Thursday, September 01, 2011

Chili Dog Smackdown - Pink's vs. Carneys vs. Coney Dog

For most of my formative years, the closest restaurant to me was an Orange Julius. My go-to item on their menu (Julius itself aside), was what. at the time. they called a California Dog. That would be a chili cheese dog to you and me. These days I'm more likely to dog it sans fromage, but I often get the hankering. Sometimes I make 'em at home. But sometimes, you gotta hit up a stand, and living in Hollywood, I have serious options.

Recently, two different friends from Detroit raved about the recently opened Coney Dog on Sunset Strip. Both told me that for lovers of chili dogs, it's the be-all and end-all. So, in honor of the upcoming Labor Day weekend, I set out with my Better Palate, Sa, and taste-tested three versions of the most American of all snack foods in the space of two hours: Coney Dog, Carneys and Pink's. The ultimate chili dog smackdown.

8873 Sunset Blvd
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Neighborhood: West Hollywood
(310) 854-1172
Yelp Info

My Detroit friends tell me that the Motor City -- not, ironically, from New York's Coney Island --  is where a true Coney Dog comes from. If Wikipedia is to be trusted on this, they are correct. There are two competing joints, originally operated by two Greek brothers and still family-run, next door to each other: Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island.

The two have engendered a rivalry that makes the Hatfields and McCoys look like the Brady Bunch. A Detroiter is born with a genetic allegiance to one or the other, and the fan of one never sets foot in the other, on pain of disinheritance. Both of my friends are Lafayette men (although American won a recent blind taste-off on Travel Channel's Food Wars), and they were over the moon when Coney Dog opened. It's owned by an ex-Detroiter who recreated Lafayette's look and feel, right down to the hexagonal off-white floor tile. Ingredients are shipped from Detroit for authenticity.

The service here is super-friendly; the menu is simple and to the point. Hot dogs. A "loose burger," which is actually a hot dog with ground beef in place of a frankfurter. And there is at least one ode to the L.A. location -- a bacon-wrapped L.A. Street Dog But I'm here for the real Detroit-style Coney Dog, or, as I'm told it's ordered in Detroit, simply a "Coney."  A chili dog with onions and mustard ($3.95, but two-for one during their weekday happy hour).

I like that.

The bun is steamed and soft without being squishy. The sausage itself is casing-on, as all great dogs must be. This one is a blend of beef and pork, and it's tasty. This contest, I know, will be largely about "snap," the level of fight-back the casing provides when biting in. On the Coney Dog, it's considerable, and the dog itself is not-unpleasantly chewy; one fears there might be a structural integrity issue, but there is not. It;s possible to get through one without getting mustard and chili stains on your shirt.

Then there is the chili. It's rich, savory, just the right thickness to provide creaminess without falling off the dog. But I immediately notice a slightly sour note to it. It is my Better Palate who wrinkles her nose and says, simply, "I don't like the chili. It tastes like chicken liver or something." A little research back at home reveals that she was in the right organ-meat ballpark (no Dodger Dog jokes, please). One of the "secret" ingredients to Lafayette's chili, and presumably to Coney Dog's, is beef heart. Now, don't let that put you off. If you're eating a hot dog out in the world, you're already eating internal organs you'd rather not think about. But it does impart a very particular savoriness to the dog.

709 N La Brea Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Neighborhood: West Hollywood
(323) 931-4223
Yelp Info

Love it or hate it, ya gotta love Pink's. Personally I love it, but the line, right? I usually go once or twice a year. Once, when I happen to drive by and the line looks less than 15 minutes. Once, when I visit the County Fair, where there are multiple Pink's outlets and you can step right up and get a dog. (incidentally, I posted about Fair food here. ) Today, I braved a fairly standard lunchtime line (25 minutes), just for the edification of you, my reader. You're welcome.

The frankfurter here, famously made "especially for Pink's" is Hoffy, all-beef, casing on. The bun is fractionally -- fractionally -- more firm than the one at Coney Dog. The chili dog ($3.45) is also fractionally more toothsome (a word that I use, incorrectly, as a synonym for "chewy'" I'm a novelist so I'm allowed): getting through the bottom casing without pulling out the dog or some chili is a challenge. Unlike Coney Dog, the mustard at Pink's is applied beneath the chili, which I find less pleasing aesthetically.

