"By not having a Charlie's hot dog, it's like skipping a chapter in this book called life."
Over Labor Day weekend I had the opportunity to visit what might be one of the country's most unique hot dog joints. Hidden on backroads in western New Jersey near the Pennsylvania border--closer to the mountains than the ocean--lies Charlie's Pool Room. Located on a residential street, it's easy to miss. In fact, finding this place was like an episode of Lost. The street names didn't match up to my road atlas or Google maps, and the GPS went haywire and told us we were still in Pennsylvania.
Charlie's started out in 1925 as a neighborhood pool room that also served hot dogs. I was expecting beer, bikers, and maybe video poker, but the big "No Swearing" sign shot that theory down immediately. The atmosphere is more of an old-time candy store meets visionary art shrine--with hot dogs. Amazing. And so are the hot dogs.
These are Kunzler brand, German-style beef and pork hot dogs from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. You can order a plain but the specialty is the Mealie, which comes with their grandmothers' "irreverent" Hungarian onion sauce, hot peppers, fresh finely diced onions, and a pickle on the side. Whatever you do, don't put the pickle on the dog. This is New Jersey, not Chicago.
I don't know if traditional condiments are even available (I didn't ask). But either way, you don't need them. The unusual name comes from the idea that one hot dog is enough for an entire meal, although I admittedly had three.
The Kunzler dogs were really good, surprisingly unique with a smokey flavor, just crispy enough from being pan-fried. Grandma Fencz's onion sauce is a spicy-sweet concoction, perfect with these dogs. Similar to New York City-style red onion sauce, it's made in-house and I would guess contains some combination of onion, tomato product, vinegar, spices and sugar. Sodas are available from the machine in front; chips at the counter.
The wait can be be a bit long because the dogs are made to order by John Fencz. His brother Joe works the front. But there's plenty to look at and read while you wait. The inside is covered in hand-lettered signs with quotes from the Bible and Thomas Jefferson, the Bill of Rights, and pool table rules rarely used anymore. And Joe is a great host who gladly runs through the history of Charlie's and will answer any questions you might have.
The customer testimonials are my favorite:
"By not having a Charlie's hot dog, it's like skipping a chapter in this book called life. -C.T."
"These hot dogs have made me a better man - J.M."
The lone table, which seats about eight, is covered in laminated articles about Charlie's, local newspapers, and piles of Chick Tracts. There's also benches along the wall where you could sit if there was a crowd, but this has only happened a few times. Most of their business seems to be take-out and food tourists who often call ahead.
In fact, Joe said that Charlie's was ready to close a few years ago. The neighborhood, once a mini Main Street, had all but disappeared, with nearby businesses closing or moving except for them. Then out of the blue people started showing up, saying they had read about Charlie's online.
The Fencz brothers didn't own a computer then and still don't, but attribute the renewed interest in Charlie's to hot dog aficionados and writers such as Holly Moore and John Fox (aka hotdoglover), both of whom tipped me off to this place (thanks guys).
Since then Charlie's has been the subject of many local news articles and even landed a spot in Jane and Michael Stern's latest book 500 Things To Eat Before It's Too Late. Joe says that in the last few years they've had people travel from as far as Florida just to sit and have a few of their signature dogs.
Let's hope the buzz grows and Charlie's remains open for years to come.
Charlie's Pool Room
1122 East Boulevard, Alpha NJ 08865 (map)
Hawk Krall is a Philadelphia-based illustrator who has a serious thing for hot dogs. Dig his dog drawings? Many of the illustrations he has created for Hot Dog of the Week are available for sale: hawkkrall.net/prints/.