For most of us, few things epitomize American summertime eats better than hot dogs — or frankfurters, franks, wieners, weenies, tube steaks, red-hots — whatever constitutes your preferred term for this most popular member of the sausage family. In fact, the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council estimates that Americans consume about 20 billion dogs a year, which works out to about 70 per person. And our fair state, as it turns out, has an impressive history when it comes to the frankfurter. New Jersey is home to three of the world’s largest producers: Best’s in Newark, Thumann’s in Carlstadt, and Sabrett, which has corporate headquarters in Englewood. And the earliest recorded usage of the term “hot dog” in reference to a frankfurter nestled in a soft bun appeared in the Paterson Daily Press in 1892.
Just one small problem with my doing the research for this editor-suggested story: although hot dogs are served in 95 percent of homes in the U.S., I do not personally consume them, either at home or out. It’s not that I don’t, um, relish them, it’s that I know more than I care to about what goes into mass-produced name-brand dogs. (You can get a mild inkling of this by viewing a short video recently posted at www.huffingtonpost.com called “What’s Really in Hot Dogs.” Among the ingredients: mechanically separated meats and corn syrup.)
But being the food professional I am, I put aside nutritional correctness and took a big, snappy bite out of the subject. Not only did I get to indulge in a delicious guilty pleasure, the area dog houses I chose for my survey (by no means a complete list) are all independent, locally owned businesses stuffed with colorful folks and interesting back stories. Plus, these eateries offer a variety of dogs that could put the American Kennel Club to shame.
#b#Russ Ayres Famous Hot Dogs#/b#
‘Famous” is not too strong a word for this tiny, cash-only stand. The original Russ Ayres, a lifelong resident of the Trenton area, died in 1994 but remains legendary for the boiled-water dogs he sold for 41 years out of a signature red-and-yellow wood cart. That cart, his dogs, and even his caricature (as logo) live on in this former garage with six stools facing a counter.
You can’t miss it along Route 206 in Bordentown: it’s painted bright yellow and red outside and in, in homage. In good weather there’s additional seating out on the patio. For the last 15 years the Russ Ayres legacy has been carried forward by Chris Baldassari of the Trenton restaurant family, and his wife, Pam.
(While there’s no longer a Baldassari restaurant in Trenton, members of the younger generation, like Chris, remain active in the area. Cousin Jacqueline Baldassari, for one example, is part of the Sodexo team at the College of New Jersey, and early last year she was brought in as consulting chef at Princeton’s Ivy Inn, where she successfully updated and upgraded the casual menu of that bar-hangout.)
The boiled water dog here — when purchased from roadside carts “dirty water dog” is the term of art — reminded me in the best possible way of those my mother served us kids growing up, complete with squishy white bread roll, very mild kraut, and bright yellow mustard. (I had a similar dog experience at the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market on Route 27 in Kingston, though I suspect the dog there is warmed on a griddle rather than boiled.) Relish, onion, chili, and cheese are other possible toppers, but since they weren’t part of my distant past, I passed.
Keeping with my childhood theme, I downed my dog with root beer — a bottle of icy cold IBC. Even the sign that the Badassaris posted proclaiming themselves Yankee fans jibed with my childhood. (I consider the couple brave for announcing their allegiance in a location that rightly favors the Phillies.) But another sign posted at Russ Ayres is the one I most agree with. It proclaims, “ketchup is for hamburgers.” As the Hot Dog Council proudly points out, even Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry agrees with that sentiment. As he says in Sudden Impact, “Nobody, but nobody puts ketchup on a hot dog.” At least, that is, no self-respecting person over the age of 18.
After my Russ Ayres dog, I traveled even further down memory lane by capping off my meal with a side trip into downtown Bordentown, to Sweetie’s, where I indulged in another iconic childhood treat: soft serve ice cream. Chocolate and white swirl on a wafer cone, of course.
Russ Ayres Famous Hot Dogs, 690 Route 206 South, Bordentown. 609-233-7600. Hot dogs start at $2.50.
#b#Captain Paul’s Firehouse Dogs#/b#
Even if Captain Paul’s didn’t serve excellent dogs — and chicken tender sandwiches piled with accoutrements more common to hot dogs or barbecue — it would still be worth a visit. Captain Paul is Paul Tweedly, who retired from the Trenton fire department after 26 years of service. He and his wife, Janice, have dedicated their business on Princeton Pike (just over a mile from the Trenton Farmers Market) to “the men and women associated with emergency services, the military, and their families and for all those who volunteer to help others.”
