I don’t remember what my first meal was, no one does. However, I do have a fond memory of one of the first places I dined at frequently as a toddler with my family—Rutt’s Hut. It seemed so normal to me growing up, the idea of eating a deep fried hot dog, with a side of grease-ridden onion rings. As I grew older, I began to realize that what I was given so often as a child, was not something other people got to experience. Rutt’s Hut will always be one of my favorite places to eat, and I consider myself lucky to have always had it in my life.
Rutt’s is a no-frills establishment—a place where you walk in, you order using their lingo, you pay in cash, you scarf it down, and you leave. There is no need for high expectations here, because they have set a bar already, and they will always meet it. Rutt’s Hut opened in the 1920’s before The Great Depression, and has survived until this very day. It encapsulates what it means to be from North New Jersey for me. When I have friends and family in from out of town, sure, I’ll take them for pizza, and for a bagel; but, I will always treat them to a feast at Rutt’s Hut. Whether you eat at the standing room, or in the dining room, their consistency always comes through.
Before heading here, there is an important dictionary to study:
Ripper: The classic, deep fried hot dog. Named for its casing that just barely rips when fried to perfection.
Weller: A hot dog cooked for a hair longer than the classic. A small, but noticeable difference in texture.
Cremator: Obliterated. A hot dog that is deep fried to a rich mahogany color. The skin is shattered, and the inside is noticeably less moist, but still oddly delicious.
In-and-outer: Just warmed through in the oil. No rips, nor crunch. My personal least favorite of the clique.
You can order it as a “hot-dog”, but then they know you’re not a regular. They won’t treat you poorly for it, but the lack of familiarity can change the experience. Or, maybe I just like the feeling of being in this non-existent club. They have a lot more lingo than just the ones describing different frankfurter styles; “frenchy” instead of French fries, “Marvis” instead of Yoo-Hoo (weird, right?), and so many more that even I cannot remember it all. This language creates an at-home environment, that serves an even more familiar product without actually being like anything you’ve ever had in your life. It’s deep fat fried for Christ’s sake, what else could you want?
Sure, you can deep fry a Thumann’s beef and pork link anywhere, but it won’t be a ripper, and that is for damn sure. I have yet to figure out why this is. Legend has it that they fry their rippers in beef tallow(Beef fat). Whether this is still practiced today is unbeknownst to me, and the owners do not care for questions about their secrets.
The fixings. Like any hot dog joint, there are fixings. Relish, the best I have ever had. Vibrant yellow, mouthwatering acidity, and a soothing texture creates the perfect topping for a hot dog. The recipe is top secret from what I understand, but it is understood to contain cabbage, onions, and carrots as part of the base set. In fact, a “Ripper With Relish” was ranked #1 on America’s 75 Best Hot Dogs for 2017 by The Daily Meal (https://www.thedailymeal.com/eat/americas-75-best-hot-dogs-2017-slideshow/slide-52 ). The mustard; spicy and rich, is served alongside the relish in metal vats to be used “self-service style”. Cheese. Good, old-fashioned cheese whiz that is lathered on top for your indulging needs (you need to ask for this one, unlike the relish or mustard). Or, you can eat it naked, I do it all the time.
I did not list chili. Why? They refuse to top a hot-dog with it. Trust me, I’ve tried. You can order a side of chili, beans or no beans, and spoon it on for yourself—I opt to do this every now and then. The chili, as expected, is wonderfully delicious, but not over-complicated, which is something I think too many places get wrong. A rivaling hot dog joint in Clifton specializes in a chili-based topping for their dogs. This could be why Rutt’s Hut refuses to top theirs this way. However, Rutt’s has nothing to worry about in terms of their rivals, but they already know that.
Cheeseburgers and hamburgers. On their own, they are nothing worth going out of your way for. However, there is a secret item you can order that all of the regulars know about. “A cheeseburger dipped”. Just say it, they will not question you, they will just make it. This gem is a simple cheeseburger that they dip into brown gravy before putting it on the bun. It’s hard to explain how good this creation is; it is almost like a drunk-craving that came to life. The same gravy can be served atop fries, because this is New Jersey, and that is what we do.
As well as most places in the area, they serve a Taylor Ham and cheese, and it is out of this world. Taylor ham for those of you who do not know, is a North Jersey staple. Often referred to as “pork roll” elsewhere, but do not call it that here, it is for your own good. Griddle-fried Taylor Ham, melted American cheese, a soft Kaiser roll, completed with a pickle on the side. This version of the classic might just be my favorite. Along with this, a familiar grilled cheese is another one that will not disappoint. And finally, my favorite onion rings in the world. They are greasy, crunchy, and delicious, and I wouldn’t have them any other way.
The rumors are true; I have only eaten a small fraction of the Rutt’s Hut menu. The menu is longer than a 4th grade level novel. I also haven’t looked at the menu while ordering ever in my life. Like Waffle House, it is one of those places where you learn what you like, and you order it every single time. It can vary, but my classic order goes like this:
“Can I get 2 rippers, an onion ring, and a small Pepsi?”
Of course, I add in a burger dipped, or Taylor Ham and cheese from time to time, but the familiarity of it all is what is being demonstrated.
The same employees have been there my entire life. The same people taking my order, and the same people cooking it is probably why it is always so good. It just makes you feel at home, and I cannot explain it better than that. The people working the counter don’t even look at prices, their brains are like calculators when adding orders up, and it never ceases to amaze me. The same interior since my dad started going there in the 1960’s, and the same food from when it first opened almost 90 years ago is a beautiful thing to me, and I never want it to change. I’ve lost too many things in my life due to unwelcome changes: Old Cartoon Network, pre-2008 Food Network, the 2016 Presidential Election, etc.
Perhaps I am over-romanticizing a simple fast food joint, but I don’t care. In Clifton, New Jersey, a 14-minute drive from my house, lies what I believe to be a perfect establishment. Due to its overwhelming consistency, and its uniqueness that differentiates it from anywhere else I have ever eaten, Rutt’s will always remain relevant to my being. If my prayers could be answered, Rutt’s Hut will exist throughout my lifetime, and it will not change at all. Truth be told, if I was on death row, this would be my final meal.
Written by Peter Candia
Edited by Nash Reba