913, the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce banned the term ”hot dog” from all signs at the resort, insisting they be referred to instead as ”Coney Islands” (a term that’s since faded away, not unlike Coney Island itself). But the name stuck, and by the 1920s, hot dog stands could be found in every one of the then 48 states. And mostly in Chicago, arguably the hot dog capital of America. (A book on my shelves is appropriately titled “Hog Dog Chicago,” and it’s a guide to the 200 best hot dog stands in the city, though the book does point out that there are at least 10 times that many to choose from.)
Here in Southern California, hot dogs are not quite the thing. They’ve always lagged behind hamburgers (and more recently, by tacos) in popularity, which are really the quintessential Los Angeles fast-food dish.
We are far better defined by the large, gloppy, gooey, mushy, sloppy burgers created at Fatburger and Tommy’s, than by the messy, dripping, oozing dogs served at Pink’s (or at any number of gloriously grimy stands found along the beach, and scattered throughout the area). And this is a pity, for there’s a grand satisfaction that comes from the sheer crunch of biting into a good dog that a burger just never manages to offer. Mind you, I’m a great fan of both; but I also tend to feel the need for a dog at times far more than I feel the need for a burger. Burgers appeal to me; dogs cry out for me to cover them with mustard, relish and kraut.
I also prefer, frankly, to cook my dogs at home. That way, I know they’ll be charred as I like them. And, it allows me to use the best dogs on the market. This being a hotbed of seething multi-ethnicity, the choice of dogs out there is humongous. There’s hardly a culture in the world that doesn’t make sausages in some form — from the dried chopped meat and berry mixture of the American Indian called pemmican; to the lap cheung of Asia; the scrapple, panhas and goetta of the Pennsylvania Dutch; the soujouk of Armenia; the merguez of Algeria; and the bangers of England.
At their simplest, sausages are a combination of ground meat (usually, but not always, including pork), fat and spices, sealed in some sort of casing. Sausages can be fresh, fresh-smoked, cooked, cooked-smoked and dried, with a longevity that depends on the manner in which it’s cured (fresh sausage will not last very long; dried sausage will maintain for months).
In LA, the smell of curing and cooking sausages has long been in the air, everywhere, especially in those ethnic enclaves found well off the beaten path. Herewith, a guide to the best of the wurst:
There are supposed to be in excess of 500 types of sausages made in Germany, with more than 60 percent of the meat eaten over there consumed in sausage form — this is not a country where vegetarianism has made any inroads at all. Germany is the land where they serve the most (and often the best) sausages.
Best known, of course, is the ubiquitous frankfurter, and the thicker and shorter knackwurst. But there’s also exotica like pork and onion zwiebelwurst; pork, beef and rice-filled pinkelwurst; mild Westphalian mettwurst (a smoked pork sausage), along with pork bratwurst and a sort of kishka called jelita, made with pork skins, beef and blood.
Fans of traditional Teutonic sausages can find one of the best selections in town at Schreiner’s Fine Sausage (3417 Ocean View Blvd., Glendale; 818-244-4735, www.schreinersfinesausages.com) and Continental Gourmet Sausage (6406 San Fernando Road, Glendale; 818-502-1447, www.continentalgourmetsausage.com).
And, of course, you can always take a field trip to the Alpine Market (Alpine Village, 833 W. Torrance Blvd., Torrance; 310-447-8000), where you’ll find sausages both fresh and frozen — and lots of beers to go with it.
European Deluxe Sausage Kitchen (9109 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills; 310-276-1331) is a tiny shop filled with the sausages of Poland, Germany and Italy, running from kielbasa and all-pork krakauer, through knackwurst, bockwurst and bratwurst, into some of the best Italian salami in town — all served by real butchers, who know what they make, and can describe it to you in glowing terms.
There’s an even more extensive assortment of sausages to be found at Schreiner’s Fine Sausage (3417 Ocean View Blvd., Glendale; 818-244-4735, www.schreinersfinesausages.com), where at any given time, the array of wurst might include potato sausages from Sweden, bangers from England, kielbasa from Poland; bratwurst, bockwurst, knackwurst, teewurst and mettwurst from Germany, and even a Pennsylvania Dutch-style sausage from the area around Lancaster.