It’s not just talk; the Tweedlys make good on this claim. Within the last three years alone, Captain Paul’s has received service and appreciation awards from Lawrenceville’s American Legion post, the Trenton PAL, and Signal 22, a Trenton organization that provides food and drink to firefighters and emergency personnel while they are fighting fires or other emergencies. You’ll be reminded of this dedication when you place your order at the counter here. Virtually every inch of every wall is covered in service badges or other paraphernalia from every branch of the armed services as well as local emergency providers. At last count, there were around 350 items in all.
I already knew I liked Captain Paul’s when I re-visited for this hot dog odyssey, not least among my reasons being the supernaturally enthusiastic, polite, cheerful, and seemingly sincere teens who staff the place. But after my trip to Russ Ayres, I was astounded to make a new discovery. Behind the counter here is a clone of Russ Ayres’ red-and-yellow hot dog cart. When I made inquiries, the manager on duty, Kelly Tweedly (Captain Paul’s sister). informed me that Chris Baldassari of Russ Ayres had been a firefighter in Trenton, under — you guessed it — Captain Paul Tweedly.
In fact, before this space became Captain Paul’s in 2009, it was an ice cream spot called Gelato’s. The owner of Gelato’s? None other than Chris Baldassari. Before buying out Gelato’s from his friend, Tweedly spent time helping out at both spots. At one point, the friends drove out together to Michigan to buy the red-and-yellow cart now perched behind Captain Paul’s five stools. Not because Captain Paul planned to have a hot dog place, but just because he fancied it. “Paul kept it in his garage for five years,” Kelly Tweedly told me, long before he would buy out his friend.
Hatfield is the brand of dogs served up here, either boiled or fried. Beef-and-pork is the norm, though all-beef dogs can be had upon request. Torpedo rolls are picked up every morning from Italian People’s Bakery. No matter which of the six boiled dog combos or 10 fried (aka Italian hot dog) combos on offer here, you get to choose among four mustards: Boar’s Head (which contains horseradish), Gulden’s Spicy Brown, an unnamed yellow, and 3 Monkeys. That last is a local creation, made by a Lawrenceville man, Dan Collins, whose three active sons are referenced in the name. 3 Monkeys, a spicy-sweet mustard, took top honors at the 2012 Champion World Mustard Competition. It is sold locally at Pennington Market and the Whole Earth Center and Terhune Orchards in Princeton.
I must pause here to tell you my personal history with Italian hot dogs, which is what I sampled at Captain Paul’s. I grew up in Newark, just six blocks away from the originator of the Italian hot dog, Jimmy Buff’s, which started life in 1932.
For the uninitiated, it consists of a deep-fried hot dog topped with onions, bell peppers, and potatoes that have been sauteed in plenty of good oil. The authentic version has two dogs wedged inside a half-moon or one dog in a quarter-moon of pizza bread, which is exactly what it sounds like, only formed into a flat round with a pocket (like pita). It is correctly pronounced “beet-za bread” because that’s how my family and all our first-generation Italian-American neighbors pronounced it. Jimmy Buff hot dogs loom large in my childhood memories. These days, there are two extant Jimmy Buff shops, one in West Orange and the other in Kenilworth.
Over the decades, Trenton developed its own version of the Italian hot dog, only without the sauteed onions and on a submarine roll (or hoagie roll or torpedo roll — whatever you call the replacement for pizza bread). Two unfortunate developments, in my honest opinion.
That’s what I encountered at Captain Paul’s (and elsewhere) on my quest. There, a one-dog version called The Trooper is a customer favorite; there’s also a two-dog version, The Super Trooper. Since those Italian People’s rolls are pretty substantial, the two-dog version has what I deem the better ratio of meat to bread. While the Italian-style dogs here may not equal Jimmy Buff’s, they come close. Other best-sellers at Captain Paul’s include the Full Box (boiled dog with mustard, onions, relish, and kraut) and the Devil Dog (fried dog, bacon, and baked beans, topped with cole slaw).
All the main menu items are named for those who serve. The Arizona Hotshots is in honor of that firefighting unit that lost 19 of their members battling wildfires last year. It’s a uniquely New Jersey concoction, though, including both a fried hot dog and pork roll, as well as potatoes, peppers, and onions, all topped with cheddar cheese.
But the Tweedlys’ personalized offerings don’t end with the dogs; they also feature Italian ice and ice cream. Captain Paul himself mixes up flavors of Italian ice in summer, while Janice’s specialty is hard ice cream. A big fan of the Boss, she names the rotating flavors after Bruce Springsteen classics. Thunder Road, for example, incorporates peanut butter cups, Born to Run is butter pecan, and No Surrender is coffee.
Captain Paul’s Firehouse Dogs, 2230 Princeton Pike, Lawrenceville. 609-323-7253. www.captainpaulsdogs.com. Hot dogs start at $2.50.
