Art's Famous Chili Dog Stand, a South LA legend, claims to have invented the chili dog outright. But it's the restaurant's place at the center of the 1992 Los Angeles riots that's woven even deeper into its present-day soul.
To fully comprehend the Art's of today, it's important to understand its beginnings in 1939. That's the year namesake Art Elkind founded his unassuming hot dog stand, before going on to lay claim as the first person to ever marry chili and hot dog together, anywhere on Earth. Elkind was a New York transplant and a notoriously lovable crank, who moved in his younger years to what was then South Central Los Angeles to quietly make his mark.
Dressed in his uniform of a white button-up shirt and black tie, Elkind would stand behind his small counter every day, whipping up classic hot dogs for anyone who stopped in. Five years later, Art's moved to its its now permanent location just off the corner of Florence and Normandie in a largely working-class neighborhood, likely trading on the more visible intersection as a way to grab larger crowds. At that point, one of Art's dogs cost about a dime and a soda not much less, with his stand preceding the fast food boom of Southern California by decades.
Here, Elkind also sold tamales, chili, and a few other snacks, but he mostly traded in the hot dog, which itself was having a moment in Los Angeles at the time thanks in large part to the inexpensive lunch needs of the aerospace and automotive workers who proliferated across the Southland.
In a humorous 1986 newscast buried in the depths of YouTube, Elkind recalls a decision to start pouring some of that extra chili onto his hot dogs. People instantly fell in love. It would, according to Elkind, be the first time someone popularized the now-ubiquitous chili dog. It was a small but important moment for Los Angeles, a city that in the the post-war years was becoming obsessed with convenience — and chili.
The climate was ripe for such a simple innovation. Barney’s Beanery on Route 66 had been serving lots of chili since the 1930’s, and the true Los Angeles chili icon Tommy’s wouldn’t arrive until 1946. That puts Art and his chili dogs squarely in the middle of a hot dog moment.
A caseless dog would blend seamlessly with the chili and bun for perfect flavor experience
Folks from the surrounding neighborhood began to flock to Art's for the signature dog, which was presented without its natural casing, and thus none of the signature 'snap' most folks look for in a quality dog. The thought was that a caseless dog would blend seamlessly with the chili and bun for perfect flavor experience.
The persistent popularity of Art's Famous Chili Dog Stand was certainly not lost on the man himself, who spent years building his business within the local South LA community, even as the demographics and civic leaders of the time evolved. You can still find photos of Elkind on the walls inside the blue and white walk-up, shaking hands with the mayor in one shot, or smiling behind his original stand in another.
About two years after Elkind's death in 1990, on April 29, 1992, Art's Famous Chili Dog Stand found itself in the midst of a moment that would overshadow everything that came before. In a now famous case, a verdict was reached in the Rodney King case that acquitted the four police officers who had been captured on camera brutally beating King. The jury's decision in that case would go on to spark the historic and tragic Rodney King riots, which began to break out in large swaths of Los Angeles almost immediately. Armed national guards patrolled the streets for nearly a week in an attempt to maintain peace.
Among the first and most troubling acts to emerge from the riots that day was the beating of truck driver Reginald Denny, who was pulled from his rig in the middle of the intersection of Florence and Normandie, just feet from the front door of Art's. Unable to intervene, police officers watched as Denny was beaten in the street. Eventually, several people from the neighborhood who were watching helicopter news footage streaming live to their televisions ran out to stop the violence themselves.
The camera pans around almost haphazardly, watching a neighborhood change forever
In the famous aerial news clip that would emerge from that incident, the camera pans around almost haphazardly, watching a neighborhood change forever. Playing at the fringes of one of the worst cultural moments in Los Angeles history, you can see the blue sign and white facade of Art’s Famous Chili Dog Stand popping in and out of frame.
Two years on, with the remnants of the riots still very much a part of the South Los Angeles landscape, Art's was among many struggling businesses in the area hoping to rebuild. No longer the vibrant community corner it was in the 1950's, the tiny stand was in disrepair and suffering from low sales, putting it on on the verge of closing forever. That's when Darrell Nelms stepped in to purchase the property in 1994, with the explicit plan to bring Art's back from the brink.
Today Nelms is quick to tell anyone who stops in to Art's that he grew up in the neighborhood, just 800 yards away. His wife did too, and his family has long ties to the community. Nelms is a small business owner and the founder of MJB Transitional Recovery, a non-profit focused on substance abuse prevention. That work has made him a big part of the neighborhood around Florence and Normandie, but it's his more recent legacy as the owner of Art's that has come to define his role in the place he calls home.
Local kids know better than to tag his restaurant with graffiti
Nelms spent those early years after he bought Art's rehabilitating the small stand, fixing up bits of crumbling architecture and purchasing new equipment for the space. He still keeps the exterior impeccably painted in bold blue and white; he says that local kids know better than to tag his restaurant with graffiti. It's all working."I have a lot of pride in this place, in what we do here," Nelms says. "People want to come to this place, see the food being made in front of them, and feel good. We've got folks who come from all over, who have been coming into their 90s, and they still say that their favorite meal is at Art's."
Indeed walk into Art's now and you'll find locals lounging with a soda and a hot dog or two, delivery drivers who stop in for a bite on their route, and the occasional old timer hoping to recreate, bite by snapless bite, the chili dog he grew up loving. Nelms knows that it means something for him to own Art's after all these years, that the place is a coming home of sorts for him, and for the community. But mostly, he wants to serve great food every chance he gets.
You can still find Art’s at Florence and Normandie today. There’s a small parking lot in the back, a few picnic tables, and room for less than ten inside the front ordering area. A far wall is dotted with photos of Elkind through the years, shaking all those hands all those years ago. The menu hasn't changed much, though you'll find a pretty sturdy chili cheese Frito pie situation that's worth exploring. They've got tamales too, though the price has gone up to $3.75 apiece.
Stop by some weekday and you'll also like find Nelms himself, running the place as he has since 1994. He carries as much pride with him now as he did back then, when it felt right to return Art's to its place in the community.
Art's is more than just famous around Florence and Normandie — it's necessary. On the one hand it's a roadside grab and go lunch option, doling out dogs and sodas on the cheap to a community of hungry diners. On the other hand, Art's is a destination unto itself, a flagpole in the greater culinary and cultural history of Los Angeles that has truly withstood so much. So how are those hot dogs? They're good, a tame balance between meat and chili and cheese and bun. More than that, they symbolize the human spirit's ability to heal, remember, and rebuild in spite of tragedy. Not bad for a chili dog stand
Art's Famous Chili Dog Stand, 1410 W. Florence Ave., Los Angeles.