The chili recipe remains a closely guarded secret, but venerable Pink’s hot dog stand embraces its role as a Los Angeles landmark where people from all walks of life come to pig out
Were it not for our restaurants, we would be a City Without a Past. Here in the Land of Obsessive Modernism, where even last week’s box office is old history, there’s virtually no sense of tradition except for the rituals and punctilio of our venerable eateries. That includes the French dip at Philippe, the cole slaw at the Pantry, the hash at the Dining Car and a chili dog with mustard and onions at Pink’s.
Since 1939, Pink’s has been the Wizard of Wieners, the Doyen of Dogs, the Fountainhead of Franks. Everyday, rain or shine, some 2,000 dogs are served to an astonishing cross-section of locals and visiting acolytes for whom this is the Grail of Grease. The celebrity wall of photographs astonishes with its sheer diversity. Not a dry cleaner in town can equal the faces on the wall from Jimmy Hahn to the kid pop band Hanson, from Dick Clark to Quincy Jones, from Marty “Hello Dere” Allen to Aerosmith tout le monde and tout le demimonde has feasted at Pink’s. Orson Welles used to eat here. He once ate 18 chili dogs at a sitting a house record.
Poli-bacon burrito dog
These days, the legendary and the legion have many choices at Pink’s. Along with the original chili dog, there’s a 10 inch “stretch” chili dog, a chili cheese dog, a bacon chili cheese dog, a nacho cheese chili dog, a Guadalajara dog (mustard, relish, onions, tomato, sour cream), a cole slaw dog, a Polish dog, a Polish/pastrami/Swiss cheese dog, a Chicago Polish dog, a New York dog, a 12 inch jalapeno dog, a pastrami Reuben dog, a Poli-bacon burrito dog, a bacon burrito dog, a Rosie O’Donnell Long Island dog (mustard, onions, chili, kraut), a Huell Howser dog (two dogs, chili, cheese, mustard, onions). They’ve recently added a vegetarian dog and a Mulholland Drive dog.
There are burgers as well, along with tamales. There are nacho cheese chili fries, a dish of staggering sloppiness. The most expensive item on the menu is the double pastrami Swiss cheeseburger, which goes for $5.25. Fold your hands together, then have someone fold their hands over yours, and you’ll have a notion of the size of that burger. It violates the basic rule of never eating anything bigger than your head. The total consumption of it is a triumph of the human spirit, hamburger division.
It all began in 1939 with a pushcart at the corner of Melrose and La Brea, from which Paul Pink whose family had moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles when he was 16 sold chili dogs for a dime. His dream was that someone would offer him enough money to make selling the cart worthwhile. But no one did. And so, in 1946, the pushcart became a stand. It’s essentially the same stand that sits at that corner today, where Pink’s is still run by the Pink family Richard (who’s also a real estate agent) and his wife Gloria Pink, and Richard’s sister Beverly Pink all three of whom, rather whimsically, show up at public events dressed in pink.
For the Pink Family, the family store isn’t just a place where people line up from 9:30 in the morning until 2 in the morning (Sunday through Thursday) and until 3 in the morning (Friday and Saturday). It’s a calling worthy of a Trappist or a Carthusian. It was Paul Pink’s creation. And his family feels the need to make it prosper and live long.
‘Unique only one’
They’ve tried to define the indefinable appeal of Pink’s with a list titled “Why Is Pink’s Successful?” a codex of 21 theses that range from “delicious food made to order” to “affordable prices,” “generous portions,” “good security,” “loyal employees,” “involved management,” “convenient and plentiful parking” and “movie star buzz.” Item No. 18, oddly, is “storage capability” which has never struck me as a reason for Pink’s success. But then, what do I know?
Item No. 14 comes a lot closer to the truth. It reads “unique only one.” (Many a sausage has been dangled before the Pinks over the years to expand, all of which they’ve resisted, though recently their dogs became available in selected multiplexes.) The real reason for their cult following, which isn’t on the list, is the Zen Factor they’re popular because they’re popular. Richard Pink says that at some point in the mid-’70s, the restaurant moved from destination to tradition. It became a verb “to Pink” as in consuming vast quantities in the wee hours of the morning.
True believers were marked by their ability to consume prodigious quantities of dogs (along with the occasional burger and tamale, though there are those among us okay, me who consider anything but a dog at Pink’s akin to dining on fish at Lawry’s. What’s the point?). Talmudic discussions parsed the significance of pastrami versus bacon as a topping, and the semiotics of cheese versus nacho cheese. And then, there’s the Jungian meaning of the chili. Its recipe is, as the Pinks say, “proprietary.” Which is fancy for “it’s a secret.”
In much the way that the essence of the Sabrett dogs sold on the streets of New York is in the onions, the inner meaning of a Pink’s dog is found in the chili. It is not a chili like the meaty stuff served at Chasen’s, or like the chunky stews found at chili cookoffs. It’s semi-orange, with a texture that sticks to your fingers. It’s thick, almost like a paste.
It tastes not so much of meat, as of spice. It adheres to anything it touches. It seems to be alive. It’s very hard to get off of clothing; heck, it’s tough to get the stuff off your fingers. I know I tried.
Ultimately, Pink’s is much loved for a multitude of reasons. In a city without a past, it’s pure rootstock. In the land of seared ahi, it’s a culinary shock to the system. In a society built upon strictly maintained castes, it’s democracy in action. Also, it’s open late. It’s cheap. And man, it’s so goooooooooooooood!
Merrill Shindler is editor of the Los Angeles Zagat Survey and talk show host with CBS radio.