Ken & Mary Morrone's Hot Dog Stand at REI in Santa Ana

Amid the sad news that owners of L.A.'s hot dog carts were being hauled off to jail for wrapping bacon around their wieners (that sounded wrong. . .), eating food from a street vendor has never been more exciting. Perhaps it's because the anti-establishment rebelliousness, the perceived covertness, and the fleeting nature of it all has always been a tastier condiment than bacon itself. Leave it to prohibition to make something even more appealing.

Above all, it's the absence of formalities and pretense, where ambiance, waiters and silverware go out the door. In fact, there is no door. There is just food -- you won't get closer to what you consume and to the person preparing it than when you order from a street vendor.

But to call Ken Morrone a street vendor is inaccurate. His sausage and hot dog stand is more like your neighbor's backyard BBQ, brought out to the public. You only wish you had a neighbor like him. Friendly and energetic, he is called simply "Kenny" by the employees at the REI sporting goods store in Santa Ana, where you will find him on weekends.

Before the store's doors open for business, he sets up his monster grill outside, under the canopy of a bright blue tent. Throughout the day, until the store closes in the early evening, his hot grates will roast five kinds of sausages for a seemingly never-ending supply of patrons.

As such, the relationship Kenny has with REI is mutually beneficial. He attracts as many customers for the store as the store gives him in hungry mouths. In fact, Kenny's food has become so much a part of the REI weekend shopping experience that you aren't just allowed to browse the aisles with one of Kenny's sandwiches in hand -- you're expected.

I find it best, however, to park my butt on one of the plastic chairs Kenny sets up in front of his stand. There's no better place to soak in the sun and catch a whiff of his grill smoke while my teeth sink into one of his freshly cooked dogs.

All the foot-long sausages he offers are beautifully charred, but the Italian ($5), in particular, is burned black in spots, glistening in others -- the poster child of cooking by flame. The bite is snappy, thanks to a natural casing, and the meat is full of fennel flavor and general porkiness.

Bratwursts ($5) are equally perky, if only slightly less flavorful. But that's just a good excuse to ask for sauerkraut, which Kenny heats up for free by request on the same grill.

For those who might balk at the prices, remember this: It's actually less expensive than Jerry's Dogs (which I also love) where similar dogs retail for $5.15 (before tax). But unlike traditional establishments like Jerry's, Kenny has to lug his entire kitchen to work and tear it down at the end of the day.

So give him a break, will ya? The next time you hanker for a dog, don't "think outside the bun," just think "outside."

Ken & Mary Morrone's "The Walkin' Dog" @ REI 1411 Village Way Santa Ana, CA 92705 Saturday: 10 am - 7 pm Sunday: 10 am - 6 pm


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