When Carolina Castro was 13 years old, she ate a truly memorable hot dog with her uncle at a stand in Guasave, Sinaloa, where her family comes from. It was one of those little things that made a lasting impression on her senses.
“I never really liked hot dogs before that,” says Castro, now age 31. “My uncle asked me if I wanted it with chips. Then he took my Ruffles, smashed them in the bag, and poured the broken chips on my hot dog. As soon as the crunch and flavors hit my mouth I was blown away — It was amazing.”
This was her first taste of the Sinaloan-style hot dogs, which Castro now brings to Boyle Heights by way of a street food stand that opened three weeks ago called Los Dogis.
Back in Los Angeles in the early aughts, no one was making Sonoran or Sinaloan hot dogs like this. And growing up in Boyle Heights, Castro’s only experience with hot dogs were the bacon-wrapped variety found in LA’s Fashion District and outside of local clubs: the kind that are simply cooked on baking sheets welded onto shopping carts, and served with grilled onions, peppers, ketchup, mustard, pico de gallo, and big chunks of avocado.
But in Mexico, hot dog traditions tend to be more regional, with specific toppings and combinations. Sinaloan hot dogs share many of the same toppings from Sonora, for example. But while Sinaloans use a standard hot dog bun, in Sonora, they use artisanal wheat flour split buns.
Three weeks ago, Castro opened Los Dogis in Boyle Heights with partners Cecilia Maya, Alan Gamboa, her cuñada (sister-in-law) Marlene Zaragoza, and her sister Cynthia Caldera.
The hot dog cart looks unassuming enough, with its steel frame set against the hazy LA sunset in the black sky. Glancing at it, you’d never know the road Castro has traveled to get here has been heavy, painful, and crippled by self-doubt.
“I’m every cliché you could think about someone growing up in Boyle Heights,” said Castro. At age 21, she had three children and was looking for work. She accepted an opportunity to wait tables at Boyle Heights institution, Mariscos 4 Vientos. Friends like her partner Cecilia Maya had long suggested that she open a hot dog stand like the one she always talked about in Guasave. But even after taking up a second job at Tropicana Bakery in Downey, she just couldn’t make ends meet. Then tragedy struck.
In June 2017, the father of Castro’s children, Raul Sanchez, was shot and killed outside the Wyvernwood Garden apartments, a sprawling 70 acre complex that houses many longtime Boyle Heights residents. Castro and Sanchez were separated at the time. She was left with the burden of paying for the funeral and related costs on her own.
“I stared selling food, anywhere I could,” says Castro. “I sold to the workers at Mariscos 4 Vientos or out of my apartment. Ramirez Liquors [a local store] even let me sell food at their original location. I was able to raise $18,000.”
“I thought if I could do it for Raul, I could do it for my children,” she says. Along the way, Maya, Zaragoza, and the greater Boyle Heights community encouraged her to pursue her dreams.
Before opening the hot dog stand, Castro hustled by cooking menudo blanco and pozole for the local clientele she’d been serving, saving enough to buy a hot dog cart. After raising the needed funds and buying the cart, it stayed in her garage for three months. Fear of failure and the weight of her personal tragedy began to consume her.
However, Castro’s friends and family never gave up on her. Beginning in early September, she set up Los Dogis on Soto Street just outside Wyvernwood Garden apartments, on the outskirts of a place that made Castro who she is today. It was the scene of so much hardship and grief. But as she cooks with a seasoned intensity, it’s clear that she’s overcome so much of this — her steely eyes glued to the grill.
The El Guasavense hot dog is a tribute to the legendary dog of her childhood. It’s bacon-wrapped, served in a sesame seed bun with streaks of mayo, ketchup, mustard, a special pico de gallo made with shredded cabbage, slices of avocado, additional dressings of a cilantro salsa and a chipotle aioli. And of course, tiny chards of pulverized Ruffles.
The other hot dogs here come with some Mexican-American liberties, the kind of creativity that’s happening all over LA among Latino chefs and street vendors. But there’s also a well-seasoned cup of frijoles charros (cowboy beans) on the house — a little bit of Guasavense hospitality that accompanies each order, and a delicious souvenir from Castro’s childhood.
Chili dogs have always been popular among Mexican-Americans, so Castro’s mom came up with chunky frijoles puercos to top a hot dog called El Ocorito, named for the neighborhood of Ocoro in Guasave, where she grew up. These Sinaloa-style refried beans are made with pork lard, melted cheese, and pork chorizo, among other ingredients. The dog comes with standard pico de gallo and sopa fria, a cold pasta salad.
These are Mexicanized chili dogs that cause a stir among new customers eager to try a new take on the popular flavors of Sinaloa. Of course all hot dogs in Mexico are bacon-wrapped, as Mexican law basically commands.
There’s also The El Puerquito, which comes with frijoles puercos, French fries, and cheese melted on the flat top. And an off-menu hot dog called El Uruapan (named after a city in Michoacán), topped with rough cut chiles toreados (roasted jalapeños, seeds and all), plus some mashed avocado. It’s a spicy guacamole dog that Maya named on the spot.
Castro says, “This all couldn’t have happened without everyone here: Ceci, my sister, Alan, mi cuñada, and the community [of Boyle Heights].” In the short time they’ve operated the business, it’s already gathered a crowd for what is one of the most exciting hot dog stands to open in LA this year. It’s the only place in LA to try a Sinaloa-style hot dog and it’s a stand the whole community of Boyle Heights can call their own. The barrio has provided the support, stimulus, and the cultural canvas for Castro and her team to sketch the changing flavors of Mexican cuisine in LA and to overcome any challenges that lie ahead.
Los Dogis. 1308 S. Soto St., Boyle Heights, Friday through Sunday, 7 p.m. to midnight