Kasper's Original Hot Dog – Oakland, California
A few months ago, my desktop computer was stolen, but I only just realized that it was my backup for everything I've ever written. I'm now trying to piece my past back together by finding articles published online using web.archive.org. The Wayback Machine is a wondrous thing.
In the process I unearthed this chestnut, shot on film with a point-and-shoot to accompany a piece in the local weekly on an old hot dog shack in Oakland, now sadly defunct.
Best in Show: Original Kasper's -
Oakland's own pedigreed dog:
WHETHER IT'S DAMP AND RAINY or sunny and chilly, a fall day in Oakland is a perfect time for the comfort of a hot dog. It's portable, unpretentious, warms the hands and stomach -- the ultimate city food.
I have long anticipated this moment, being a frankenfurter fiend: I can content myself with boiled turkey franks with mustard and onion from the truck in front of North Berkeley BART as an after-work commuter treat but will eat dogs and sausages of all kinds -- except soy, which are truly not the same. Having heard Kasper's spoken of as an Oakland institution, I knew that mine would be no casual journey to sample their wares, but a pilgrimage.
When I pull up to Kasper's -- a tiny red wooden flatiron on the delta where Telegraph and Shattuck converge at 45th -- a boy leaps out the door into the rain, big smile on his face and a wrapped-up hot dog in his hand. Inside, it's steamy and warm. Two young men stand behind the counter, one studiously assembling a sausage for the expectant customer in front of me, one fielding the candy-buying needs of after-school kids. When it's my turn I order an original "All-Beef Kasper Dog."
First the cook, Michael, bastes a long, steamed bun with yellow mustard: right, left, and middle. Then he fishes a long, skinny frank out of the steamer, places it in the bun, and smears that with mustard. He dabs relish down the middle. He slices fresh wedges of deep red tomato and semicircles of white onion and tucks them into the sandwich, taking his time. Then (and this makes my heart skip) he tops off the whole thing with a chunk of real cheddar he hand-cranks through a rotary grater, forming a fluffy orange cloud. "Salt and pepper?" he asks.
By the time he hands me my dog, the anticipation is killing me. I sit down in the narrow end of the flatiron, a little triangular room with orange counters along windows overlooking Shattuck traffic. I bite into the exposed end of the sandwich, through the tender cheese cloud, through the crisp onion and the pliant bun, and "snap!" through the casing of the sausage. Mmmmmmm. Definitely the best I've ever had.
In fact, this dog comes with a pedigree. Current owner Harry Yaglijian Jr. inherited the stand from his father, Harry Sr., who inherited it from his stepfather-in-law, Kasper Koojoolian, who founded the Oakland chain in 1929. Koojoolian's family members branched out with their own independent hot dog businesses following a split in the 1930s, Harry Jr. tells me, leading to the various Legendary Kasper's and Casper's peppering the area today. But Original Kasper's in the flatiron building is the last location and only direct descendant of Kasper Koojoolian's chain.
It may have been Kasper's dog, but Harry Sr. bore the standard from early 1947 until 1997, when a stroke finally forced him to retire. For those 50 years he shunned change -- even ketchup -- preferring to stick to Kasper's methods than trying to improve on a quality product. Before arriving at Kasper's, Harry Sr. had been a man of many trades. As a boy his family fled from Armenia to Cuba, where he learned shoemaking. When he came to the US in 1939 he became a gem cutter, then he served in the US Army Air Force during World War II. Upon his return he married Mary Koojoolian and took over Kasper's business.
Harry Sr. died in August 2000. Someone has kissed the picture of him that's taped to the inside of the window -- leaving a lipstick mark -- and a local artist's memorial poster stands inside the store. Both pay tribute to a man well-loved by his neighbors.
Harry Jr., who's a musician at heart, admits that filling his father's shoes at Kasper's is not necessarily the job he would've chosen for himself. But in honor of Henry Sr.'s philosophy -- Whatever you do, do it the best you can -- Harry, with the support of his staff, keeps churning out Kasper's excellent hot dogs, overseeing attention to detail and hand-picking quality ingredients himself. Harry Sr. -- and Kasper -- would be proud.
How much is that doggie in the window? The "Original" is the original recipe all-beef dog with mustard, relish, tomato, and onion -- all for $2.50. Cheese, a delicious sacrelige, is 75 cents extra. If you're in town, be sure to pop into Kasper's Original Hot Dog, 4521 Telegraph Ave., Oakland; 510 655-3215.