New Jersey: Hot Dog Nation
For hot-dog aficionados across the country, New Jersey is the center of the universe
Photos by Jim Ferigno
No simple pleasure quite compares to the first bite and the sensual snap of a juicy hot dog swabbed with mustard and swaddled in a fresh, steamed bun. The appetite for this humble delicacy bridges every age, ethnicity and economic background. Hot dogs rank at the top of America’s list of favorite foods (second only to pizza), but in New Jersey, they’re more than that. In New Jersey, hot dogs are a religion.
No place in the country, not even New York City, has embraced the hot dog like the Garden State. For aficionados, New Jersey is a wiener wonderland, so highly concentrated with hot-dog grilles, joints, carts and trucks and different styles of preparation that it has become an annual destination for foodies from across the country. For the past 13 Septembers they have traveled to Union, the departure point for the Annual New Jersey Hot Dog Tour.
How many people would travel great distances for a daylong excursion of eating hot dogs?
Two busloads, that’s how many.
Interest in the tours grew from discussions on food-focused websites such as Roadfood.com and eGullet.org and the explosive growth of Facebook, where many hot-dog fanatics participate in a group called Hot Dog Nation.
It is an online community that celebrates hotdog connoisseurs and criticism from across the country and overseas, with analysis and commentary that rival those of the most demanding restaurant reviewer. Some posts on Hot Dog Nation are photos with quick, broadly written assessments of a purveyor’s offerings, while other critiques are finely detailed examinations of cooking method, toppings, size and provenance. This requires a specialized vocabulary of technical and slang terms that may not be familiar to the casual reader. But many of the almost 2,300 members of Hot Dog Nation are far from casual observers of hot-dog culture; they’re true hot-dog nerds.
They enjoy “dirty-water dogs” (street-cart or steam-table hot dogs cooked in water) as well as griddled or deep-fried franks (a Jersey specialty), but eschew “roller dogs” (like those found at 7-Eleven stores). They extol the virtues of “natural casing” wieners such as those made by Sabrett in Englewood, Thumann’s in Carlstadt and Best Provisions in Newark. They compare styles of Texas wieners, the most popular Jersey hot-dog style, debating the differences between “Plainfield-style” wieners (grilled with mustard, onions and a dark, thick meat sauce dense with nutmeg, clove and coriander), to ones done “Passaic-style” (deep-fried, with a spicier meat chili sauce). And don’t even try to persuade them that a vegetarian hot dog will ever be an acceptable alternative to the real thing.
At the center of this fanatical frankfurter following are John Fox and Erwin Benz, who started Hot Dog Nation on Facebook and have produced the NJ Hot Dog Tour since 2004. Fox is a mail carrier from Union and is widely regarded as the country’s foremost expert on hot dogs. He has traveled with Star-Ledger reporter Pete Genovese to track and rank hot-dog offerings across the Garden State for newspaper and magazine articles and has been seen on Food Network and Travel Channel programs opining about his favorite food. Hot dogs have become his obsessive hobby.
“I always liked hot dogs and probably tried more supermarket brands than most people,” says Fox, “but I never asked any questions about them since I didn’t care and wasn’t obsessed like I am now.
“The only place I’d ever gotten hot dogs other than the supermarket was a truck in the town I lived—Colonia—called Toby’s that served standard, natural-casing, dirty-water Sabretts. I rode my bike there as a teenager and continued to go there occasionally until Toby retired in the eighties.”
But it was romance that led Fox to his heightened awareness and enthusiasm for all things hot dog.
“My wife Pat and I met at work,” Fox recalls. “On our first date she came to watch me play softball and took me to the Galloping Hill Inn for beer and hot dogs. She told me that they had a reputation for great hot dogs. I loved the dogs but, like most people, didn’t ask what meat mixture they were, the brand or anything else. I just knew I liked them. Shortly after we got married we bought a house right down the street from the Galloping Hill Inn.” Needless to say, the couple went there often.
“One day the Star-Ledger said they were going to do an article on the 12 best hot dogs in Jersey. I was curious to see if Galloping Hill would make the list, and it did! Of the other eleven picked, I had heard of only one other place, Rutt’s Hut in Clifton, mentioned by some people in my church’s Bible study group.” Fox decided to investigate the other places mentioned in the article.
“The panel chose another place in Union called Syd’s,” Fox remembers, “Never heard of it, didn’t know where it was. I had to go. Pat and I went and loved the dogs there. Then I became curious about Rutt’s and wound up going there. I visited every place on the Star-Ledger list. My interest snowballed from there. I started visiting every place I could, asked questions, and started posting on sites like Roadfood, eGullet and Chowhound. I became somewhat known and was given tours of hot-dog manufacturing plants and sought out for newspaper articles.” Fox has become known for being able to identify hot dogs by taste, appearance and even packaging clues.
It was on Roadfood.com that Fox met fellow hot-dog aficionado Erwin “Benzee” Benz, then a New York City police officer. Benz is the calm, affable yin to Fox’s intense, authoritative yang. After he retired from police work, Benz moved to the Hudson Valley in upstate New York, where he runs a tour company and hosts a local cable variety show. “Fox and I became friends on Roadfood.com in 2002,” recalls Benz. “We had discussed doing a get-together for a while, and in 2004 the tour was born. Our first tour was a carpool of about 10 cars and 15 or so attendees. We soon realized a bus would make this a lot easier. So we rented a school bus, then a motor coach and, for the past few New Jersey Hot Dog Tours, we’ve filled two motor coaches.
“This has become an international event, with attendees from 30 states and 5 countries. The 2016 edition was our largest, with 94 people and a few who just meet us at one stop or another along the tour,” says Benz.