#b#Jimmy G’s Famous Hot Dogs#/b#
Historically, Trenton-style Italian hot dogs go back almost as far as Newark’s. Jimmy G’s, a casual, sit-down eatery behind the Applebee’s on Route 33, is the unofficial heir to Trenton’s most revered Italian-style hot dog purveyor, the erstwhile Casino in Chambersburg, originated by Canio “Tony Goes” Sbarro. Jimmy G’s is named for Vincent “Jimmy” Sbarro, who has backed his brother Ray in this enterprise that opened a year ago, and which carries forward the legacy of their grandfather. Old-timers, many of whom have also relocated from Chambersburg to Hamilton, can peruse photos of the Sbarro family on the walls while waiting.
But for someone like me, who already has issues with the Trenton style of Italian hot dog, Jimmy G’s goes even further afield. The dogs and potatoes appear to be cooked on a griddle rather than fried in oil, and that, as I’m concerned, places them outside the definition of Italian hot dogs. On the other hand, Jimmy G’s offers plenty of non-dog sandwiches, including those featuring kielbasa, pork roll, sausage, and a personal favorite: egg with potatoes and broccoli rabe.
Jimmy G’s Famous Hot Dogs, 335 Route 33, Hamilton, 609-890-0024. www.jimygshotdogs.com. Hot dogs start at $3.95.
All the above emporia are modest stands offering more or less familiar versions of hot-dogs-with-all-the-trimmings, either American style or Italian-American style, or both. Destination Dogs, a full-service restaurant with a liquor license that opened in New Brunswick in 2012, takes dogs to new heights.
Virtually its entire menu is devoted to franks and sausages in guises both familiar and exotic, but always intriguing. Both the dogs’ names and the decor sport an aviation theme. At last count, the menu featured 13 “domestic” dogs, 13 “international” dogs, and “first-class upgrades.” That last includes, for example, a corn dog made with whatever is the game meat du jour.
It’s fitting that game features in many of the sausages here, since the team behind Destination Dogs — Jimmy Cronk, Sean Hosty, and Michael Parker — met while working at Clydz, the New Brunswick restaurant known for its wild game fare. Destination Dogs’ Bun on the Bayou, for example, has shrimp and alligator sausage topped with jambalaya, fried okra, and scallions.
But my focus was on Destination Dogs’ all-beef franks, and I stuck very close to home by ordering the Scarlet Bite, a tasty sop to nearby Rutgers students and professors. Like all the dogs here, it comes on a toasted, buttered, split-top bun from Knead Baked Goods, an artisan baker in nearby Somerset.
This pale-yellow bun was the best I encountered on my foray. It has real texture and more heft than most, and supplies exactly the right proportion of bread to encased meat. The bun needs that heft due to the many wonderful accoutrements piled on. The Scarlet Bite dog, a prime example, comes topped with French fries, cheese sauce, diced tomato, diced pickle, a snowcap of finely shredded cabbage, and squirts of mayo, ketchup, and yellow mustard. (The combo is so appealing that I even overlooked the addition of the dreaded ketchup.)
Of the three dogs I tried, this was my favorite. The Boston Red Hots suffered from room-temperature baked beans and bland cole slaw. El Borracho, Mexico’s representative, was a deep-fried corn dog-on-a-stick that needed more of its appealing garnishes of cheese sauce, chipotle sauce, and sour cream. Dogs here come with thick slabs of housemade potato chips that would be irresistible if they only had more salt. (I recommend the truffle fries without prejudice.)
Destination Dogs started out life in a small place on Spring Street, which it quickly outgrew. Last August it took over the Paterson Street space (just down the block from Clydz) that for decades had been Doll’s Place. There’s dining on the main floor at the large bar and at surrounding high-tops, while the second floor offers regular tables.
Among the bar’s hipsterish artisan cocktails is Monks Gone Wild, a concoction of Pimm’s, green Chartreuse, fresh lemonade, muddled strawberries, and housemade ginger soda (or as it’s called here, ginger pop). There’s also a large fridge filled with cans of beer ranging from mass-produced to craft. But the bar also produces interesting homemade sodas. In addition to the aforementioned ginger pop, recent choices included a refreshing grapefruit and one that combined strawberry, cucumber, and basil.
The Destination Dogs team is on a roll. (Sorry; couldn’t resist the pun.) They recently opened a new eatery in their old Spring Street locale. Garden Steak applies the team’s signature laser-like focus to another iconic eat, the cheesesteak. And scheduled to open this July Fourth weekend is a second Destination Dogs, in Atlantic City.
Destination Dogs, 101 Paterson Street, New Brunswick. 732-993-1016. www.destinationdogs.com. Hot dogs start at $4.25.
