"They will encourage you to try the housemade relish. It's awesome. Neon green and made with cabbage, carrots, onions and a bit of mustard, it's a mild and refreshing garnish for the crispy deep-fried dog."
Another legendary hot dog mecca that has been on my list for way too long: Rutt's Hut. Featured in countless articles and television shows, it's been around since 1928. A ramshackle cluster of brick and wood buildings in the middle of nowhere along an industrial stretch of a small North Jersey highway, it may be off-putting to some, but to me it's a sign of the real thing.
The huge parking lot was almost empty when I arrived there at 9 a.m. Rutts opens at 8 a.m. and stays open 'til 1 a.m. on weekends. It looks more like a biker bar at the renaissance Faire than a hot dog stand. Inside the take-out area has a trucker cafeteria vibe—a long counter and a few tables (no chairs) to stand and devour. Cold beer is available: bottles of Bud and less than $2 for Miller Lite draft, and the "Big Buck Hunter" game in the corner completes the atmosphere.
The food is served up fast and cheap and without fanfare. $1.95 for a Thumann's beef and pork dog, deep-fried (it holds up to the fryer) and ripped open. Served on a standard bun on a paper plate. Add toppings yourself from the stainless steel buckets—they will encourage you to try the housemade relish. It's awesome. Neon green and made with cabbage, carrots, onions and a bit of mustard, it's a mild and refreshing garnish for the crispy deep-fried dog.
If you want to get exotic you can ask for a "cremator" which is hammered in the deep fryer until it turns black. Not really my thing—I was almost turned off to deep-fried dogs completely by some well-done dogs a few years ago, but a lightly deep fried dog—at Rutt's a "ripper" or the barely fried "in and out"—can be really terrific. For the truly adventurous order your ripper "dipped" in the same brown gravy they use for fries and roast beef platters.
I also tried an equally delicious one drowned in Cheese Wiz and some corn on the cob. Chili is available but only as a side, if you want to put it on the dogs, gotta do it yourself. The menu goes way beyond hot dogs—there's also onion rings, pork roll sandwiches, bread pudding for desert. And in the massive banquet-sized dining room next door, you can order up full-on dinners like pork chops or fried chicken with a side of broccoli and mashed potatoes for something like $7.
If you stick with the dogs don't miss the dining room and bar section. As far as timeless, rustic dives go it might be up there with The Pub in Pennsauken and Charlie's Pool Room as one of the coolest places I've ever been in my life. Lots of wood, beautiful hand-lettered signs, American flags and sports on the TV. Not much has changed since 1928.
The draft beer taps come out of the wall into some sort of stainless steel trough situation rather than at the bar. This is the kind of place where you could sit all day watching the news, drinking Bud Light and chowing down on rippers or a roast beef sandwich. If this was in Brooklyn or even Philadelphia it would be packed to the gills with hipsters 24 hours a day. Thankfully it's in the middle of New Jersey, and will hopefully remain unchanged and open for another 100 years or so.
The consensus seems to be that you either love or hate this place. Some folks who arrive after discovering Rutt's on TV seem to take offense at the no-frills, rough-around-the-edges Jersey atmosphere and greasy deep-fried dogs. For me it's all part of the package, and as far as I'm concerned, the hot dogs are a highly unique, minimalist treasure.
If you've never visited Rutt's before, it's recently been announced as the last stop on the 7th annual New Jersey Hot Dog Tour, organized in part by John Fox (aka Hotdoglover here!). The tour is September 25th and they recently hired a second bus due to overwhelming demand. Get your tickets now, they're going fast!
417 River Road, Clifton NJ 07014 (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/.