Sunday, July 23, 2017     Volume: 18, Issue: 20

Santa Maria Sun / Eats

La Rocco's brings Chicago-style hot dogs to Santa Maria


In 1993, when I was living in the great city of Chicago, I got off my stop on the L red line at Fullerton and realized there was nothing to eat in my tiny studio apartment (as was the case with many of my days in college).

I had been in Chicago for only a few weeks, and in that time, my diet consisted of bologna sandwiches and leftover spaghetti my mother made and froze for me (so I wouldn't "starve like an idiot," as she put it). While I was standing on the corner listening to my stomach rumble, I noticed a sign for $2 hot dogs and fries.

West Coast hot dog fanatics have their own response to Chicago and New York style hot dogs: The LA dog. Wrapped in bacon and served with spicy mayo, grilled peppers, grilled onions, and tomatoes, La Rocco’s take is sweet and spicy with just the right amount of snap in the Vienna beef dog.

My 19-year-old brain recognized that this was, in fact, a good deal for food that would sustain me until I could figure out how grocery stores worked. So I walked in and ordered the first thing on their handwritten menu: A Chicago-style hot dog.

What I had that day ruined me for the rest of my life.

From that point on, I was never able to eat another hot dog without comparing it to that bite. When I moved to other cities, I would often find places selling "Chicago-style" dogs only to leave bitterly disappointed. The dog didn't have the right snap when you bit into it. They don't add enough celery salt. The bun wasn't poppy-seed (an atrocity).

That streak of dismay ended when I sampled La Rocco's Chicago dog right here in Santa Maria. I was skeptical, to be sure. It's like someone telling you there's a unicorn in your garage. You're not going to go rushing out with a smile on your face.

In addition to traditional Polish and Chicago-style hot dogs, La Rocco’s also serves Italian beef sandwiches for those looking for hot dog alternatives.

But La Rocco's understands that you don't just slap a label like "Chicago-style" on a hot dog, throw a pickle on it, and call it a day. Just as Santa Marians are serious about their tri-tip, so are Chicagoans about their hot dogs. There is no messing around with perfection. There is a fine process to it, like a nuclear scientist building a proton reactor from scratch. You don't cut corners. You don't say, "Well, it's good enough."

First things first: The actual hot dog meat. It's Vienna beef or go home. Next is the bun. The Chicago dog is a poppy-seed bun-only game; all other players please return to the dugout. After that are the garnishes. There is no ketchup on a Chicago-style dog. I repeat: There is absolutely no ketchup on a Chicago-style dog. In fact, Chicago pretty much leaves the ketchup off a lot of specialty dogs. Fresh tomatoes (sliced in a wedge, if we're being nitpicky) are a must. Plus fresh chopped onions, yellow mustard, sport peppers, and relish.

Now comes the best part, and La Rocco's takes this just as seriously as I do. You must top all of that off with a pickle spear. Without the pickle, you're just a fool running around with a tomato on a perfectly good hot dog. Add a dash of celery salt, and the result is sheer perfection.

The Chicago-style hot dog is a one-of-a-kind original that’s hard to accurately duplicate. Santa Marians need look no further than La Rocco’s, which not only serves up the signature dish but gets it absolutely right.

Since I discovered La Rocco's (after a miserable appointment at the IRS building next door), I have probably consumed about 10 of their Chicago-style dogs and each one was better than the next.

But I get it; you can't get your mind around putting a bunch of veggies on a hot dog. La Rocco's also offers about seven other equally impressive hot dogs, including their take on another big city's signature hot dog. The LA dog features a bacon-wrapped hot dog adorned with spicy mayo, grilled peppers, grilled onions, and fresh tomatoes. In LA, I've seen them also topped with avocado, but honestly, I prefer La Rocco's version, which skips that part.

The Polish sausage is another popular Chicago food La Rocco’s serves at its Santa Maria location. La Rocco’s offers several different variations on the Polish, including The Vinnie with brown mustard, grilled onions, and sauerkraut as well as the Maxwell, with mustard, grilled onions, and sport peppers (pictured).

If you prefer something outside of Vienna beef (fine, you heathens) then there's always Polish sausage. The Vinnie is a spicy Polish with brown mustard, grilled onions, and sauerkraut, and it's one of my favorites. The Maxwell is a slight variation, offering mustard, grilled onions, and sport peppers sans the sauerkraut.

If you want a taste of Chicago but you're still not convinced a Chicago dog is for you, La Rocco's also offers Italian beef sandwiches. Over the 10 years I lived in Chicago, I've probably eaten my bodyweight in this glorious standard. Italian beef sandwiches are made with sliced meat soaked in its own juices. You can get it with provolone and peppers, but do yourself a favor and get the sauce on the side to dip. This is the correct, proper, and best way to do it, and you'll thank me later.

One of the best things about La Rocco's is the price. Most dogs cost less than $5 with an Italian beef and sausage combo topping out at less than $7.

I may not be a starving college student anymore, but I still appreciate good value. I also appreciate authenticity and the care it takes to elevate a simple product like a hot dog to a quality product. La Rocco's has all of that, without skimping on the celery salt.

Rebecca Rose firmly believes hot dogs are not sandwiches. Contact her at


Cornbread at The Bear and Star in Los Olivos.

• I was lucky enough to be at The Bear and Star grand opening in Los Olivos a few months ago and I recently went back for the first time, albeit just for a quick snack. I'm so Southern I ordered warm cornbread (pictured) in 100-degree heat and didn't bat an eye. Plus, the chicken liver with honey marmalade is another great bar snack to treat yourself to. Try everything they have at 2860 Grand Ave., Los Olivos.

Cafe Dolce in Solvang has a new egg sandwich that is positively decadent. Served on a pretzel roll with sun-dried tomatoes, avocado, and pepper-jack cheese, it's a unique breakfast option that is fresh and delicious. Get one at 475 1st St., Solvang.

Central Coast Specialty Foods' plum salad includes plums, cherries, tomatoes, bacon, goat cheese, and dried apricots on a bed of mixed greens drizzled with golden balsamic. It's basically perfect during the summer heat wave. Try it for yourself at 115 E. College Ave., Lompoc.

Weekly Poll
How do you decorate your home?

Ranch style, with deer antlers and all.
Adobe style. Hello red tiles!
Modern industrial. Exposed metal and concrete.
Shabby chic. The thrift store is my friend.

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