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Nostalgia goes a long way. This vintage 1956 Harvester International Metro van, home to Skippy's Hot Dogs, all but begs you to stop--even if you're full of pizza, as we were when we visited recently.
"First time here," said Skippy's proprietor Dawn Bellach, issuing not a question but a statement.
"Yeah," I said. "Do we look like that much like flustered newbies?"
"I've been here 30 years," Bellach said. "I know who's new and who's a regular."
So we did as any newcomer would do and asked for the most popular thing on the menu: the chili cheese dog. For good measure, we also ordered a hot dog with mustard only.
"You want that chili dog with hot or mild sauce?" Bellach asked.
After some debate, we went with mild (what most folks order, Bellach said) with a touch of hot sauce on one end for comparison. The mild barely registered with me; if you like spicy, go for the hot sauce. The cheese is melted Velveeta, ladeled on before Bellach spoons a generous helping of homemade chili on top. The chili is made according to Bellach's grandmother's recipe, as is the spicy onion topping.
Bellach's grandmother was one of the hot dog truck's founders, along with her grandfather--who was, yes, the Skippy for whom the operation is named. They started the business in 1962 after buying the van for $100 from a junkyard and rebuilding it. Despite its half century of service, it still runs just fine--good enough, Bellach says, to make it the ten blocks to and from her creekside location on Hylan Boulevard between Seaver and Stobe avenues.
"So that's the story?" I asked. "You took over from your grandparents?"
"This truck is nothin' but stories," Bellach said. "Did you see the mural on the back? And the heart? That's from a couple who met here and got married. Devin and Vinny. They just visited on their anniversary."
Bellach tells us a few more stories--and then we ask her what's up with the hot sauce bottles perched in racks on the truckside shelf. We counted 36 different varieties.
Turns out that a longtime customer thought the onions had gotten a little milder after Skippy's day and brought a bottle to jack it up a notch. After that, other regulars started giving Bellach their favorite hot sauces and eventually started bringing them back from vacations; she's got one sauce from St. Thomas and says her hottest is Scorned Woman, from North Carolina. I even spotted a Kansas City sauce made by some guys I met last time I was there. One customer even donated the plastic racks that hold the small bottles.
When it comes down to it, at least for me, a hot dog is a hot dog. There are, of course, differences among them, but in New York City, you're pretty much going to find one of only a couple types of tubesteaks--usually either Hebrew National skinless or some type of Sabrett's product. That said, Skippy's uses a Sabrett red dog with natural casing, which I prefer, since it has some snap to it, most evident when you get it close to plain, although the snap was still evident in the chili dog.
And because business is brisk at the truck--even well past lunchtime--you'll always get a fresh dog.
Bellach said she's had longtime customers tell her the hot dogs served from the truck are close to those at Utica Joe's hot dog stand at Farragut and Utica avenues in Brooklyn. I've never been to Utica Joe's (and neither has Bellach--she's only been to Brooklyn five times in her life), but if it's anything like Skippy's, I'm sure it's worth a visit.
If you live on the eastern shore of Staten Island, you probably already know Skippy's, but if not, it's worth a visit. It's a quick shot from I-278. Just get off on Hylan Boulevard and head a few minutes south. If the weather's nice, eat your dogs at the shaded picnic table behind the truck--or take them to the nearby South Beach Boardwalk, which has great views of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and lower New York Bay.
Skippy's Hot Dog Truck
Hylan Boulevard between Seaver and Stobe avenues (map)