My attempts to report on the New Jersey hot dog scene have thus far not gone too well. I chickened out at Mitsuwa, lured instead by the authentic Japanese lunch counter fare. I have disappointed other dog vendors in just the same way. Strolling past the kosher offerings on Elmora Avenue in Elizabeth so I could instead have Peruvian roast chicken, and driving by a perfect little Italian stand that was finally torn down in order to expand a jug handle. Perhaps it was for the better; I used those meals to gain a depth of understanding for Jersey's other food icons—dosas, tomatoes, and even pizza. I do recognize my responsibility to the Serious Eats New York reader though so here is my first hot dog report.
I finally tried an Italian Hot Dog at Jimmy Buff´s on Route 22 in Scotch Plains. I ordered two—I was with my wife Maria—and watched the counterman put them on the tray. The parcels were oozing grease before we even got to a table. Upon examination, they were the oiliest, most unctuous things I´d been served in the Garden State. I picked one up, watched it drip for a second, and bit in. It was quite good. That oil was carrying real flavor.
Finally I knew what an Italian Hot Dog was. A piece of dense bread (called "pizza bread" by some), and slices of fried potato, onion, and pepper...both Maria and I were eating with great enthusiasm.
About half way through the oil, bread and potatoes, I made a remarkable discovery; an actual hot dog. It was a perfect ending to one of the richest sandwiches I had ever eaten. A raw lard pannino I once had in Italy was diet food compared to this, and in some ways the Italian Hot Dog was more fun to eat.
Leaving, Jimmy Buff´s, I was curious. Was this it? Because what I had was a second-rate rendering of a first rate (and unique) combination of foods. What would an Italian Hot Dog taste like if its ingredients were perfectly cooked?
At this point all the arrows pointed to "Tommy´s" in Elizabeth. I´m a bit hesitant to write about Elizabeth because it has so many interesting restaurants and cafes that it really deserves its own blog. Going there for a hot dog is like going to Jackson Heights for...um...well...a hot dog.
Went I did though and found Tommy´s within shouting distance of another hot dog vendor, a dozen restaurants from Latin America, a Portuguese barbecue, an Italian butcher, two bright and elegant cafes, and a live poultry market. Tommy himself told me that "there are only two reasons to come to Elizabeth; to eat, or to get in trouble." I told him that eating is how I usually get in trouble.
I ordered a single Italian Hot Dog and prayed. Since Tommy´s has no tables, I sat down on park bench across the street. As I unwrapped my sandwich, I saw that my prayers were answered. Here was a greaseless grilled hot dog, and terrific crispy skin-on potatoes, on a loaf of bread that was chewy and grainy and worth the trip in itself. I quickly ate the whole thing and understood what all the fuss was about.
Driving home from Tommy´s, I noticed dozens of hot dog stands, shops, and carts that had never caught my eye before. The "Garden State" had become the "Hot Dog State." It was an awakening.
A note to the critics - Yes, there is absolutely nothing Italian about an "Italian Hot Dog," but as Tommy reminded me, nobody would buy an "Elizabeth Hot Dog" so they had to come up with a better name.
Jimmy Buff's Restaurant
Tommy´s Italian Sausage
900 N. Second Avenue, Elizabeth NJ 07201 (map)