Eating L.A. Before It Eats Itself: In support of the city’s famed ‘dirty dog’ vendors

Jessie Chang | Daily Trojan

I’m hungry. I need a hot dog.

It’s past midnight, and I’m slipping through a crowd of concert-goers. I am lost in a sea of other bodies, looking for an empty spot on the sidewalk to call their Lyft back home. Under the light-polluted sky, cradled by the billboards decorating Hollywood, a scent draws me along the sidewalk. Sizzling onions. Crackling bacon. The quiet hiss of a bun warming on a homemade grill. The Lyft doesn’t matter anymore. All that matters is the dirty dog.

I hand over five crumpled $1 bills to the nearest vendor I see, several lining  the sidewalks capturing concert-goers’ attentions — all grilling those same hot dogs on that same portable grill.

For those $5 the bacon-wrapped hot dog is adorned with grilled peppers, onions and three condiments: mayo, ketchup and mustard. It is the dirty dog, danger dog, the L.A. dog. It is distinctly Los Angeles: a mish-mashed product of Mexico and America sold on every popular street corner every night. And while it seems ubiquitous now, the dirty dog is the result of many generations of immigration, acclimation, and modification — a microcosm of the Mexican experience in Los Angeles.

The vendor asks me if I want all three condiments on my dog, and I nod my head vigorously. She hands me the dog wrapped in parchment paper. The sausage snaps as I bite into it, and I am greeted with a symphony of freshly roasted flavors.

The dirty dog is widely considered to be the descendant of the Sonoran dog, a hot dog popularized in the Mexican state of Sonora in the mid-20th century. Here, the humble American hot dog is dressed with expert care: The typical makeup of a Sonoran dog is a bacon-wrapped dog served with pinto beans, tomatoes, grilled and raw onions, crema, mustard and salsa, served in a bolillo roll.

As I rejoin the surging crowd, dog in hand, I feel a sense of camaraderie. Around me, cutting through the chatter, is the sizzling of bacon-wrapped hot dogs on a grill. At least a tenth of people I saw had a hot dog in hand, also appreciating the grease, the flavors, the smell. It is the preferred drunk food, high food, street food of this city. And its popularity shows. The danger dog knows nothing of time — more dogs are sold after clubs close and concerts end than at any point during the day. It flourishes in the dark, enticing the night owls of Los Angeles.

Of course, it didn’t take long for the Sonoran dog to reach the United States, spreading through Texas, Arizona and the rest of the Southwest. Bolillo rolls were hard to come by, so Mexican immigrants in California began to swap the rolls for regular hot dog buns. Sonoran dogs had a pile of expensive toppings to fill out the roll, so the Californian version shrunk it down to a more refined selection of condiments. After all, it was still a bacon-wrapped hot dog full of grilled aromatics and sauce, and it was easy to reproduce and sell.

Because the dirty dog is such a staple of Los Angeles, it is bizarre to think of them as fineable offenses. Yet every day, the dogs are illegal, and Los Angeles is the only major city with strong limitations for street vendors.

For many, selling hot dogs is a primary source of income, especially for those who never received proper training to enter the workforce. Selling hot dogs on the street, even with the possible threat of police intervention, provides more autonomy than a job that pays below minimum wage for maximum labor. For undocumented immigrants, serving the dogs is a risk that endangers their own livelihoods. As it turns out, the “danger dog” carries more danger for the one serving it than the ones eating it.

Lawmakers and social advocates have fought for a better way to regulate street food for years, finally breaking through this year with State Senate Bill 949, a law that imposes new rules for cities to follow regarding their street vendors. Instead of police intimidation and bullying from the local government, the law requires cities to have a sensible licensing and regulation system. While Los Angeles has been in the process of creating new vending legislation, SB 949 will hopefully expedite this process.

I finish my hot dog and lick the mustard off my fingers, crumpling up the parchment paper and tossing it into another vendor’s trash bag. Somehow, I already crave another, inhaling the smells of bacon and onion as hundreds of hot dogs roast along the street. By now, I’ve gotten far away enough from the concert venue to order a reasonably priced Lyft.

To taste a dirty dog, just walk outside the Coliseum on a game day, visit a nightclub on a weekend or drop by a popular music venue after a big show. Stroll through the streets of the Fashion District in Downtown Los Angeles, or maybe along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. If food safety is a concern, Dirt Dog on Figueroa Street serves a health department-approved version of the danger dog. But really, the dog is best enjoyed when most restaurants are closed.

Weekend nights in Los Angeles belong to the dirty dog. All across the city, hot dogs hit the grill, vendors balking at the dangers posed by enforcement and health department, searing bacon and browning peppers with grace and efficiency. It takes great effort to resist its mouth-watering, iconic smell. But some nights I cede, pay $5 and enjoy one of the best meals Los Angeles has to offer.

SB 949 goes into effect in 2019. Hopefully, our danger dog won’t be a danger to its vendors anymore.

Christina Tiber is a junior majoring in psychology. Her column, “Eating L.A. Before It Eats Itself,” runs every other Thursday.