Clifton, New Jersey
Mention “The Ripper” from New Jersey and you will immediately be asked if you’re referring to a character on The Sopranos; however, the person of interest with the ominous sounding moniker is actually a hot dog. The often-imitated, seldom duplicated Rutt’s Hut has been vending the wiener with a vengeance since its humble beginnings as a roadside stand in 1928. The concept of The Ripper is simple – Rutt’s takes a custom-made, blended pork and beef hot dog with a snappy natural casing and drops it into a vat of hot oil. As the hot dog cooks, the skin crisps up and bursts open like John Hurt’s chest, exposing the enclosed pink meat. While the split skin takes on a crunchy snap, the interior is hot and moist, creating a contrast in textures while retaining the taste.
Abe Rutt started out small , hawking his red hots to passers-by along the highway that ran past the stand; eventually a sturdy brick building was erected around it featuring a bar and a dining area (the glassed in counter and take-out room at the back of the building is what remains of the original hut). The business was sold in 1974 to Nicholas Karagiorgis (whose family still runs the restaurant with the rhyming name). The location just on the other side of the Hudson from Manhattan makes Rutt’s Hut a mandatory destination when in the New York City area.
The most popular presentation is dubbed “The Weller” (presumably denoting that the hot dog is well done). The split and twisted casing is well-past thoroughly cooked with the interior still identifiable as a hot dog. On the other end of the spectrum is the legendary “Cremator”, a wiener so well done that it would be admitted to the morgue instead of the burn unit. On my visit, I started with a Weller, lightly dressed with a bright yellow relish made from a recipe so secret that they’d have to kill you if they revealed the ingredients (which in northern New Jersey may not be tongue-in-cheek). After slowly savoring the immolated delight, I asked for a Cremator, a request that Eva Christafinis (who was working the counter) attempted to talk me out of. She explained that requesting The Cremator was at your own risk – she has seen fluffy white buns cradling charred black sticks that could barely be recognized as hot dogs make their way over the counter into the eager paws of regular customers. The Cremator she handed me received a “That’s not so bad” approval rating from Eva, and even though the hot dog was brown all the way through with a heavily blistered skin, it was still delicious (although bereft of some of its normal meaty flavor).
You can enjoy The Ripper (as well as multiple other Americana and deli menu items) at the wood-paneled bar or in the dining room inside, but there’s something to be said for the nostalgia of standing at the Formica counters at the original florescent-lit stand in the back while you polish off your burn victim. Hot dog joints across the world have either attempted to recreate or outright misrepresented themselves as the original (including several now-defunct businesses that named their restaurants with a very-similar sounding name), but Rutt’s Hut remains the top dog when it comes to what has come to be known as the “northern New Jersey-style hot dog”.
One of their ample dogs will set you back about 2 and a half bucks, but from a historic and gastronomic standpoint, that is truly an offer you can’t refuse.