Hot dogs get no respect. That is sad. While many people think of hamburgers as the ultimate stereotype of American food, the truth is that this is far from true. For one thing, take out Chinese food far outsells any other fast food in the USA, including MacDonald's and all the other crap meatwads masquerading as hamburgers.
In days gone by, the humble hot dog was the ruler of the roost in the American fast food pantheon, and unlike hamburgers, hot dogs still come in an astonishing variety of local variations each with its own baggage of cultural identities. Hot dog stands and shops take on the role of local shrines, attracting pilgrims and foodies alike, along with local celebrities and their attendant Food Network video crews. No hot dog joint exemplifies this more than Washington DC's Ben's Chili Bowl.
Located just outside of the posh downtown of DC in the U street neighborhood that is quickly gentrifying and becoming swamped with excellent Ethiopian restaurants, Ben's specialty is the Washington Half Smoke. Offered by dozens of overpriced vendor trucks around Washington's federal district, Ben's is universally held to be the best. A half smoke is a fat smoked frank of mixed beef and pork, usually served topped by a mixture of chili sauce, mustard and chopped onions. Ben's has the reputation of being something of a tourist draw, although it always seemed to be full of locals, but Fumie insisted we try the chili dogs. Obama likes them. Bill Cosby likes them. And her friend Lisa liked them. So to Ben's we did go. Opened in 1958 by Ben Ali, a Trinidadian Muslim immigrant who proudly claimed to have never tasted his own creation (pork being forbidden to Muslims.) As fat franks go, it was excellent.
The chili used is classic diner sauce chili, not the stuff you eat in south Texas or in bowls ordered at diners and truck stops around the American Midwest. Yes, you can order a bowl of it, but it is just a ground meat and tomato sauce with some spices, not a real Texas chile. I believe the original hot dog chili sauces were invented by Greek diner owners in the distant past and they have rather thin relationship to anything ever made by Texas speakers of Spanish. Back in New Jersey the hot dog has a long tradition. Where New York has the beef "dirty water dog" sold from carts or the crispy skinned rotary grilled dog sold at delis and at Grey's Papaya stands, Jersey is home of the deep fried hot dog known as the ripper. Clifton New Jersey seems to be the epicenter of the deep fried hot dog, as it is home to Rutt's Hutt. We never got to Rutt's Hutt. We wound up at Hot Grill.
We were driving around the back end of Paterson and Clifton with our buddy Bob Godfried, musician, accordion repairman, and tireless explorer of the less documented ethnic neighborhoods of the New York area. After cruising "Little Lima" - the Peruvian section of downtown Paterson... how completely awesome that they even have a Peruvian section of town!
- we wound up visiting the water falls on the Passaic River, which oddly, I have never seen up close.
Actually, I hadn't seen a lot of Paterson up close, which is odd considering I used to live a ten minute drive away from here, and, in fact, used to work a mere five minutes away (in my defense, being a garbage collector for the city of Hackensack doesn't provide much access to the splendors of Paterson. Most of our away time was spent at the magnificent garbage dump further south in Lyndhurst.) The falls themselves were impressive to someone who, like myself, lives in a very flat land bereft of waterfalls. Also impressive was the fact that the park area surrounding the falls was home to a huge population of woodchucks.
They were everywhere. In broad daylight. Also impressive to someone who lives in a country where wildlife seems to be restricted to the occasional hedgehog crossing the road at night. In Jersey we were constantly surprising herds of deer in back yards, there was a flock of wild turkeys roosting in my parent's neighborhood, and one evening, all of four miles outside of Manhattan, we heard a coyote howling in the nearby swamp. Waylaid by our impromptu encounters with nature in downtown Paterson, we got hopelessly lost getting out of Paterson, and were hungry by the time we cruised across the town line into Clifton... and there it was.
Hot Grill... Home of the World's Tastiest Texas Wieners. Apparently, Paterson calls them Texas wieners... and this was some kind of aggressive incursion into the homeland of the Clifton rippers. The Hot Grill was all you could wish for in a Jersey hot dog joint: cheap, cheap, and surprisingly, cheap. And the counter staff - all surly teens with greasy disco haircuts - seemed to be speaking Albanian, always a plus when ordering hot dogs slathered with that south Balkan "chili" sauce. Albanian speaking counter staff are just one of the charms that can be discovered driving around central jersey on a sunday afternoon.
Now, look carefully at that photo. Is that not, I ask you, the most unappetizing food presentation in the entire culinary universe? The chili dog is never going to win any beauty contests. Except for the color of the bun, it will look exactly the same regardless of its state in the digestion process. They are also very messy to eat. Did I mention they taste good? The place also has a string of local TV advertisements that are classics of the genre.
These fairly scream "New Jersey!" Our final destination was in nearby Fort Lee, New Jersey, a town that is known for dozens of excellent Korean and Japanese eateries. Fort Lee was also once home to Palisades Amusement park, a classic roller coaster and freak show empire that was located atop the Palisades cliffs and attracted New Yorkers who would take the ferries across the river to be bused up the cliffs to a paradise of rides and attractions.
The park closed in 1971 to be replaced by a series of river view high rise luxury apartments. Two legendary hot dog stands used to flank the entrance to the park: Hiram's and Callahan's. Customers were hotly partisan: you were for one, and against the other. Due to the fact that both served beer on tap and were located across the street from each other, fights actually used to break out. Callahan's served dogs with sauerkraut... therefore Hiram's would not. Eventually attrition accomplished what shouts and lobbed hot dog buns could not when Callahan's finally closed in 2006, leaving Hiram's alone to wave the flag of the Jersey deep fried dog closest to Manhattan.
Hiram's remains to serve the deep fried hot dogs of Jersey's mysterious past. In High school, my crowd were fans of Callahan's to the extent that we never, ever ate at Hirams. In fact, we didn't really eat there... not in the sense of fine dining, anyway... we drove out in our used cars to drink draught beer. The hot dogs were merely an excuse, an afterthought. Now all we have left is Hiram's.
The dog is still there, the beers are all still on tap and local. One thing you immediately notice, though, are the American flags. They are everywhere. In fact, they are omnipresent at every hot dog stand in New Jersey. The New Jersey Cult of the Giant Waving American Flag grew in the months after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and, unlike a lot of other areas in the USA, it never waned. It ended up representing the world of the assimilated New Jersey Dutch and German and Italian emigrants in the once run down Jersey towns that are now booming in a world newly populated by Koreans and Mexicans and people from places in south India with too many engineering degrees and a taste for fresh green chilis.
It is like some kind of reactionary announcement that these places are serving authentic, non-ethnic, absolutely 100% retro white trash American food. You will find no cumin here, no red pepper tapanades, no fancy soup noodles, no stir fries, no rolling 'r's, no rice pancakes, nosiree
, buddy, we are red blooded Americans here and we eat hot dogs with mustard and relish and cheese and bland balkanized chili sauce and Bud light. If you want award winning sushi or authentic Oaxacan food you just keep driving down the road, Mister
. We're all Americans here. You want that dog to go?