Food & Drink

Danger Dogs: The Secret History of LA's Favorite Street Food

Dirt Dog Los Angeles
Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

It can be a challenge to figure out where your favorite food comes from -- which is why we had researcher Jackson Landers, who’s deep-dived for The Smithsonian and The New York Times -- to get to the heart of one of LA’s most storied culinary traditions.

You may not know a Danger Dog by name, but there’s no question that if you’ve been to any event in LA, as you left you smelled one: the sweet, savory aroma of a bacon-wrapped hot dog sold on the street, typically by an unlicensed vendor, covered in an unusual array of toppings, unlike the standard American dog. Also known as “heart attack dogs or “dirty dogs,” these things tempt us with the sound of sizzling bacon fat and that distinctive scent of greasy, still-caramelizing onions. The semi-illegal version of the bacon-wrapped street hot dog has been cited by everyone from the LA Times to the Los Angeles City Council as the city's most iconic street food, even as it has been criticized by the authorities as unsafe, with carts frequently raided by police and the health department.

Most people assume that Danger Dogs are an LA original -- and they’re certainly not something you see on the streets of New York, DC, or any other major American city. Three things sets LA's danger dogs apart from most of America's hot dogs: first, the distinctive strip of bacon spiraled around each one,  the cause of the particular ire that the Los Angeles Department of Health has for danger dogs, who claim that leaving raw pig meat out in the sun for hours without refrigeration is the sort of thing that tends to lead to food poisoning (whether vendors are actually guilty of this is subject to much debate).

Second, danger dogs are always grilled, rather than boiled or steamed. The Department of Health also hates this because it is illegal for food vendors in LA to cook hot dogs using any methods other than boiling or steaming.

Finally, the standard set of toppings on a Danger Dog is also (allegedly) distinct to LA. Each is topped with ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, sautéed onions, and peppers, plus a whole, green poblano chile pepper (just try putting mayo on a hot dog in New York or Chicago and you'll probably be asked to leave the city, never to return).

But is the Danger Dog really LA's own cuisine? How did the Danger Dog come to exist? To find out, we're going to take a trip back through hot dog history.

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There has always been something suspect about hot dogs. Before the creation of the USDA and modern inspections of businesses that handle meat, sausages were the destination for the most repulsive and otherwise unmarketable bits of meat -- arguably, for many years, all hot dogs were danger dogs. Upton Sinclair's most famous book, “The Jungle” (1906), described pretty much the worst case scenario for making hot dogs, which was all too common a century ago:

“There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water  -- from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together. This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one -- there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit."

That was the reality of the hot dog in the early days of its ubiquity. Sinclair's book quickly led to the creation of a federal agency in 1906 that later became the Food and Drug Administration. By that time, the term “hot dog” had become well-established in the US for a small, soft sausage served on a bun. Now less likely to kill the customers, the next step in the evolution of the Danger Dog was to jump south of the border.

Most culinary historians generally agree that ground zero for the hot dog in Mexico was the city of Hermosillo in the state of Sonora. Some credit an American circus for introducing the hot dog some time in the early 20th century, while others claim it was a visiting baseball team (the evidence is thin in both cases). However it did come to get there, the hot dog took off locally, and by the early 1950s a distinctly Sonoran hot dog had evolved. To connoisseurs, it t represented nothing short of a renaissance.

The Sonoran dog was (and still is) wrapped in bacon, grilled, served on a hefty split-top bolillo roll and covered with pinto beans, chopped tomatoes, both raw and grilled onions, mustard, salsa, crema, and a roasted pepper on the side. That's just what comes standard -- a good Sonoran hot dog vendor also offers an array of additional options like guacamole, cucumbers, cottage cheese, and crumbled potato chips.

Chicago can rightly brag about the sophistication of their indigenous hot dog style when 'dragged through the garden.' But the Sonoran hot dog is arguably the highest level to which any civilization has ever elevated a sausage.

Before long, word started to get out. Badly. Imitations of the Sonoran hot dog spread around North America like first graders copying a Rembrandt.

The earliest reference to bacon-wrapped hot dogs in an American publication is an advertisement in Ohio's Hamilton Daily News in 1948. “25¢ Hot dog wrapped in bacon -- French fried golden brown. Served on fresh roll.” Did this precede the addition of bacon to Mexican dogs? Hard to say. But when bacon-wrapped dogs started popping up in neighboring Texas, a Mexican origin looks more likely. In 1965, recipes started to appear in Texan newspapers and magazines for “bacon-wrapped franks.” By 1971, a Campbell's soup ad was running all around the US describing the same meal as a “Texas Tommy” and encouraging shoppers to pair it with a bowl of chicken soup.

The Sonoran masterpiece was watered down in the most sickening ways that 1970s America could devise. One Amarillo paper published a recipe for “bean 'n bacon crescent franks” that included instructions to “spread a tablespoon of baked beans over the triangle of dough. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of bacon bits.” Forget about trichinosis -- the real danger was boredom.

While Texas was doing its best to ruin the Sonoran hot dog, California seemed to start a separate attempt to mimic it starting in the 1980s. It can not be nailed down to a specific date, but immigrants from Mexico City and Sonora started selling the best copies they could manage. These people were not necessarily gifted cooks, but they were enterprising and could put together a danger dog cart with less than $100 worth of materials: fasten a baking sheet to the top of an abandoned shopping cart and rig a can of Sterno underneath. Congratulations, you now have a mobile grill, and are on your way to a piece of the American dream.

But selling an exact copy of the street food from back home wasn't possible for most immigrant vendors. The big problem was probably getting a hold of the bolillos -- beefy rolls that are shorter descendants of French baguettes that became popular starting in the 1860s when Emperor Maximilian's world-class chefs introduced them to Mexico City. When you are poor, car-less, and restricted to buying ingredients within walking distance, you have to use whatever buns you can get. Enter the the traditional American hot dog buns.

However, a standard pack of American hot dog buns cannot possibly stand up to the heaping pile of beans, tomatoes, guacamole, and other toppings typically piled on a real Sonoran hot dog: it would collapse before reaching your mouth. So they pared it down to what the wimpier bun could handle.

So: the danger dog is really LA's watered-down version of the Sonoran hot dog. Is it really an original? Not exactly. But each bacon-wrapped dog, tended by an entrepreneur who has to drop his apron and walk away when a cop is sighted, represents the exchange of ideas and food between the US and Mexico in a very real, very LA way.

Authentic Sonoran hot dogs are thriving in Tucson, Arizona. Over 100 vendors there are serving them up on bolillos with all the right toppings. But you don't have to go as far as Tuscon or Mexico to try a Sonoran hot dog. Dirt Dog in University Park near USC sells a reasonably good version.

As for trying a real LA Danger Dog, there's no such thing as an address. Find the closest street with the least amount of police presence, usually after a major event -- and then, just follow your nose.

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Jackson Landers is an author, science writer, and adventurer based out of Charlottesville, Virginia, specializing in wildlife out of place. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, and he is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian Magazine. His most recent book, Eating Aliens, chronicles a year and a half spent hunting and fishing for invasive species.