Who doesn't love a chili dog? Encased meat topped with spicy meat surrounded by doughy softness complemented with the crisp bite of raw onions and mustard--what could be better? Finding a great chili dog in Los Angeles can keep a Chowhound thread alive for years. Everyone knows Pinks on La Brea. However, I can't attest to being a big fan. Unfortunately, what passes for chili at many of the region's stands is a tasteless, orange greasy glop of stuff, with little substance. I sometimes yearn for the chili dogs at MOS Burger--the Japanese made-to-order hamburger chain, whose dog has a fantastic snap and savory chili topped with jalapeno slices....but Tokyo is a little far to travel to satisfy a hot dog urge.
Imagine my surprise while walking through Union Station one day to see a Nathan's Famous Hot Dog sign inside Union Bagel. Nathan's, the legendary Coney Island institution and sponsor of the nearly century-old annual hot dog eating contest, seems to have taken a cross-country train and disembarked at the City of Angels. The Japanese 6-time champion Takeru Kobayashi (I wonder if he likes Mos Burger too...?) was displaced by the American 2-time champ Joey Chestnut in 2009. The disembodied spirits of past hot dog downing Olympians must have taken over my body because I soon found myself at the counter saying "One chili dog with mustard and onions and no cheese, please."
I took at seat at the bar and waited a few moments. Union Bagel itself is a fantastic refuge located in one of the great public spaces of Los Angeles. Three indolent, world-weary 20-something women slumped themselves and their UGG boots at a table while waiting for a train. Wrinkled office workers lined up to procure a drink for their rail ride home. The pleasant hub-bub of the city lulls me into a Los Angeles of long ago.
Then, while I'm caught in my art deco daydream, the chili dog arrives. It takes me off guard--the dog itself extends past the bun, the raw red onions are finely chopped and the chili smells like, REAL chili! My heart starts to race. I don't have the courage to pick the thing up, so I use the fork. I wedge off a bit that contains all the flavors and quickly shorten the distance between the counter and my mouth.
Houston, we have a problem. This is a damn good chili dog! My mind races. Can I resist the urge to eat one every day? The meaty, even slightly gamey, taste of the Nathan's Famous is a memory blast from my childhood when real butchers, who made their own frankfurters, would give me a free sample. It was amazing. Plus, the chili had both substance and flavor. Chunks of ground meat in a savory cumin-tomato bath was a delight. The minced red onion and mustard rounded out the program...the onion was small enough to deliver flavor by not unwieldy enough to roll off the fork and onto my shirt (joining the stains of lunches past). Despite the fact that I was having dinner in 45 minutes, I scarfed the thing down. I felt regret that I only had a phone camera to capture the moment.
Thank God Union Station is not in Tokyo.