As long as I can remember, and probably well before, my father has been obsessed with hot dog stands--specifically those where the hot dogs approximated what he had grown up on in Chicago in the '30s. From the time we could walk, my brothers and I were taken to the Kosher Puppy, near the old Pan Pacific, and then when that closed, to Captain Kidd's in Westchester. Neither of these was closer than a half-hour Studebaker ride from the house.
Captain Kidd's moved to the Valley--just where, my father never knew--and he soon after switched his loyalty to Flooky's, which was an actual Chicago hot dog stand that had relocated to Sherman Oaks. (Flooky's wasn't far from where my aunt lived, and we'd never visited her quite so often as we did those few years.) When Flooky's switched from the Chicago-made Vienna dogs to a local product, Dad did without, periodically making road trips to San Diego to visit a stand that he liked near Mission Bay.
The Chicago taste in hot dogs seems to be a pretty specific thing, much more exacting than the better-known Chicago standards for pizza (thick) or ribs (burnt).
The dog, preferably Vienna-brand, has to have a taut, natural skin so you can crunch into it, and should also be juicy, well-seasoned and thick. The bun is important, steamed just so, neither soggy-wet nor dry. (Poppy seeds are very nice, but not essential.) The seasonings always include yellow mustard, chopped onion, celery salt, a dill-pickle spear, two tomato wedges and sweet relish--often the authentic, radiator-fluid-green Chicago relish, the most garishly colored food in existence. There are usually hot peppers on there too, which you don't have to eat, but whose juice adds an extra punch.
Anyway, the latest place he found, El Patio, was one shot in a million, a fast-food Mexican restaurant in Brentwood that served pedestrian burritos, tacos and fajitas platters--trust me, I've eaten my way through the menu--and a perfect Chicago-style hot dog, right down to the Da-Glo relish and the poppy seeds on the bun. Feather-light quenelles en brochette from Hot Dog on a Stick couldn't have seemed more improbable. And El Patio served him well for a couple of years, until they went over to an inferior dog some months ago. It was kind of sad. I was kind of sad, too.
So one morning last week, after skipping dinner the evening before, I tried Hot Dog Express on Westwood--where they used true Viennas but cooked them kind of limp--and moved on to the Weiner Factory in Sherman Oaks, which serves a creditable version of a New York pushcart dog; nice, but not what I was looking for. Ruben's Red Hots, down Ventura a bit, was a little closer, a hi-tech Chicago-style dog with the condiments almost right, with a properly steamed bun, nicely spiced, but without much of a snap. (The drive-through part was excellent, like a new ride at Disneyland with better food at the end.) Cupid's and Pink's dogs, of course, were all right in their chili-laden way, although hardly appropriate.
I returned to El Patio, waited in line behind dozens of shirt-sleeved office workers, ordered--the Chicago Dog, not the Regular Dog, the California Dog, the Smoked Polish Dog or the Dog Gone Burrito--and found a pleasant table outside in the patio, within sight of hanging fuchsias and right next to a potted palm. A runner brought out the dog, and the dog looked fine, crisp pickle spear and red, ripe tomato and little red and green sport peppers the size of a baby's toes, and that relish, crammed into a soft, warm poppy-seed roll, a dog with some heft. I bit into the thing, and the snap of the dog rang out like the plucked G string of a cello, and my mouth filled with hot, garlicky juice. I couldn't wait to call home.
El Patio, 12001 Wilshire Blvd., Brentwood, (213) 479-6303. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Monday till 4 p.m. Cash only. Beer and wine. Takeout and delivery. Hot dog lunch for two, dogs only, about $6.