Everyone’s got a favorite hot dog truck. If you don’t, you should go find one. All dirty water dogs are not the same, so let me tell you about my favorite. J.R.’s has been a Belleville/Nutley institution for as long as I can remember. Situated just over the Belleville border on Franklin Avenue, where Nutley’s oppressive anti-peddler laws keep its denizens from having their own hot dog truck, it has been there for at least thirty years. From 11 AM until 3pm, six days a week, all year long.
Follow the spicy scent of their home-cooked hot onions, park your car at the end of the line behind the creamsicle-colored truck, and wait your turn to belly up to the order window. A look at their menu shows the usual hot dog toppings, but with their own twist on things. Most places have “The Works,” but only J.R.’s has a “Hot Works” or a “Sweet Works.” And what could be in the “Super Duper Works?” These are all some combination of the mirepoix of hotdog toppery: Mustard, Kraut, Chili, Onions and Relish. Cheese is also available for the ever-popular Chili-Cheese. A handwritten addition mentions that they now have potatoes and peppers- perhaps to satisfy those looking for the taste of an Italian hotdog, and not wanting to trek to Jimmy Buff’s.
I always get a Hot Works and a Sweet Works, but one time I will opt for the Super Duper with Cheese, just to see if it is greater than the sum of its parts. It could happen. Who knows what will occur when sweet relish encounters the peppery onions? Or the smoky chili (hot or mild) mixes with not only its beloved cheese sauce, but also the pickling spices of the sauerkraut and pickles? A tastebud explosion I was not ready to contemplate. I stuck with my standards.
The Chicago dog is a monster on a poppy seed bun, but the New York-style dirty water dog has always been best expressed with a skinny tube steak by Sabrett’s, tucked in a gummy soft white roll and slathered with French’s yellow mustard, with its unique fluorescent glow. Just as Japanese sushi chefs spend decades mastering the simplicity of a piece of raw fish atop a pillow of rice, J.R.’s has managed to turn a boiled frankfurter in a bun into a Zen garden in your mouth. Who knows how often they change the water; I’m sure it’s dumped out every night, but how can you explain why their hot dogs taste better than a package of Sabrett’s boiled at home?
They’re most famous for their tangy onions, and any visit should include one dog with it. It goes well with chili. And the best drink to wash it all down with is a Moo Cow, a chocolate soft drink in a can that was always creamier and more chocolatey than Yoo-Hoo. Sadly those have been gone since the ’80s; for a while there was a Chocolate Cow successor, but now you have to settle for the Coca Cola chocolate water. It’s not the same, but nothing goes better with hot dogs. You don’t want carbonation interfering with the subtle melange of flavors. That would be like putting ketchup on your sushi roll.
Traffic has to dodge hungry customers jogging across the street with a paper bag already stained from the toppings seeping through. There are always a few plastic chairs behind the truck, but everyone always gets the dogs to go- eating them on the go, or taking them to one of the many local parks. They are best eaten one handed while driving, I’ve found. Certainly unwise and possibly illegal, but there’s no way to wait until you get to a park like setting when their piquant scents waft from the wax paper. It’s a form of torture. Your best bet is to ask for them on a paper plate and just eat them in the car. Or use one of the plastic chairs. You might win a prize.