The foot-long at Jimmy Buff’s in East Hanover, NJ, is “the best hot dog I’ve ever eaten,” proclaims hotdoglover. This praise comes from a lifelong wiener wonk who has put away thousands of dogs up and down the Eastern Seaboard and can rattle off the size and provenance of the franks, precisely how they were cooked, and quite possibly the names, birth order, and astrological signs of the pigs and steers that went into them. This guy knows his hot dogs.
Jimmy Buff’s, he reports, uses a five-to-a-pound all-beef frank from Newark’s excellent Best Provision Co. They saute it in oil, finish it off on a charcoal grill, and slip it into a toasted bun with a smear of top-notch deli mustard. The resulting hot dog rocks: gorgeous char marks, satisfying snap, beautiful spicing. “I was just blown away,” marvels hotdoglover. He ranks it ahead of the venerable, recently relocated Syd’s in Springfield, whose foot-long features the same frank grilled over gas, not charcoal.
Also on the menu are a creditable eight-to-a-pound pushcart-style entry and a swaggering Jersey Shore-style quarter-pounder. And—not surprisingly—a superb version of the Italian hot dog, a Jersey original invented some 70 years ago in Newark by James Racioppi, a.k.a. Jimmy Buff, whose descendants now own the mini-chain that takes his name. The East Hanover shop, newest of the four, makes an exemplary Italian starring a fried all-beef Best Provision frank on chewy, locally baked pizza bread, topped with plentiful, freshly fried peppers and potatoes.
For hotdoglover’s money, it runs neck and neck with the Italian dog at Tommy’s, a perennial favorite. Tommy’s is hardly coasting on its reputation, he adds. At its original Elizabeth shop and its newish North Brunswick branch, it has retooled with eight-to-a-pound franks (an upgrade from 10-to-a-pound), heaps on more peppers than ever, and continues to fry up the best and tastiest potatoes around.
Other Italian hot dog contenders are Jersey Joe’s in Port Monmouth, Dickie Dee’s in Newark, Joe-Joe’s in Toms River, and World’s First Italian Hot Dogs in Newark (which stands on the site of the original Jimmy Buff’s). Another past favorite has slipped, regrettably. Charlie’s Famous in Kenilworth now freezes its bread, switches back and forth between meat suppliers, and sometimes turns out charred potatoes, hotdoglover sadly reports. “A shame,” he laments, “since this used to be Jersey’s premier Italian hot dog.”
Syd’s [Union County]
at Tony’s Place, 234 Morris Avenue, