By Jim McLauchlin
We were talking about chili and L.A. and why L.A. food is so chili-centric. The short answer is that L.A. is a blue-collar town at heart (the Shahs of Sunset aside), and chili is blue-collar food.
L.A. chili is basic. There’s none of that Cincinnati Skyline stuff where people put nutmeg on the top, and other bizarro chili con-coctions need not apply. L.A. leaves the armadillo-meat-and-white-pinto-bean combinations to the haute cuisine crowd in Austin. L.A. chili is beef, with rarely a bean to be found, and like the city itself, exists at the 50/50 line between Latino and Anglo culture.
You can find those key attributes of L.A. chili and more in our top three chili-burger-and-dog hangouts in the City of Angels. Counting up from the bottom …
3) Vicious Dogs
The friendliest and fastest-paced ’dog in L.A. comes courtesy Vicious Dogs in the NoHo Arts District. A whirling dervish named Willy is the owner. Willy works the counter and the grill, and sprints across the dining room chatting up the customers. The chili cheese dog is a humble $3 and worth every penny. The bun comes lightly toasted – a nice touch – and the dog comes grilled. If you get onions on top, they’re micro-diced to unleash a little more flavor. Because everyone is looking for a little more onion flavor from their onions. The onions pair well with the chili, which has just enough fat in it to make it look dangerous, and tastes great.
5231 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, 818-985-3647.
The menus at Johnnie’s Pastrami proudly proclaim “Since 1952,” and note that the booths and countertop jukeboxes are original equipment. Many of the waitresses, God love ’em, look like original equipment, too.
The waitresses quickly and gladly set you up with Johnnie’s famous sliced kosher pickles as a free appetizer ($5.50 a pound or $22 a gallon to go), and as you might figure, yeah, pastrami is the order of the day. But those in the know know that the stealth item on the menu is the chili cheddar cheese dog ($6.75). When asked “Do you want onions on that?” your answer had better be “yes.”
The dog is a massive, char-grilled Vienna Beef delight, and comes drowning in chili that runs (so to speak) to the soupy side, but is nonetheless delicious. Get it with the fries and it’s guaranteed: From sheer caloric intake, you won’t have to eat again for two days.
4017 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City, 310-397-6654.
Here’s all you really need to know about Original Tommy’s: It is impossible to put anything on a standard “hamburger” at Tommy’s. The Tommy burger comes with chili, mustard, tomato, onions, and pickles. You can really only take things OFF a Tommy burger.
And please take note that the napkins at Tommy’s aren’t napkins. They’re full-on tri-fold paper towels like you find in an elementary school boys’ room. A minimum of two are required to get through one burger. Three is considered more civilized.
Tommy’s has been delivering the same great and SoCal-beloved chili burger since founder Tommy Koulax opened his first restaurant in 1946. The chili recipe has remained the same since Day One, and has become as much an L.A. icon as Dodger Stadium and the Capitol Records building. It’s no surprise that busloads of Japanese tourists still descend on Tommy’s when the tour group decides they want a taste of real L.A. It’s also a good thing “Original” has been in the name since Day One. ’Cause Tommy’s has spawned a legion of imitators (cf. Big Tomy’s, featured on Wednesday).
“You see ‘Tam’s famous chili burgers,’ whatever,” says Tommy’s Regional Supervisor Bob Auerbach. “There must be hundreds. But it’s usually not worth our time or money to send a cease-and-desist letter. You know why? Go try an imitator sometime. You’ll see.”
Tommy’s has 31 Los Angeles-area locations, and three in Nevada, and we’re not going to list them all. Find the one closest to you at http://www.OriginalTommys.com.
Jim McLauchlin is a regular contributor to Playboy and Wired. You can, should you so desire, “follow Jim McLauchlin on Twitter,” as the kids say. It’s @McLauchlin.