If, on a summer weekend, you’ve driven past the intersection of Routes 32 and 263 on River Road, outside downtown New Hope, Pennsylvania (and immediately across the bridge from Stockton), you’ve likely witnessed the madhouse that is Dilly’s Corner. For the past three decades this old-timey hot dog, hamburger, and ice cream shack, open seasonally, has been owned and operated by Nancy and Tom Massa. Among its offerings are good ol’ American hot dogs — a pork and beef mix — prepared on a roller grill. These can be topped with Dilly’s homemade chili, kraut, or cheese. “Real American cheese,” I was informed by Stephanie Massa, Nancy and Tom’s 28-year-old daughter, whose college degree is in public relations, but who cheerfully told me that she has helped out at her parents’ place her whole life.
What brought me to Dilly’s, though, was the Dilly Dog, a quarter-pound Italian-style dog with a ton of fried peppers, onions, and French fries on a toasted torpedo roll. (As with all choices here, you add condiments yourself from the giant squeeze jars on the outdoor counter.) The Dilly Dog is an ample meal in and of itself, with particularly tasty sauteed peppers. But as for approximating the Italian dog of my dreams, it’s not quite there. First, there’s the matter of the torpedo roll. Then, fries instead of sauteed potato wedges. Lastly, the dogs are not deep-fried.
There’s plenty of outdoor seating on either side of the stand, including at a large covered patio. Among the charms here is that, when you’ve placed your order, you’re given a random playing card (from a regulation deck of 52) and that is your order “number” that gets called out when it’s ready for pick up. (“Queen of clubs!”) Pretty smart when you think about: there’s no way of knowing how many orders are ahead of yours.
Dilly’s Corner, 2998 River Road, New Hope, Pennsylvania. 215-862-5333. Hot dogs start at $1.68.
#b#Princeton Soup & Sandwich#/b#
This Palmer Square spot may seem like an unlikely choice, but ever since owners Lisa and Scott Ruddy spun it off from the Original Soup Man franchise in 2010, they’ve impressed me with their soups and sandwiches. Plus they offer a half-dozen dogs under the heading “For the Kid in You.”
All of them feature Boar’s Head 100 percent beef franks on a potato bun. I sampled the Chicago dog, which has two thin spears of dill pickle and is garnished with yellow mustard, green relish, finely chopped red onion, small wedges of tomato, a bit of chopped jalapeno that adds modest heat, and a dash of celery salt. This combo is $3.25, but another $2 gets you a small bag of Kettle sea salt chips and a bottle of water or soda. I think that’s a great buy — and if you’re so inclined you can count the chips as a vegetable, kind of like what the federal school lunch program has been notorious for in the past.
Other interesting combos include the Newton dog, named, according to the fellow behind the counter, for Isaac. The Newton comes with avocado, tomatoes, and pickles. The Princeton Tiger sports what sounds like a winning combo of chipotle mayo, black olives, and onions. Purists will enjoy the classic (yellow mustard, sauerkraut), the chili dog, and the build-your-own versions. At only 500 square feet, the shop offers scant seating inside, but there are a few tables along Hulfish Street.
Princeton Soup & Sandwich, 30 Palmer Square East, Princeton. 609-497-0008. www.princetonsoupandsandwich.com. Hot dogs start at $2.75.
Just when I said that I couldn’t possibly down another dog, I had to eat my words. The subject of franks came up while I was gorging on the excellent Filipino home-style fare at Mae Morales’ modest grocery/take-away shop behind the Dunkin Donuts on Route 27. “We have hot dogs, too!” she exclaimed, and produced her popular breakfast combo of two brilliant red dogs (explanation follows), two eggs (over easy), and a passel of garlicky fried rice.
At first the idea of hot dogs for breakfast seemed strange, but they’re not unlike bacon or ham. Morales couldn’t tell me what meat they’re made of or why the franks are bright red (and neither could a cursory Google search), but their color reminds me of that of surimi — imitation crab sticks. Like those, only the outermost layer is red. Inside, it’s the typical pale tan.
The most popular brand in the Philippines, and the one I suspect Kusina Pilipina employs, is San Miguel Purefoods TJ (for “tender juicy”) Hotdogs. Morales claims, and upon tasting I believe her, that they have less sodium than their American counterparts. Her combo is my new breakfast of champions.
Kusina Pilipina, 3171 Route 27, Franklin Park. 732-419-3389.
One final fact I gleaned from the Hot Dog & Sausage Council makes me feel better about having consumed all those salty, fatty, mechanically separated meat dogs. The folks there claim that actress Betty White, 92, eats a hot dog for lunch every day on the set of her TV show, “Hot in Cleveland.” “She says it’s the secret to her longevity,” they boast. I can only hope she’s right.
Pat Tanner blogs at www.dinewithpat.com.