THE GREAT LOS ANGELES DEBATE: PINK’S VS. CARNEY’S
by Chris Tattu
In my English composition class at Santa Monica College, I had my students write a comparison-and-contrast essay, and I suggested, among several choices, comparing two restaurants. One young man, Chris Tattu, compared the chili dogs at two restaurants, Pink’s and Carney’s. If you know Los Angeles at all, you know how inspired this is. These two places are landmarks. I once worked across the street from Pink’s at a camera store (featured in my novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century). I loved Chris’s paper, and he’s letting me reproduce it here.
After a concert a few years ago, two of my friends argued over if Pink’s or Carney’s was a better place to eat and which one served a better chili dog? Both restaurants have their pluses and minuses. Carney’s serves beer and wine; Pink’s does not. Pink’s almost always has a line wrapped around the building; Carney’s does not.
Pink’s was established as a hotdog stand in 1939 by Paul Pink. Pink’s still manages to look like a slightly overgrown hot dog stand. The restaurant is in three small white buildings connected together. A line is usually in front of the kitchen, which is manned by four people with a fifth at the register. Half of the entertainment is watching them work. Signed pictures of celebrities hang in frames that line the kitchen walls and the walls of small room at the end of the kitchen.
The wild menu at Pink’s deserves mention. Food critic Jonathan Gold wrote that while nobody was paying attention, Pink’s turned into something of a Dalieseque Mexican restaurant. He was dead on. You can get the Three Dog Night, three hot dogs wrapped in a giant tortilla with three slices of cheese, three slices of bacon, chili, and onions, or the Lord of the Rings, a ten-inch stretch dog put through three onion rings with barbeque sauce on top. They have the standard burgers, hot dogs, onion rings, and fries as well.
On the outside of the buildings stands a patio with fifteen plastic tables and chairs with red-and-white umbrellas. Pink’s is on Pico and La Brea a few blocks away from the fancy, expensive shops of Melrose and the Regent Showcase Theatre, which is closed. Late at night, it is good place to start conversations with random strangers.
Carney’s was founded in 1968 by Paul Wolfe Sr. Carney’s has, what would be for any Los Angeles neighborhood, a huge lot carved into the side of a small hill on Sunset Boulevard. The Roxy, Whisky a-Go-Go, House of Blues, and the Chateau Marmont are all down the street. Three wood ramps in the parking lot take you to the end of a railroad car. The restaurant consists of two yellow, black, and red railroad cars placed unevenly side by side with a wall taken out of both, to connect them.
The inside is comfortable if it doesn’t get too crowded. The chrome and white interior of the place has about twelve small red and white tables with chairs along with the ubiquitous neon beer signs, framed pictures of trains, and Carneys memorabilia on the walls. Carney’s has a patio with wood benches out front so you can watch the passing parade of the famous and not-so-famous.
Carney’s is the clear winner so far. No gigantic line, they serve beer and wine, and they are closer to most of the clubs in a kitschy setting. If you are out to see a band play or are just in the neighborhood, you can stop in to eat without much hassle and get a beer. You can go to Pink’s if you have the time to kill. After you’ve gone to a concert or play or sporting event is the rule.
Let us move to what motivates all of us to leave our George Foreman grills at home and go out for a bite to eat: Flavor. My curiosity was piqued. Would the chili dogs measure up to what the restaurants claim? Carney’s touts that they have “Probably the Best Hot Dogs and Hamburgers in the World. Pink’s website says that they are the “Home of the World’s Best Chili Dog”.
A little history is in order. Many people have claimed to invent putting a sausage in a roll and putting condiments on it. As The Gourmet Chili Dog website explains, on Coney Island around 1870, a German immigrant named Charles Feltman was selling sausages in rolls. Other men were noted as having invented the hot dog, for example Anton Ludwig Feuchtwanger, a Bavarian sausage seller, who is said to have started serving sausages in rolls at the World's Fair either at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago or the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St Louis. The white gloves he gave to his customers so that they could eat his sausages were used as souvenirs .
A taste test was in order to find out who had the best chili dog, Pink’s or Carney’s? I went to Big Tomy’s in Culver City on Saturday to find out what a chili dog is not supposed to taste like. It consisted of very dark chili and onions on a mushy bun with an oversized hot dog with no snap when I bit into the casing. It wasn’t terrible; it just was nothing special.
Let me start with the Carney’s chili dog. The dog had chili, onions, mustard, and two large slices of tomato on a mushy roll. The roll complimented everything nicely. It came with dark meatless chili that was mildly spicy. The whole presentation was sloppy, but portioned out well enough so I didn’t end up wearing it. I bit into the dog and the casing of the dog snapped and garlicky juice came out. It was tasty. The dog and the onions were spicier than the chili itself. Overall it was a pretty good dog.
The Pink’s chili dog, on the other hand, had very greasy chili, onions, mustard, chopped-up tomato, and lettuce on a soft roll. The chili was meatless and spicy with some heat to it. They went heavy on the chili which made a sloppy mess, but the portion was large, making it a good value. When I was finished, I was sweating a little. The dog itself was not as juicy or garlicky as the Carney’s dog. It had no snap to it. My expectations were crushed. Perhaps I was there on an off night.
I am more than a little surprised that Carney’s had the better chili dog. I was rooting for Pink’s because it’s been around since the Great Depression and they managed to stay in business all these years. I do like the scruffy-to-fabulous clientele, but taste wins out every time. So it is Carney’s if you don’t want to stand in huge line, want a beer or a glass of wine, if you want to go to a concert or performance in the area, and you want a delicious chili dog. The only thing left to debate on is all the other dishes they both serve.
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