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John & Boy Hit a Rutt, Land on Boardwalk and End Up in the Doghouse

July 10, 2011
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It was the kind of trip that could send a 13-year-old boy in spasms of joy. In fact, it was the kind of trip that could send his father, who’s probably about 13 in emotional years, into spasms of joy. We were embarking on a trip down to the Silverball Museum in Asbury Park, NJ. A five hour drive to spend two days playing pinball . . . and eating hot dogs.

As this is not a pinball blog, let’s just say: if you love pinball, GO THERE. My wrists are still swollen and the grin’s still on my face.

Our first dog stop was at the legendary Rutt’s Hut in Clifton, NJ. Let me quantify my use of “legendary.” This place gets featured on just about any TV show where they talk about good hot dogs. (Uh-huh, totally open to debate.) I first saw it on PBS’ hot dog documentary and it’s always been on my list. The patrons seemed so enthusiastic, the joint was jumpin’… Okay, you can do a lot with editing. Maybe 11:30 on a Saturday morning isn’t prime time for Rutt’s, but when Boy and I pulled up, there were just a few cars in the lot. The place itself is one you could easily drive by without ever noticing. In fact, we almost did until Boy spotted the sign. It’s on a road just off the highway, with virtually nothing of note around it. It’s big, it’s brick. It’s an old place, and it looks it.

"Is this Heaven?" "No...Clifton, New Jersey."

We weren't alone in our late-breakfast hot doggery.

The draw here is the deep-fried hot dogs. The Rippers. We ordered four, two apiece. Our first round appeared to come out of a little holding bin; they didn’t get tossed into the fryolator as we watched. If it was 15 seconds from order to delivery, it’s a miracle. But there they were, ripped down the middle and still gleaming a little from their oil bath, parked unceremoniously in little paper boats. Cheery service is not an option at Rutt’s, apparently. At least, not at 11:30 on a Saturday morning.

If you’re just going for basic condiments, you do your own at Rutt’s. Stainless pots of mustard and relish wait on the counter. And let’s talk about the relish, because as Boy and I stood there noshing, I must have heard at least four people come through ordering pints of the stuff to go. It’s a mustard-based concoction with onions, carrots and cabbage, which gives it both a bite and a sweetness–along with a color that will burn itself permanently into your retinas.

Never look directly at the relish. View it through a pinhole cut in a piece of cardboard.

Those are my first two; one just with the relish, one with relish and brown mustard. The fryolator dip, as expected, puts a hearty snap on the casing of these beef-and-pork franks. Which is good, because past that the dogs aren’t much to rave about. It’s more a combination of elements: the retro charm of the joint, the mystique of the fryolator’d dog; and the mustard. That being said, while Boy worked through his ketchup-only pair I went back for two more, mostly to do more research on the relish. My next pair tasted like they’d more recently hit the oil. Hotter, and a little slicker. The difference was noticeable. But it was still the condiments saving the day.

"Come to the dark side, Dad. We have ketchup!"

Having finally hit Rutt’s it seems that the legend is mostly embedded in the nostalgia the place evokes, and its laudable longevity. This is where you went, this is where you go when you come back. That alone can put a very special flavor on just about anything.

Our second dog outing of the trip was more about convenience than anything else. The Museum had Nathan’s hot dogs that went from a steamer box to rollers. It filled the place with a warm, beefy aroma. On the second day we decided to lunch there. To be honest, there’s not a lot to say about these dogs beyond saying that they’re Nathan’s. A bit of mustard and sauerkraut. (They also offer chili. Having seen it spooned out of a plastic container warming in an electric frying pan, I wisely opted out.) But once again we revert to the power of ambience. Because even these dogs, once removed from their cousins condemned to spin eternally on rollers at the closest 7-11, tasted pretty good while we looked out at this.

Pinball, hot dog, ocean. About as close to a perfect world as it gets.

Okay, a dog shot.

At 3 in the afternoon we took our hesitant leave of the Silverball Museum and headed north. It would take us three grueling, traffic-heavy hours to reach the Connecticut border. On the way down we had debated–we knew that Connecticut was going to be a dog stop, but where? I’d done Rawley’s and Super Duper. I wasn’t sure I’d be in the area of Blackie’s. Plus, a quick search told us that Super would be closed by the time we got there. Luckily, I remembered seeing a sign on the way down for Dan’s Dog House in West Haven and, thanks to an addiction to Douglas Adams novels, I remembered where it was: Exit 42.

Score one for roadside kitsch.

The menu board said “Hummel or Beef,” but we didn’t bother to differentiate–which I think means we got the Hummels. Split and griddled and loaded into a nice bun made by a local Italian bakery. It’s a “what do you want on that” place rather than pre-decided combos. We both grabbed two. You can guess which direction Boy went. I took one with grilled onions and BBQ sauce, one with mustard, onion and kraut.

It gets even better-looking if you click to enlarge it.

This was probably the best dog of the trip for both of us. (I did a little Googling on the place while writing this. It doesn’t get much love, but we had a good experience.) The dogs were grilled to a nice snap and had a touch of peppery flavor. The condiments on my dogs were fresh–the onion and BBQ combo was superb, but then again, if you put grilled onions on a shoe I’ll eat it. The rolls were a real draw, despite both of my dogs eventually being compromised by bun malfunction. I think they were just split down too far. Discounting that, it was mighty good bread. Price was right for these sizable dogs, $3 for a manly 10-inch dog.

We hit the road from West Haven with another two-plus hours to go. But we left well-fed and happy, and talked the whole way home  about one of the best weekends we’d shared in quite a while. A trip neither of us will ever forget.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2011 11:19 am

    Hi! I talked to mike about possibly helping us get this hot dog shop off the ground? it’s called Bud’s Hot Dogs and we would love it if you guys could write a piece about it. I am a part of a marketing co and we are doing this for free because these two people who started the biz (bud and his wife) make amazing hot dogs and have not had a day off in two years. One of my coworkers found the place and fell in love with the hot dogs and when he heard Bud’s story, he insisted we help get him out there. So we all went and ate (even I ate one and I usually hate hot dogs) but i loved them. Anyway, if you could please let me know if you can help us by writing a blog about Bud’s that would be great. my email is ana@yodogmarketing.com and here is his website that we just launched : http://budsfamoushotdogs.com/

    • John S permalink*
      July 12, 2011 11:45 am

      Well, you’re about 3000 miles too far west from me at the moment. But I looked at the website and I’m drooling for one of those Surfer Dog Burritos! If we’ve got any readers in the general San Clemente, CA, area, we’d love it if one of you would check out Bud’s and let us know how it is!

    • July 13, 2011 3:24 pm

      Ana, the post will happen soon. I had to get out from under a lot of other posts I had left undone but you’ll see it in the next week, I promise.

  2. July 20, 2011 4:47 pm

    John, I hate to say it but it seems like you’ve reinforced Alex’s review of Crif dogs–that dogs deep-fried just aren’t as good as grilled or steamed. It’s probably fortunate for most of us watching our cholesterol, however, because then we can opt for two steamed hot dogs rather than one fried. Rutt’s is near where my sister-in-law lives, so I might still make it there to get a taste of the relish.

    • John S permalink*
      July 21, 2011 7:47 am

      I think it’s more that here, the reality didn’t live up to the legend for me. The dogs themselves were just sort of meh… But you definitely need to try the relish!

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