It's all in the cooking method.
A couple of weeks ago, I was driving through my hometown of Elmwood Park, NJ, a blue-collar suburb about 20 miles west of Manhattan. Feeling spontaneous, I veered off of a familiar two-lane road and cruised into the parking lot of a hot dog joint from my youth: River View East. I was there on a whim but also on a mission. I hadn’t been to the place in decades and wanted to see if its dogs still held up.
Conveniently located a few blocks from my old high school, it was a popular spot for reprobates who wanted quick fixes of freedom, fries and chili dogs. With its sporty red logo in scripted neon, utilitarian decor and big walk-up counter near the plate-glass doors, the place appeared virtually unchanged. The heady, umami-inflected scent of cooking meat seemed identical as well—never mind that the menu at Falls View, as it was known for some reason, now boasted rotisserie chickens, wraps and tilapia (wtf?). Ignoring all that, I went right for the hot dog and ordered it all the way: augmented with a sweetish chili and onions.
The lady at the counter served it up. I dribbled on a crooked line of mustard, took a bite and… well, I’d be exaggerating if I said it was a Jersey equivalent of Marcel Proust’s memory-jarring Madeline. But this hot dog was pretty damned good and tasted just as expected: Super crisp on the outside, permitting just the right amount of give, and as juicy as a hot dog can be below the casing.
“How do you cook these?” I asked the counter-lady between bites. “On the griddle?”
“No,” she answered. “They’re deep fried.”
Oh. So that’s the secret. Deep-fried hot dogs. I almost wished I hadn’t asked.
I grew up hitting some great hot dog places around my town in New Jersey—and it turns out that they all fry their franks. There was the Hot Grill in Clifton, Rutt’s Hut there as well, Johnny and Hangies in Paterson, plus a few others that have shut down and escaped memory. Johnny and Hangies, though, that place made superb dogs and sticks in my mind for other reasons as well. It was where we repaired after fun nights of doing things that teenagers don’t tell their parents about (including making midnight runs to Johnny and Hangies). J&H was open late and in a god-awful neighborhood. So bad that when a car full of bullies from my town picked up a friend and I hitchhiking and wanted to scare the hell out of us, they threatened to dump us off in the general vicinity. These guys didn’t follow through (my friend’s father coached one of them in Little League, which inspired mercy), and the incident cured me of hitchhiking.
But it did not cure me of eating hot dogs at Johnny and Hangies or at any of the other dog-centric spots. Back then, it should be noted, I never thought the hot dogs near my house were anything special. Now that I’ve had hot dogs elsewhere, I know that they are. According to a story on newjersey.com, there is good reason for this. North Jersey has a tube-steak pedigree. It’s where the Italian hot dog was created (so-called because the skin-less and fried dogs are served on a kind of pizza bread) and also where the chili dog was birthed. Hell, Sabrett, the standard bearer for Manhattan’s famed dirty-water dogs, is based in Englewood, NJ.
But hot dogs of choice for the Jersey joints that I grew up frequenting, and that remain in operation to this day, are classified as Texas Weiners (weird spelling is correct). Made with natural casings, which crisp up nicely in the fryers, and filled with combos of pork and beef, they were conceptualized, supposedly, by a dog purveyor who operated in front of a Paterson hotel back in the 1930s. While conversing with a counterman at Johnny and Hangies (which relocated to Fair Lawn, actually not far from where my parents currently live, meaning that visits home will be juiced up with all-the-way hot dogs), I asked about frying or grilling.
“Fried, of course,” he replied, with the sound of sizzle in the air. “For better or worse, that is how you get all the flavor.”
Truth be told, the hot dogs from one place to another pretty much taste the same to me—and, yeah, they’re all fried. Points of differentiation are subtle and more emotional than culinary. Hot Grill, for example, holds a special place in my heart because it’s where we used to stop on the way home from rock ‘n’ roll shows at the long-gone Capitol Theater in nearby Passaic.
Dogs there are supposedly custom-made from a secret combination that’s as closely held as the Pat LaFrieda formula for, say, Minetta Tavern’s haute and lauded burgers. Same deal with the vinegary cabbage and onion relish at wood-paneled Rutt’s Hut, which has been in business since the 1920s. Interestingly enough, somebody recently bought a box of recipes at a garage sale and what appears to be a write-up of instructions for making Rutt’s relish was included with the score.
Gussied-up ambience has never counted as part of the draw for New Jersey’s best hot dog houses, but inside one of them the view is appealing. While co-writing a book with a detective from Paterson, I used to go with him for hot dogs at a spot called Libby’s Lunch. It’s another fried dog joint that’s been there forever, but this one comes with a view of the Paterson waterfalls and a hint of how things might have looked back when the town was known as Silk City and served as a hub of industry for the fabric trade.
My cop friend referred to Libby’s hot dogs as sinkers. Between recounting gruesome elements from his case, he complained to me about the indigestion that fried weiners gave him. Yet he’d often finish the thing off and order himself a second one. They were that good.