Rutt’s Hut (Clifton, NJ)

Despite its German origins, there are few food items as iconic to American food as the hot dog, and like most any American specialty, it has more than a few regional variations. In most any locale, anywhere in America, you’re never far from a restaurant that, even if not specializing in hot dogs, at least has them on it’s menu. But there are a handful of iconic hot dot restaurants sprinkled across the US that not only focus on hot dogs, but raise the art form to an iconic level with unique selection of sausages, toppings, and presentation. Many will argue about the specific places, but the New York Times does a pretty good job covering the classics in their 2023 Field Guide to the Great Hot Dogs of America. My travels often involve my traveling between NH and NJ, and my travels regularly take me by one of these great icons that’s also one of my personal favorites of the iconic hot dog joints: Rutt’s Hut in Clifton, NJ.

Rutt’s Hut sits on River Road in Clifton, NJ, on a spot that probably once had very scenic views of the nearly Passaic river, but since the mid-20th century, the area has been dominated by the intersection of NJ Rt-3 (the Secaucus Bypass, the main route to the Lincoln Tunnel) and Rt-21. Rutt’s itself has been around since 1928, originally opening as a simple roadside stand, then moving into a former roadhouse. Several 20th century additions expanded it to the foodprint it’s had for most of its history, with both both a roadhouse tavern-style dining and a walk-up counter. To date, I’ve always been on my way to someplace when going by Rutt’s, so I’ve never actually done more than peeked inside the dining room, opting instead for the walk-up counter at the rear of the building. One of these days I’ll actually have to check out the dining room.

While most every trip of mine to New Jersey usually takes me within a few miles of Rutt’s, I’m usually traveling with coworkers, and usually passing through at breakfast time, and while Rutt’s is actually open for breakfast (indeed, they’ve got an actual breakfast menu), most of my coworkers are either snobby about stopping for hot dogs, or simply not bold enough to want to stop off at a place primarily known as a hot dog joint for breakfast. Their loss. But this last trip, I was both traveling solo and ahead of schedule, so at 9am I was able to easily divert from my drive and stop off for a mid-morning breakfast break. At 9am, the walk-up counter is well-staffed, but the customers thin (vs, say, 10pm on a Friday when the place is standing-room-only in all senses of the word). The process remains the same, ordering your food at the counter, and either taking it to go, or walking over to the nearby standing counter to eat on-site.

My order at Rutt’s Hut is almost always the same: a pair of rippers with mustard and relish, and a cup of chili. A style fairly unique to New Jersey, the “ripper” is a hot dog (preferably a beef-and-pork dog, like the ones Rutt’s uses from nearby Thumann’s Deli Meats) that has been fried in a hot oil bath until the inside starts to bubble and crisp enough that the dog splits down the side (for those true connoisseurs, Rutt’s also offers up dogs as “in-and-out” (barely cooked), “wellers” (well-done), and “cremators” (you can guess that one)) . This not only converts the outside into a nice bit of crisped and blistered casing, but transforms bits of the exposed meat into a surprisingly tasted crisps meat. The end result is texturely much like my favorite hot dogs from Ted’s, but the cooking in oil instead of char-broiling gives it a slightly different flavor. The combination is unique blend of taste and texture that really does elevate a simple hot dog to the next level. Rounding it out with some brown mustard and their unique bright-yellow cabbage-based relish, and you’ve got some tangy, zesty notes rounding it out.

The chili is also good as well. It’s the sort of chili you find at any number of Northeast diners, very chunky ground beef, beans, and while it’s spicy, it’s more of a clove and cinnamon spicy than an outright hot pepper spice like a Texas chili. Overall, if you wanted to make up a chili dog (they don’t actually serve them), this would be a good chili to use.

The rest of the menu at Rutt’s is actually worth discussing. While the majority of customers (especially on the walk-in side) are there ordering essentially what I did (rippers, and maybe a cup of chili, and some fries or something), and several menu items leverage that (like the hot-dog platter, basically two dogs served on a platter with potato salad and cole slaw), the full menu at Rutt’s is surprisingly broad, including a full array of sandwiches, fried chicken, fish and chips, a few steaks from the broiler… and even Long Island Duckling with orange sauce. Yeah, you can, even on the walk-up side, get a roasted duck. I’ll have to definitely go back sometime and try some of the more obscure menu items to diversify a bit.

Overall, I can see why, after almost 100 years, Rutt’s Hut still remains an iconic classic spot for hot dogs, and the hot dogs here really are unique. I really need to explore Rutt’s Hut a few more times. As I’ve mentioned above, I’ve never done more than peeked inside the dining room, and it could be a nice little trip with friends to get a few dogs and a beer. And while the very item I’m craving (hot dogs) leads me to almost always order the same thing, I really should explore some of the further reaches of the Rutt’s Hut menu, like the duck. Any of my readers had the Rutt’s Hut duck?

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