You never forget your first chicken-cilantro dog garnished with Caesar salad. The first time I ordered one was in autumn 2003, at Jeff’s Gourmet Sausage Factory, a small, glass-front eatery on a stretch of West Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles known for its yeshivas (Jewish schools focussed on Talmud study) , mezuzah shops and plethora of kosher markets and bakeries. Opened by owner Jeff Rohatiner in 1999, Jeff’s (referred to colloquially as such) is something of a legend in L.A. On any given weekday you can find an eclectic mix of customers — students from the Chabad school a few blocks down, stroller-pushing moms in long skirts and sheitels (wigs), teenagers in sports jerseys and shorts — sitting at a sidewalk table outside of Jeff’s feasting on one of its popular fleishig menu items, from the classic Western burger to the spicy beef and lamb merguez.
In 2003, I was not yet married (or divorced; that would come more than a decade later), living in Santa Monica in a one-bedroom apartment within walking distance of the beach and a row of coffee joints and fruit smoothie stands. But there were no kosher restaurants within a solid 7-mile radius.
Thanks to a boyfriend whom I met at a friend’s Rosh Hashanah dinner and was the son of an East Coast rabbi, I discovered Jeff’s one balmy October afternoon. Said boyfriend suggested the chicken-cilantro dog — I mean, what a genius concept, a chicken hot dog laced with cilantro and topped with salad. It was love at first bite.
The boyfriend didn’t last — he went on to marry a girl far more adept at the culinary arts than I would ever be; and I went on to marry (and divorce) a culinary wizard with whom I now co-parent two teenage children. But it was on that fateful autumn day in 2003, in that liminal space between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, that my obsession with Jeff’s kosher chicken-cilantro hot dog took eternal root.
For years, it was my go-to lunch whenever I found myself in the Pico-Robertson section of town. I’d pick up to-go orders on my way home from meetings with Hollywood executives and editors at various publications. Later, after moving to L.A.’s eastside, an hour’s drive at the height of traffic, I’d take my kids to Jeff’s for dinner. My friend Ale and I would head to Jeff’s on Sundays where, over frothy, ice-cold Cokes — another amazing thing about Jeff’s: it carried the soda fountain crushed ice — we’d unpack topics ranging from parenthood to episodes of “Shtisel.” I’d buy the frozen packs for later use in pastas, sliced up and grilled and twirled around a fork with fettuccine. It was the ultimate comfort food, the pinnacle of hot dog glory. There were nights on which I craved that chicken-cilantro dog with a desperate, fiery ache.
Then the pandemic struck. And like restaurants globalwide, Jeff’s was forced to pare back its menu. My beloved chicken-cilantro hot dog, topped with fresh Caesar salad and served in a toasted French roll, was yet another casualty of COVID-19.
I mourned its loss like one would a photo scrapbook destroyed in a house fire, like a silly schoolgirl would an unrequited crush. It was absurdist the extent to which I navigated this heartbreak. For months — years — I could not, would not, accept that it was gone. I wanted to continue to support Jeff’s, and I did. I’d turn up and stand in line, perusing the available items printed on menus taped to the folding table functioning as a makeshift outdoor ordering counter and cashier. And when I approached the front of the line, even though the chicken-cilantro dog was nowhere to be found, I would ask for it regardless, knowing full well the dreaded answer to come: “We no longer serve that here.”
I was steeped in unmitigable denial over that chicken dog. It was unfathomable to me that it had vanquished like a blast of air. “I’m sorry,” the man at the counter would say, remnants of flour and hamburger bun clinging to his yellow Jeff’s Gourmet Sausage Factory T-shirt. “It just wasn’t one of our more popular items.”
I sampled everything else there was to order — hamburger, hot dogs, the award-winning pastrami sandwich. They were fine. One could say they were even good. Excellent, in fact. But they weren’t my chicken-cilantro dog. Perhaps it was because so many other things had been snatched away — my marriage, my family life, the promise of domestic stability. Millions of people died during the pandemic, people lost their livelihoods, their homes. The loss of that chicken-cilantro hot dog represented more than just a menu item. It triggered that collective loss that stung so many of us on a global scale.
Then one day, I decided that enough was enough. I needed to fling myself into radical acceptance. So I walked over to Jeff’s. And I scrolled the menu. And some 20 years after that inaugural visit, I ordered something that I never had before: the fried chicken sandwich. Battered and fried, with a dollop of aioli spread across a brioche bun and a pile of kosher pickle chips on the side.
Was it the chicken-cilantro hot dog served with a mountain of Caesar salad? No. But it was also one of the best things that I have ever tasted. Crispy, juicy, fresh. In that moment, I truly understood that the world had changed. It was time to move on — to embrace new sandwiches.
To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are infinite kinds of love, but never the same love twice. The fried chicken sandwich will never be the chicken-cilantro dog, and to expect it to be is a fool’s errand. But the fried chicken sandwich at Jeff’s Gourmet Sausage Factory is plump, it is spicy — it is delicious. And it is part of a new culinary journey that is only just beginning.