Hold the Ketchup

Taste the sauce at Sun Valley's favorite hot dog stand

PHOTO: Ray Gadd

When Jill Rubin, 66, sold her first hot dog through the window of an old sheep wagon parked at the base of Sun Valley, she did it Chicago-style—with the works. It was December 1977 and Rubin and a friend were looking for a way to support their ski habit. What was meant to be a short stint in a mountain town turned into a lifetime in Ketchum where the Chi Town native still serves up Irving’s Red-Hots to a third generation of hot-doggers.

Sierra: How the heck did you get here?
Jill: One night at a party someone suggested hot dogs and I said, ‘Why not?’ I was 26 years old and I just wanted to play and ski.

So, how many dogs are you slinging through that window every winter?
The very first year we counted 16,000 hot dogs. I haven’t counted since.

That qualifies you as an expert. Tell me, what makes a good dog?
Steamed dogs and steamed buns. That’s the KISS principal—keep it simple, stupid. Mustard, onions, and pickle relish are a must. If the kids ask for ketchup, we make them beg. We give it to them, but ketchup is not on the menu. Ketchup is for burgers; mustard is for hot dogs.

Any other insider tips?
There’s a made-up lingo the kids pick up right away. A ‘red dog’ is with ketchup; ‘Christmas dog’ is ketchup and relish; a ‘train wreck’ is ketchup, mustard, and relish. ‘Chili dog’: CCOP. Those were the names of two of my dogs: CC—a sheep dog—and a yellow Lab named OP.

What’s an Irving’s Red-Hot going to set me back?
When we started it was 75 cents, and a Coke was a quarter. Now, it’s $4 for the basic with chips, and that feels high to me. I don’t raise the prices often, but when I do it’s always by 50 cents, because I can’t count.

Cash only?
Cash only. We don’t have room for a cash register, so we use a cigar box. We’ve also got an IOU list on the wall because sometimes the kids forget their money.

Besides the price, it doesn’t look like much has changed since you first opened.
We try not to change anything so you can come back and have the same hot dog you had when you were a kid. This stand is old now—we just put duct tape where we need it.

Aren’t hot dogs a summer food?
Sure, but they go really well with skiing. You don’t have to go inside and kill an hour. You can come by, get a dog, and take it with you back up on the lift. It’s just easy and quick, and doesn’t cost $15.

Good point. Plus, everybody loves hot dogs, right?
Sun Valley tried to get rid of us once, and everybody was up in arms. That set the tone of what this place is. We’re here for the locals and the tourists that come back every year—the rich and famous and everybody in between.

Celebs, huh? Like who?
Barbra Streisand, Donald Trump, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robin Williams—they all came to our side of the mountain. And Tom Hanks loves us. He’s here a lot. But more so this is a locals’ thing, especially for kids who grew up here.

How did you come up with a name like Irving’s Red-Hots?
Irving was my father’s name and there was a chain of hot dogs in Chicago, Red Hot Lovers, that he loved. His dream was to have a hot dog stand.

Ever think of kicking back with a nice Ballpark frank and retiring?
If I went away tomorrow, I’ve done it. I’ve been there, done it all. I used to think when I was 50 I was going to grab a gallon of milk, a pack of cigarettes, and eat every pastry in sight. But as I approached 50, I started to think, Shoot, I can’t cash in yet. My mom is 90-something, and now I think, Darn, I’ve got to wait that long to have a splurge?

Do you stay open for après?
People don’t après like they used to. They still go out, but not until 8 or 9. I remember the days I was still in ski boots, thinking, Wow, it’s late. I should go home. So no, I close at 3 because it’s still light out and I can go play. That’s the whole point. When I came to the mountains, I knew I wasn’t going to get rich, but I knew I would enjoy it.
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Hot Dogs, by lineage: Bobbie Burns, Glen Plake, Shane McConkey, Chris Tatsuno, Jesper Tjäder.