The tour begins and ends where Fox had his hot-dog epiphany, Union’s Galloping Hill Inn. Attendees mill about in the parking lot, exchanging handshakes and hugs, taking photos, trading beers from coolers and sampling the first hot dog of the day. Once on the buses, Fox and Benz man microphones to describe the particulars of each tour stop and each hot dog.
“Galloping Hill serves a German-style frank based on a recipe from the old Gaiser’s Pork Store,” Fox announces. It’s a beef and pork mix, made for them by Grote and Weigel in Connecticut. “No other place serves this particular dog,” he says. “It is worth noting that they changed rolls. Pechter’s no longer makes their bigger, sturdier bun. They are going with a thinner Schmidt’s potato roll.”
Gary Knoller flew from Denver to attend his third Hot Dog Tour this year. “I love the camaraderie on the tours and the friendships I’ve made,” says Knoller. “I’ve been a hot-dog lover for many years. Grew up in New Jersey and worked for the City of East Orange before moving to Denver. I’m a mustard, kraut and onions guy, but I miss the footlongs I used to eat at Syd’s as a child, and stops like Tony’s Hot Dog Wagon in Newark and JJ’s. But I really miss Italian hot dogs.”
Knoller is referring to the iconic specialty native to Newark, Elizabeth, Kenilworth and select establishments across northern New Jersey. A deep-fried hot dog (or two) is stuffed into a crusty, pita-like pocket of “pizza bread,” and topped with fried onions, peppers, and potato rounds. On every New Jersey Hot Dog Tour, at least one purveyor of Italian hot dogs is included. The 2016 tour in September featured Charlie’s Famous Italian Hot Dogs in Kenilworth, which served a beautifully executed, if unwieldy, rendition. The pizza bread was crusty, pliable but sturdy, the hot dogs within large and juicy, the peppers, onions and potatoes plentiful. It couldn’t be eaten without a fork and knife—or two hands and many napkins.
“It was as good an Italian hot dog as I have ever had,” says Fox. “Every once in a while, every ingredient is perfect. That was the case here. It took a while for everyone to be served, but the wait was worth it.”
Ellen Fried, a poker dealer from Atlantic City, has been part of seven or eight Hot Dog Tours. She invited her friend Dan Heimiller, who lives in Las Vegas, to join her last year. “Dan was in awe of his first-ever Italian hot dog,” says Fried. “It was his favorite hot dog on the tour.” Terry and Maureen Cooper flew from San Francisco to attend their third tour. They are avid travelers and frequent contributors to the Hot Dog Nation community. “I love hot dogs,” says Terry Cooper, “but we got to indulge one of Maureen’s passions, too, and caught an Elton John concert in Hershey, Pennsylvania, the night before the tour. We always make it a fun weekend.”
Planning the tour every year has been a labor of love for Fox and Benz, with Benz handling the bus rentals, Internet promotion and payments while Fox visits and interviews prospective venues for suitability and quality of food. They take great care in selecting tour stops from an ever-growing list of new hot-dog spots.
“Benzee and I always try to seek out new spots while rotating some old favorites into a tour,” says Fox, “all the while featuring different styles and methods of preparation. We include places that serve quality hot dogs and prepare them well. No microwaves or roller grills on this tour.”
One of the tour’s most popular stops recently has been the Union Pork Store, a 70-year-old German butcher shop owned by Leszek Jablonski and his wife, Bozena. Attendees toting coolers get to sample and purchase the wide variety of hot dogs, wursts and sausages made in house before circling behind the store, where an enthusiastic and animated Jablonski grills large, plump, freshly made frankfurters for the crowd, posing for pictures and talking shop. Some in the audience are taking notes.
“Our house frankfurter is an emulsion of beef and pork stuffed into a natural casing, then smoked and cooked to 150 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Jablonski. “We make 12 kinds of hot dogs, including a one-pound King Kong dog. All of them are original recipes from the German butcher who owned the store for 50 years before we bought it. As he was, we are very strict with the authenticity of the recipes.”
Jablonski’s frankfurter, mildly seasoned with a juicy, pronounced snap, will win the vote as the 2016 crowd’s favorite. Before leaving, tourgoers give Jablonski and his hot dogs a whooping round of applause. In all, the 2016 edition of the tour visited six stops, including a curbside cart in Hillside and a new gourmet hot-dog shop in Cranford, the Grandstand, which offers dogs topped with everything from onion marmalade to mac and cheese and bacon bits to olive tapenade, as well as a rye bread–wrapped dog piled with melted Swiss cheese and sauerkraut. Exotic and excessive toppings on hot dogs are a pet peeve of Fox’s.
“You lose the hot dog, and what’s the point?” asks Fox. “Here I get the six-one (six hot dogs to a pound, in hot-dog slang) Thumann’s grilled with mustard. The dogs are exceptional on their own!”
Fox and Benz have already begun to schedule the fourteenth annual New Jersey Hot Dog Tour, slated for October 14, 2017. “I really enjoy the friendships made over the years,” says Benz, “starting on Roadfood.com and now on the Hot Dog Nation Facebook page. We have mini meet-ups throughout the year and have all become one extended family.”
Hot Dog Nation on Facebook is open to anyone who wishes to join. Information on the New Jersey Hot Dog Tour, including tickets, times and locations, can be found there.
A DIY HOT DOG TOUR
If you want to take your own self-guided hot-dog tour (or just get a dog from a tour-sanctioned spot), here are some recommended places.
Galloping Hill Inn
325 Chestnut St., Union
Charlie’s Famous Italian Hot Dogs
18 S. Michigan Ave., Kenilworth
Union Pork Store
2702 Morris Ave., Union
101 North Avenue West, Cranford