The dog is  delicious -- I have decided I prefer all-beef. The chili is definitive: perfectly creamy, perfectly spicy, perfectly salty. I have noticed something while waiting in line with my camera. The stand is decorated with pictures of the stand in past days. The one from 1946 has a prominently displayed neon announcing that they use "XLNT Tamales and Chili."

RU kidding?!? I have loved XLNT Tamales since I was a teen with the munchies -- and both they and their chili are available by the brick in Southern California supermarkets. I asked the manager if Pink's still uses the same brand, and she told me "yes." With all the discussion about the Pink's chili recipe, it's been right there in your grocer's freezer all along, the bastard! (Although One Guy On the Internet says that Pink's adds water, flour, and beaten egg to the brick starter, so it must be true.)

Yes, this a fine and noble chili dog indeed.

8351 W Sunset Blvd
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Neighborhood: West Hollywood
(323) 654-8300 (currently down)
Yelp Info

Carneys on Sunset Strip in West Hollywood is where I generally go when I crave a simple chili dog with a snap. I love the Southern Pacific Railroad car ambiance, the view of the Strip, the easy, free parking (I should note that Coney Dog has free parking too, on the roof). I've always considered Carney's a reasonable, no-hassle alternative to Pink's. Unlike Pink's, with its chaotic one-person-handles-your-order-from-beginning-to-cashier workflow, Carneys' dog is in front of you practically before you order it. The guy behind the counter is invariably efficient, seemingly gruff, but then personable and funny. (When the Better Palate calls me "Honey," which I hate (in public), he asks what my last name is. He laughs when I respond "Bear.  Or sometimes Pie.") We are sitting and eating within three minutes of walking in the door, having ordered the Carneys Dog without its Chicago-dog style sliced tomatoes: our benchmark chili-onion-mustard dog.

The bun is exactly the consistency of Coney Dog's: steamed soft, but with reliable integrity. Like Pink's, the mustard is applied before the chili. But the all-beef dog's snap is just right, popping juicily but not interfering with the bite; it's plump, slightly charred at the very tip, and delicious. The chili tastes a lot like Pink's; I'd be interested to do an actual side-by-side to see if, perhaps, they are the very same. This dog sings four-part harmony; bun, chili, mustard and onions are a perfectly composed quartet; the whole merges gracefully into a sum greater than its parts, and its parts are damn good. My Better Palate and I polish one off; I'm ready for more.


When I expressed fondness for both Pink's and Carneys to my Detroiter friend Danny over our  Coneys, he nodded vigorously (Danny does everything vigorously) and said, "I'd eat any of those dogs!" He's right. They're all great. (Alas, I'll never be able to test these three side-by-side with a dog from the original Nathan's on Coney Island, which is certainly great.) And frankly (ha!), very little separates the competitors. It's just a freakin' chili dog, after all. But Sa and I agreed: for the simple chili dog, Carneys comes out on top. Still, I won't hesitate to chow down at Pink's when the line is reasonable. And if listening to the excited, anticipatory chatter of tourists while contemplating an endless variety of kinky dogs (most recently, the "L.A. Philharmonic Conductor Gustavo Dudamel Dog," a nine inch hot dog, guacamole, American and Swiss cheese, fajita-grilled onions and tomatoes, jalapeno slices, topped with tortilla chips) and maybe mugging for the camera in a Good Day L.A. shoot is what you're in the mood for... well, ya gotta love Pink's.

Wherever you choose to eat a dog, why not do so this holiday weekend? Raise one to the American worker, and remember that Labor Day comes from a time that unashamedly celebrated, rather than demonized, the collective strength of our workforce.

Posts like this always generate "Why didn't you include..." comments, so bring 'em on. Cupid's? Skooby's? Tommy's? Let me know.


  1. Anonymous5:28 PM

    Coney dog is just flat out NASTY!!

  2. I can confirm that Pink's uses XLNT chili brick. I distinctly remember standing at the counter, BS'ing with the cook, in the middle of the night back in the 1970's. I asked about their chili, and he said they get it from a distributor, showed me a carboard box containing the chili brick, which he then broke up and threw into the pot. No eggs or anything added.