In case you haven’t heard, the Super Bowl is coming to New Jersey this Sunday. Yes, New Jersey, which is a point of contention among the state’s residents who are sick of the New York-focused media hype leading up to the game. (Non-sports fans: it’s true that both the New York Giants and the New York Jets play in the same stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. No, it really doesn’t make sense, but that’s the way it is.)
Though I haven’t seen them yet, they say the hordes are descending. Red carpets are unfurling, kegs are being tapped, and two Bruce Springsteen cover bands have been called into action! However, high rollers who might want to immerse themselves in a more low-key element of Jersey culture will find another of the state’s beloved landmarks in Clifton, NJ, only a few miles away from the stadium.
Rutt’s Hut is probably the most famous New Jersey hot dog joint serving the deep-fried dogs known in these parts as “rippers”—so-called for the casing’s tendency to split open when exposed to intense heat. (Hiram’s in Fort Lee is another survivor.) Non-hot dog fans: don’t knock it till you’ve tried the blistered, crackling exterior.
The fortress-like brick building is divided into two spaces: a fast food-style walk-up counter with a row of windows overlooking Route 21 and the Passaic River, and a wood-paneled dining room and bar. First-timers are often tempted to get their hot dogs from the walk-up counter and stand while they sample their rippers, but I encourage you to take the plunge and grab a seat in the dining room.
As someone who feels right at home in dive bars and blue-collar hangs, I find the ambiance here unparalleled: low ceilings, hand-painted menus above the bar, Miller High Life on tap, an actual telephone booth, and a few oil portraits that might have been stolen from The Haunted Mansion. Your banquet hall chair will probably squeak across the floor as you pull it away from the table, and your waitress will probably have a little sass. That’s just perfect.
While you can certainly get the renowned hot dogs as well as Jersey classics like Taylor ham and gravy-smothered fries in the dining room, I’ve fallen into the habit of ordering the kielbasa platter instead. Clifton is a city with a decent Polish population, so you better believe the smoked sausage is on point. Sliced and crispy on the edges, it’s got exactly the right garlicky snap. (Take or leave the massive peeled and boiled potato that accompanies the pile of kielbasa; I prefer a good old side of gravy fries.)
And though it’s meant for the rippers, I like to dip my fries in a blob of Rutt’s just-as-famous homemade sweet relish with chopped cabbage and carrots. A pot of the mild but tangy condiment sits on every table; if you’re a fan of Southern chow chow, you’ll recognize the flavors in the vibrant yellow Rutt’s version. Like the deep-fried hot dogs, it’s a love-or-hate proposition. Detractors are just as vocal as the devotees of these Jersey specialties—would you expect anything else from denizens of this state?—but I say both are worth trying at least once.
Football fans: when in town, look beyond the NFL-approved tailgate confines for a true taste of the Garden State. It’s a little rough and tumble and a little out of the way, but Rutt’s Hut is 100 percent Jersey.
Rutt’s Hut, 417 River Road, Clifton, NJ. 973-779-8615. Cash only.