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NEIGHBORHOOD EATERY

The Art of Haute Chili Dogs

March 09, 1995|MICHAEL KRIKORIAN

Long before the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues became notorious as the flash point of the 1992 riots, the corner was already renowned for something else--Art's Chili Dogs. For any haute dog aficionado, the mere mention of the now-infamous cross streets conjures images not of violence but of the countless chili cheese dogs that have been sold here in the last half-century.

New Yorker Art Elkind invaded South-Central Los Angeles with his hot dogs in 1939. The original stand was a couple of miles to the west, but by 1944, Art's had moved to its current location, a shack with 10 stools. Much of the joint's charm came from Elkind himself, a classic New Yorker: tough on the outside, kind within. He often showed disdain for newcomers. If Jackie Onassis and Audrey Hepburn walked in, Elkind would probably have ignored them for at least five minutes.

Elkind died in 1990, and, of course, the place isn't the same without him, though the decor hasn't changed much. Elkind's children still own the stand, but it is run by Alice Ofield. The walls still show a now-faded proclamation from the county commending him for 50 years of service, a large 1939 photo of Elkind at his stand with a menu listing chili dogs for 10 cents, a chili-stained Times article by David Shaw rating the chili dog here the best in town in 1972.

Last week, 21-year-old Jerome Jones, who lives nearby, was engrossed in his chili dog. "Art was a great guy," Jones said. "I used to ride the bus to junior high in Woodland Hills. Sometimes I'd save my lunch money so I could eat at Art's after school. It was a long ride, but I'd be thinking about that chili dog at the end of the line."

There are other things on the menu such as chili tamales ($3.50), and, perhaps the junkiest of all junk foods, chili cheese Fritos ($2.25), but to go to Art's and not order a chili dog ($2) would be like going to Agra and not glancing at the Taj Mahal.

Newcomers may not get it. The dog has no snap. The cheese, chili and bun are nothing extraordinary. But for old-time customers, that combination of the rather average ingredients in this nearly ramshackle setting transforms into a special taste treat. It's a trip down memory lane and the trip is always satisfying.

Art's Chili Dogs is at 1410 W. Florence Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 751-6612. Open seven days, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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