I thought I’d experienced the best hot dog of my life — ravenously consumed in midtown Manhattan one night when nothing else was open, and the sodium-stuffed carb bomb of a street vendor’s dog saved me from passing out in the street. But then I got to La Paz, Mexico, and had a jate.
On the streets of this small, fiercely loved — by paceños (La Paz natives) and snowbirds alike — port city on the southern end of Baja California, vendors serve up a special kind of bacon-wrapped, crema-topped hot dog. And if you find yourself on the receiving end of one of these creations, you’ll be biting into a chimera of sorts — an American tradition fully assimilated into Baja culture.
Hot dogs in Mexico are often called the literally translated perros calientes, and, more often than not, they’re wrapped in bacon, regardless of the state you’re eating them in. But here in La Paz, hot dogs have their own way of preparation and their own name, jates — or how you might say “hot dogs” if you spoke fast English with a Mexican accent and kind of dropped the last few consonants: “hah-tay.” Which, it turns out, is exactly what happened.
The La Paz–specific hot dog obsession began in the 1970s, explains local micro-hotelier Dayana Alvarez Geraldo. The zona libra, or free-trade zone, that had been established in certain parts of Mexico in the 1930s helped La Paz grow into a major importer of U.S.-made goods, including clothing, chocolate … and Longmont hot dogs.
Jate cart owner Hermila Raya Guerrero, who has been a hot dog vendor since 1994 and has owned her own cart, Milo’s Hot Dogs, since 2003, explains the Longmont appeal: “They have a saltier flavor that pairs well with the cream.”
Then come the toppings: first, fresh tomatoes, diced small and sprinkled liberally. Then the crema, which is often just mayonnaise mixed with milk.
American hot dogs had captivated the paceños, but vendors found it difficult to source the Bimbo buns used elsewhere in Mexico. When they asked local bakeries to make buns, the panaderías created the fluffy oblong rolls that continue to be an integral part of the jate today. With the same general shape as their mainland equivalent, they have a rich, wheaty flavor without the saccharine aftertaste common to processed buns.
Here’s how the jate comes together. The Longmont dog, which is wrapped in bacon and fried on a griddle, is cradled in the fresh bun. Then come the toppings: first, fresh tomatoes, diced small and sprinkled liberally. Then the crema, which is often just mayonnaise (usually the brand Wilsey, says Guerrero, who assures me she makes her own) mixed with milk, is zigzagged across the top.
Geraldo, who is originally from Mexico City, ate her first jate as a child on vacation in La Paz, a ritual she repeated every night of that vacation and many nights of the vacations that followed. She equates the reclaimed hot dog with the spirit of La Paz: “We’ll always be left with jates as an important dish in our society. There might be some paceños who don’t love them, but I can say that 100 percent of the population has tried it at least once, and they’re proud of it.”
If you find yourself walking the hilly streets of La Paz between 5 pm and midnight, every 10 or 15 blocks you’ll come across a little cart proudly making bacon-wrapped, crema-covered goodness, and I implore you: Stop and try one.