I must admit to having a love of hot dogs, which in our slow-food, locavore times marks me as both an apostate and a philistine. They are in many ways the symbol of a food culture gone wrong, the chemically-enhanced product of ground-up lips, assholes, and God knows what else. A vegetarian colleague of mine recently said of hot dogs that food shouldn't bounce when you drop it. I understand all these things, but I am also a child of the Midwestern lower-middle class, and thus a great a appreciator of cheap pleasures. I also happen to live in New Jersey, which is an embarrassment of riches for hot dog lovers.
I am lucky to be married to someone with similar predilections, and we have been to many hot dog joints. The New York Times put out their own guide to Jersey dogs awhile back, one I found to be wanting, especially since the author took the usual anthropological tone when crossing the Hudson, as if New Jersey were some kind of exotic land. I'd rather give an insider's perspective, with the caveat that I prefer hot dogs with snap when you bite 'em, a la Grey's Papaya in New York City or The Grand Coney, my old haunt in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Also, based on my time in Chicago, I consider putting ketchup on a hot dog to be a true sign of philistinism. I haven't been to all of the hot dog places in New Jersey, so consider this an incomplete list, and one that I hope to make some additions to.
Rutt's Hut (Clifton)
Rutt's Hutt holds a sentimental place in my heart for having been my first Jersey hot dog experience. Going there is like entering some kind of time portal, which is appropriate since it is hard to get to, perched amidst various ramps and frontage roads for Route 21. There's a hot dog stand area in front, but the best bet is to sit on the bar in the back. The interior is has decorative railings and is paneled with dark wood straight out of 1972. During the summer baseball games will be on the TV, and the conversation at the bar will be interesting. (You can also get regular Coors from the tap, which is a rare treat.) Rutt's Hutt is best known for the "ripper," a deep fried hot dog. It actually tastes a lot lighter than you might think. It also should be topped off with their homemade mustard relish, which I wish I could take trunkload home with me.
Dickie Dee's (Newark)
Regular hot dogs just weren't enough for New Jersey, so back in the 1930s, at least according to the folks who run Jimmy Buff's, the Italian hot dog was created. It's not so much a hot dog as a giant sandwich full of potatoes, onions, and two hot dogs, all of which have been fried together in oil. I have yet to go to Jimmy Buff's, but I have been to Dickie Dee's, a Newark institution. It's probably the only hot dog joint with signed celebrity photos on the wall (including Joe Torre's.) I took a close look at the fryer, and there are many mansions of flavor trapped in the decades of absorbed into it. One Italian hot dog is pretty much all you need to eat to stay full for a whole day.
Libby's Lunch (Paterson)
Some parts of New Jersey have their own local variations of the hot dog, and my favorite is the "Texas weiner." (I am aware of the mis-spelling.) The Texas weiner is a spicy hot dog with meat chili (Texas style) and onions on top. It was invented about a century ago in Paterson, America's first industrial city and home to some beautiful waterfalls of the Passaic River. Go to Paterson to check out the history and the falls, then stop over to Libby's, a small diner whose decor looks like it was last updated in 1983. You will get your Texas weiners on a paper plate, which is probably that cuisine's ideal delivery system, and you will not be disappointed.
Manny's Texas Weiners (Vauxhall)
Luckily for me, I no longer have to drive all the way to the Paterson area to get a good Texas weiner. Right down the road from me is Manny's Texas Weiners, which not only makes a fine dog, but is also a great place to eat. I do not think I have ever been to a restaurant attracting a more diverse clientele, both in terms of race and class. That befits its location, since Manny's sits at the confluence of bourgeois Millburn, working class Vauxhall, and middle and working class Union. Folks are in a good mood there, mostly because they're eating some awesome dogs. It is impossible to leave there without being happy.
Rahway Grill (Rahway)
This is a grungy hole in the wall befitting gritty, blue collar Rahway. Don't let the aged decor and musty atmosphere turn you off, though, these are some fantastic chili dogs, more in line with Coney style that the spicier Texas weiner. Like Rutt's Hut, it's got wood panelling from bygone times, and some talkative characters at the lunch counter. A place this good can easily survive on word of mouth.
Galloping Hill Grill (Union)
This is a favorite stop of my wife's family, and two things put it over the top. First, the buns are made of thick bread, not the white chemical goop that so many hot dog buns are constructed out of. Furthermore, they have birch beer on draft, more flavorful than your average root beer, and the perfect thing to go with the dogs. You can go sit inside, but we always just eat at the tables by the stand in the back, and then walk to the front to get ice cream. Yep, they've got dogs, birch beer, and ice cream in the same location, which pretty much makes it one of my favorite summertime destinations in these parts.