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The Oki Dog: Fusion cuisine to da max
The Oki Dog is apropos of nothing. A non sequitur. The sum of incongruent parts that add up to Okinawan audacity.
An Oki Dog begins with a hot dog (any type, but red is aesthetically best), a dollop of chili (must be from Zippy's, founded by the Okinawan Higa family), a few slices of shoyu pork (this is what truly makes it Okinawan), shredded lettuce (iceberg, for crunch), wrapped in a flour tortilla (for ease of transport).
And as if all that's not enough: "It would taste good with mayonnaise, but that spoils too quickly," says Isaac Hokama, one of those responsible for bringing the Oki Dog to Hawaii.
Consider it an example of four-part fusion: American/Mexican/Tex-Mexican/Okinawan. Or consider it inexplicable.
Whatever the case, the Oki Dog is back this weekend, for its 15th-annual appearance at the Okinawan Festival. It's a popular little doggie: Last year's festival grossed $13,500 in Oki Dog sales, which translates to roughly 3,375 sold at $4 each.
The Oki Dog actually has a noble punk-rock history that is totally non-Hawaiian. It was invented by an Okinawan native, Sakai "Jimmy" Sueyoshi, who imported himself to the United States and even did time in the Vietnam War.
Sometime in the 70s, Sueyoshi opened an Oki Dog stand on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. His signature product was a burrito filled with a hot dog, chili and shredded pastrami. It made him rich.
"Since it was close to the Hollywood nightclubs and always open late, it developed quite a following among the punk-rock movement," writes a reviewer for www.hotdogspot.com, an online resource on hot dogs in Los Angeles. "Skinheads, longhairs and mohawks could be seen sitting side by side on the stools chowing down on greasy burritos at all hours of the day and night."
Eventually, complaints from neighbors about the unruly crowd forced Oki Dog out of its prime location and into new digs on Fairfax Avenue in North Hollywood.
Sueyoshi himself is somewhat elusive and did not return phone calls to the new Oki Dog location, but enough hearsay testimony exists to tell his story.
Hokama, one of the organizers of Honolulu's Okinawan Festival, met Sueyoshi at the original, rather run-down Oki Dog in 1989. "This guy was quite a character," Hokama recalls. "His customers were all guys with pink hair, blue hair ... He came out from the kitchen in a T-shirt, a real greasy-looking guy."
The first thing he said: "Let's get away from these (insert extremely derogatory phrase here). Really loud. That's how he treated his customers."
But Sueyoshi proved a good host, feeding the group well and telling them of his beginnings serving Oki Dogs, burgers and french fries made from fresh potatoes. "At that time he was open 24 hours. He used to sleep behind the restaurant."
Part of Hokama's group that day was Howard Higa, another Okinawan Fest stalwart who had some culinary training from Kapiolani Community College. Higa suggested making a Hawaii version of the Oki Dog for sale at the festival. Sueyoshi gave them verbal permission to use the name.
Higa recalls trying various tortilla-wrapped combinations, including chop steak and beef tomato. "You can wrap anything in there -- even spaghetti and meatballs." Imagine that.
But without a dog, how could it be an Oki Dog? So Higa settled on chili and Okinawan shoyu pork, a dish already being cooked for the festival.
"I thought we could use the kuzu," Higa says. Translation: the bits and pieces too small for the shoyu pork plates. "Instead of wasting it, we could use it in another product."
He added shredded cabbage -- "I thought Okinawans eat a lot of cabbage and we already had that at the festival, too."
Hokama suggested lettuce instead, because it was lighter and the dog was getting a bit hefty.
Higa tried his creation out on some teens in his extended family -- "that's the target market" -- and the response was good. His Oki Dog debuted at that year's festival.
Meanwhile, back in L.A., Troy Bigger answers the phone at the existing Oki Dog. Sueyoshi still owns the name, Bigger says, but is leasing the space to Bigger's bosses.
Today's Oki Dog is made with two all-beef hot dogs, all-beef pastrami and a slice of American cheese. ("The unlikely combination of flavors and textures was heavenly," writes hotdogspot.com.)
Bigger finds the idea of adding pork to the mix somewhat distasteful, but then, he's not Okinawan. "Pure white boy" is his self-description -- but he's been serving up Oki Dogs for 18 years.
He describes Oki Dog's customer base as ages 13 to 80, dining at lunch, dinner or as late as 4 a.m. Some come from counties outside Los Angeles with coolers to carry home stashes of Oki Dogs.
Bigger still eats them himself, although without the tortilla, in what he calls a "mini-Atkins" version.
"At least you gotta try it one time," he says by way of recommendation. "It won't kill you. It might clean out your system, but it won't kill you."
Oki Dog is located at 860 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. Call (323) 655-4166.
Do-it-yourself Oki Dog
To make your own Oki Dog, you'll need a hot dog, flour tortilla, shredded lettuce and Zippy's chili. All of this comes store-bought, but you might want to make your own shoyu pork, the essential ingredient. Shoyu pork is cooked for the Okinawan Festival by various Oahu restaurants. This recipe comes from Hanagasa Inn.
Once you have your ingredients lined up, follow the wrapping instructions.
3 pounds pork butt
Pre-boil pork butt in water 45 minutes. Drain and slice.
Return meat to pot. Combine sauce ingredients and pour over meat. Add water if necessary so meat is covered with liquid. Simmer 1 hour on low heat, until meat is very tender. Serves 12.
Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving: 240 calories, 6 g total fat, 2 g saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, greater than 1,200 mg sodium, 17 g carbohydrate, 24 g protein.
Nutritional analyses by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.
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