There are certain places that a food writer has to visit in order to show that they're real experts on the turf they cover. Those places are icons that have legions of worshiping fans, and if they're in New Jersey they almost certainly serve hot dogs. What is it about New Jersey and hot dogs? I puzzle over this question whenever I find myself visiting one of those landmarks. That was my state of mind as I approached Charlie's Pool Room, one of the Garden State's most legendary hot dog vendors.
Charlie's isn't actually a poolroom. It once was, but now the pool table is covered with clippings: a modest sampling of the extensive media coverage they've received. What it is now is a candy counter, lounge, and hot dog stand. It's also a multipurpose place of worship: a place where owners John and Joe offer Bible tracts and occasional prayer meetings, and hot dog fanatics from all over the universe come to worship John and Joe.
While an old TV showed Paula Deen, and a boom box on top of it played Christian pop, I studied the two-volume guestbook. In it, people from places like Poland, the Ukraine, Buffalo, and Tampa raved about the hot dogs. Meanwhile, Joe told me that most of his business was from "beyond Clinton," and that only about seven people had wandered in spontaneously in the past ten years.
Everything about Charlie's Pool Room screams food icon, from the old, dark wainscot walls, the abandoned barber shop next door, the old and abused soda machine, and the fantastic smell of cooking meat and onion. Of course, there's almost nothing on the menu; just those hot dogs, cans of soda, and candy or ice cream from the front counter.
Then there's the location: a typical Pennsylvania factory town (well, except that it's in New Jersey), a street with attached houses, vacant lots, a storefront bar, and railroad tracks in the back. How did a place that's so close to so many ritzy places manage to stay like this?
Ultimately, it's a certain sort of shop for a certain sort of food enthusiast. If you're favorite Flushing Chinese place is the Golden Mall, or if the first thing you do on a Mexican vacation is head for the market street food stalls, then Charlie's is your kind of place. This is where you'll find the "soul" of New Jersey hot dogs. One item cooked by two brothers with pure, innocent love.
Are they a bit carried away by their own celebrity? Well, yeah. But that's part of the charm. They get the sort of press that most publicists dream about without lifting a finger and they're pretty thrilled. But all they do is save the clippings and put up more handwritten signs on the walls. Even their Facebook page is owned by somebody else.
And what about those hot dogs ($2.25)? A nice, soft bun, and an onion-based sauce that's kind of like what those Sabrett's onions would be like if they were better. Not bad at all.
Charlie's Pool Room
1122 East Boulevard, Alpha NJ 08865 (map)