Like any meat-eating American, I’ve loved hot dogs almost since birth. And, like most Americans, I grew up loving them without thinking too hard about what made certain dogs better than others. Boiled, grilled, griddled — whatever. In Wisconsin, where I lived, a debate over ketchup might last 30 seconds before everyone moved on.
That all changed when I moved to New York, where hot dogs are serious business and deviation from the standard mustard-sauerkraut-onion topping trifecta might be seen as sacrilege. Even still, the hot dogs I tried at Katz’s or the original Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island — the supposed birthplace of American frankfurters — were more or less comparable to what I ate on hot summer days in the Midwest. It wasn’t until I began spending more time in New Jersey, where my wife, Mary Kate, grew up, that I understood how exciting hot dogs could be.
It began one year, on the Friday after Thanksgiving at my future in-laws’ house on Long Beach Island. Mary Kate had been telling me for years about a western Jersey wonder called Hot Dog Johnny’s. On the two-hour drive out to the stand, we declared “Franksgiving” would be our new November tradition.
Hot Dog Johnny’s, founded in 1944, is in the absolute middle of nowhere. It is perched picturesquely between US-46 and the Pequest River in the town of Buttzville. The menu is focused: Johnny’s serves hot dogs and French fries. For refreshment, there are mugs of birch beer (a common beverage at Jersey dog joints) and, bizarrely, buttermilk. I was delighted by the place overall — New Jersey hot-dog stands generally possess ample movie-ready charm — and impressed with the actual hot dogs.
One-hundred percent of the hot dogs I had eaten up till that point had been grilled or fried or boiled. But Hot Dog Johnny’s, like many in Jersey, are deep-fried. It’s a cliche that just about everything tastes better deep-fried, but it’s absolutely true for hot dogs. These dogs were also topped with mustard, chopped onion and a pickle spear, a gardenlike melange that reminded me of Chicago-style dogs. There is of course no ketchup.
That first experience at Johnny’s made me curious about other touted Garden State dog stands. So, after a wedding in Cedar Grove, we made a beeline to Jimmy Buff’s in West Orange. It was here I realized how much I still had to learn about Jersey hot-dog culture. Jimmy Buff’s dogs weren’t anything like Johnny’s. They weren’t even anything like hot dogs as I had grown to understand them. Buff’s jams its franks inside a huge wedge of round “pizza bread” and tops it with piles of fried peppers, onions, and potatoes, all of which were drawn from the same gully of boiling oil. The style, which originated at Buff’s and is carried out by numerous joints in the state, is called an “Italian hot dog” or “Newark-style.” Imagine getting a hot dog with the works and fries and having it served to you inside a huge, puffy pita. It’s like that. It is equal parts disorienting and delicious.
By the time I got to Tommy’s Italian Sausage & Hot Dogs — a gorgeous, old, boardwalk-style corner storefront in Elizabeth that does only window service — I knew what to expect. At Tommy’s, you can get one, two, or three all-beef dogs tucked inside the pizza bread; or you can get a dog-and-sausage combo. The fried potatoes are so popular they are served separately as “potatoes in a cup.” It makes no sense to me that the product put out by Tommy’s or Buff’s should be sized up against the completely different offerings at Johnny’s, as they frequently are in polls and local-news features. But such is the world of New Jersey dogs; it contains multitudes.
Even before I went to Rutt’s Hut in Clifton, I’d heard of it and its famous rippers, dogs deep-fried until the casing tears open. Again, the setting is unique: a huge, L-shaped neon sign hangs above a sprawling pile of red bricks, and a chain link fence is all that keeps the building from falling onto the traffic on Hwy 21. Is there anything more Jersey than a hot-dog stand atop a highway?
Jersey hot-dog stands can be gloriously peculiar, which is a description that I would also apply to Rutt’s signature condiment, a mustard-based relish made with carrot, cabbage, and onion. It absolutely makes the dogs.
By fall of last year, I was looking for any excuse to go to New Jersey so I could hit up a hot-dog joint or two. Among them: Max’s, whose long dog is barely contained by its bun, and Windmill, housed in a mock windmill, and a longtime rival of Max’s, both located in Long Branch; the Hot Grill in Clifton, a master of the “Texas wiener,” yet another Jersey hot-dog subset, which involves a chili sauce that should not to be confused with actual chili; White Manna in Jersey City, which is better known for its sliders but nevertheless serves a very good dog; Boulevard Drinks, also in Jersey City, a hole in the wall with tasty homemade chili-onion sauce; Dickie Dee’s, which serves up an A-1 Newark-style dog right in Newark and may have the best pizza bread in the state; and Hiram’s Roadstand, just a few minutes from the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee. Hiram’s may be my favorite. It has a narrow counter up front and a small bar to the side. The dogs, made by Thumann’s from a blend of beef and pork, come out plump and are impossibly light. Hot, homemade sauerkraut is the must-have condiment.
My great hot-dog awakening did involve some disappointments — places that served products without distinction or effort, so why bother? — but on the whole, the state converted me into a dog fanatic. Now, as the summer winds down and the pandemic wears on, I find myself in Brooklyn, aching to cross a couple of rivers to eat some socially distanced dogs at an open-air, roadside stand. Luckily, Jersey’s hot-dog stands have long been in the takeout business and underwent the COVID-era transition to contactless pickup service with relative ease. Good thing, too, for New Jersey has spoiled me. No other dogs will do.