Friday, October 1, 2010

Confessions of a Hot Dog Epicure

Or, The Pilgrimage of a Crif Dog fan to famed Rutt’s Hut in Clifton, New Jersey.

There are people who like hot dogs and people who don’t. For me, “Like” isn’t strong enough – it’s really a deeper emotional attachment.

I enjoy hot dogs in innumerable ways: grilled, barbecued, steamé all-dressed à la Montreal, Chicago-style with ten toppings including “sport peppers.” But best of all I like them deep-fried. In batter, I hear you ask? No. The wiener is naked and depth-charged into boiling oil until it floats. The result is a crackly yet chewy skin with caramelized nuttiness on the outside and a concentrated juiciness inside that somewhat defies explanation.

You’ll know it. Like me, you will almost certainly crave that flavor ever after. Actually, I had already consumed and loved the deep-fried dog well in advance of any knowledge about the culinary technique. An acquaintance mentioned a basement place on St. Marks near Avenue A that did a particularly good dog. One afternoon I happenstanced down St. Marks and noted a distinctive "Eat Me" wiener-shaped sign. I ordered a Crif Dog with mustard. Two bites in, I was ordering a second.

On a subsequent visit, a person who turned out to be one of the owners was behind the counter. He filled me in on the deep-frying technique and added that he’d sampled dozens of different wieners along the way. This was a person not only dedicated to the art of the hot dog, but secure enough to share the knowledge.

I have taken at least 10 friends into Crif (you more or less have to be a foodie, because the place is dark, basement-y and air quality can be greasy). My friend Mario Tolentino, a gifted and sophisticated San Franciscan chef, moved to the neighborhood a year ago and asked me to show him a couple of my favorite eateries. Crif was one of the first. Three nights later, I was seated in Crif’s with another local friend. Who came through the door to pick up a take-out order? Mario shook his fist at me and said, “Dude. You did this to me!”

Mario is now a winner of “Chopped” on the Food Network. I’m not saying that eating a Crif dog influenced the events, but there’s little doubt that the man knows flavor.

To take the whole thing further, Crif Dogs opened an adjoining bar called PDT (Please Don’t Tell), a “secret speakeasy’ entered through a telephone booth in Crif Dogs. Inside is a fancy cocktail bar. Reservations are required because everybody knows about the secret bar. Apparently they make unbelievable cocktails and as added incentive, offer special items you can only order from the bar side – designer dogs by 3 hip chefs. Talking Wylie Dufresne of WD50, David Chang of Momufuku, whose version contains kimchee purée, and Kevin Patricio of Choptank.

In fact Alton Brown, famed host of the Food Network, crowned Crif Dogs and PDT as one of The Best Eating Destinations in the USA (this may be overstating the case a tad). But you get the idea. While I’m sure the drinks are fine in PDT, this entry isn’t about the bar. So let’s get back to matters that fit between the halves of a bun.

In describing the pleasures of Crif Dogs to a friend who grew up in New Jersey, I learned of a place called Rutt’s Hut in Clifton. Rutt’s has been serving deep-fried hot dogs for generations in an original roadside stand, a living throwback to a bygone era. Crif Dogs’ owners are on record as having had role models in the form of traditional Jersey hot dog joints, including Rutt's.

The Ripper.

On a recent glorious fall day, the kind that makes everyone want to move to Manhattan, my wife and I were instead driving through the Holland Tunnel and under the Hudson River to New Jersey, on a shopping expedition to a suburban mall. Not being a lover of shopping, I begged for a lunchtime respite.

Rutt’s Hut (see link below) has a roadhouse feel straight out of 1940’s film noir, especially the dark, claustrophobic wood-paneled bar and sit-down restaurant. By rights, this should be a national heritage museum. My wife and I opted for the takeout side, which has a more modern atmosphere. You're now in a 1960’s bus counter. Here you order The Ripper and eat standing up.

What makes it a Ripper? Immersion into hot oil explodes the wiener, slashing the skin.At this point, your Ripper is done, unless you prefer the taste of carbon in which case you can have the thing “cremated.” The fact that the counter guy doesn’t approve of this level of char does not prevent people from ordering it with enthusiasm. Said counter guy also volunteered that it’s not the Ripper that makes the product. It’s the legendary relish.

As a fairly adept home cook, I’m guessing this relish is a simple melange of yellow mustard, chopped pickles, simmered onions and maybe a little cauliflower to give the blend some fiber– a piccalilli. Verdict? Maybe you have to grow up with it.

Ripping into Rippers.

We demolished several dogs. Back at home I conducted research. There’s a prevailing web theory that Rutt’s fries their wieners in beef tallow. Does this bother me? When I lived in England, lard at one time was the main fat used in making fish and chips, and they were generally delicious. McDonalds also used beef fat. In fact, they were successfully sued by vegetarians in 2002 for using beef essence sprayed onto their fries as a flavoring compound, which were then finished in “vegetable oil.” Mickey D’s got rid of the compound. But few carnivores would debate that beef tastes good, and tallow is simply beef fat.

My dietary advice.

Don’t eat deep-fried hot dogs every day. While Crif’s East Village clientele tend to be skinny, stylish NYU students, your average Rutt’s fan is other than tiny. At Rutts, many wear workout clothing not because they came straight from the gym but rather because of the profound stretchiness of sports fabrics. That said, Rutt's customers smile a lot.

Both of these establishments could send you to the fat farm.

You might be able to chop a few calories out by omitting side dishes, relatively unmemorable. Neither offers a hand-cut French fry. At Rutt’s I might skip French fries with gravy and opt instead for onion rings. Likewise, at Crif’s, order the tater tots but split them with a friend. Recommended: the Two Crif-Dog Special, with red birch beer as your beverage.

I prefer plain old mustard and green relish. Chef Mario Tolentino craves the Chihuahua, a bacon-wrapped house dog covered with sliced avocados and sour cream. Brooklyn artist David Delmonaco likes the Tsunami, again a bacon-wrapped wiener under chili, cole slaw & jalapenos.

If you’re a hot dog lover and you’re anywhere near Clifton, NJ, stop at Rutt’s Hut. And if you find yourself in the East Village, Crif’s must be your stop. I’m the guy in glasses, standing near the condiments.

Crif Dogs, 113 Saint Mark’s Place, near Avenue A Manhattan, New York 10009 Tel: 212 614-2728

Please Don't Tell,

Rutt’s Hut, 417 River Road, Clifton, NJ (13 miles west of Manhattan, Route NJ-3W. 973-779-8615

Helpful links:

1 comment:

  1. Your sending me all the way to the fat farm Watsonater. Can't wait to make it out to Clifton .