Though there are dozens of Italian sausages — like the pork-and-parmesan filled lucanega of Northern Italy, the spicy salami (made in dozens of ways, virtually one for every town in Italy), the fatty, salty pork cotechino and a universe of pork bolognas (some of which are actually made in Bologna) — what we mostly encounter here is either our old friend pepperoni, or the fresh Italian sausage called salsiccia casalinga (literally “homemade sausage”), which come either hot or sweet, flavored with garlic, peppercorns and fennel.
They make a superb Italian sausage at Claro’s Italian Market (1003 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, 626-288-2026; 19-1/2 E. Huntington Drive, Arcadia, 626-446-0275; www.claros.com), at Roma Market (918 N. Lake St., Pasadena; 626-797-7748) and at Porta Via (1 W. California Blvd., Pasadena; 626-793-9000, portaviafoods.com).
I also like the Italian sausages sold at Bay Cities Importing (1517 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-395-8279), where you’ll find sopressata chubs, hard salami, mortadella and a multitude of fresh sausages, made in-house, as fresh sausage should be.
Latin American sausages
They eat chorizo all over the Spanish-speaking world, from Spain and Portugal (where it’s called longaniza) to Mexico and points south. Chorizo is made of pork, hot peppers (usually cayenne), and a narrow casing that usually bursts when you cook the chorizo, as in the ever-popular chorizo and eggs.
You can find extremely good chorizo all over town, though some of my favorite markets for chorizo include Baja Ranch Market (425 S. Citrus, Ave., Covina, 626-373-0350; 475 Orange Grove Ave., Pasadena, 626-577-0343), Vallarta Supermarket (655 N. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; 626-204-6960), Lario’s Meat Market (19004 E. Arrow Hwy., Covina; 626-332-1166) … and, of course, the legendary Zamora Brothers Carniceria (1925 Shell Ave., Venice; no listed phone number), where I’ve always found the chorizo to be freshly made, and spiced to a fault.
And then, there’s the world of dogs made for you. Pink’s is far away. And Wienerschnitzel is…well, it’s Wienerschnitzel. But for me, there’s nothing more fun than Dirt Dog (20 E. Union St., Old Pasadena; 626-345-5306, www.dirtdogla.com). The Flaming Dog — topped with hot Cheetos, grilled corn, chipotle-lime mayo, habanero sauce and bacon bits — is about as exotic as any frankfurter found in SoCal. It’s a wiener from the very edge of culinary possibilities.
But travel around the world — and indeed, across America — and you’ll find dogs that don’t just approach the edge, they go flying over. Consider:
In Sweden, they top franks with mashed potato and shrimp salad. In Japan, the Shrimpy Chili Dog is a shrimp sausage topped with…more shrimp. Which is infinitely more appetizing than the Black Hot Dogs colored with edible bamboo charcoal powder.
In Guatemala, they like to top their dogs with bacon, pepperoni and chorizo. In Sonora, Mexico, pineapple is a popular topping. In Chile, you can get yours with mashed avocado — atop dogs twice the size of those in the U.S. And at the legendary Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand in the heart of Reykjavik, Iceland, I had a smoked lamb dog with onion relish and pickled red cabbage — as good a dog as I’ve ever had in my life.
But Iceland is far. And Dirt Dog — a small storefront on Union Street — is near. Dirt Dog describes itself as the “Official Hot Dog of Los Angeles.” (I suspect the people over at Pink’s were not thrilled. Ditto those who make Dodger Dogs. And, of course, the fabled “Danger Dog” — sold by unconnected, unlicensed vendors all over town, is often cited as the definitive L.A. Dog, wrapped in bacon topped with caramelized onions. It’s a true “Heart Attack Dog”! And, hey…who wants to live forever?)
At Dirt Dog, you have a choice of a traditional fluffy bun, and a grilled lobster bun. The dogs are good beef creations, with an affable snap when you bite into them. It’s a fine dog — but not what you might even notice with all the toppings. The Green Dog, for instance, is layered with spicy green chimichurri sauce and slightly less green guacamole. The topping on the Mutt Dog is half red peppers and half green peppers; either one, or both, is seriously spicy.
Dirt Dog makes me happy as could be — once I’m able to take a Tums.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where to find San Gabriel Valley’s best sausage, for summer’s dog days
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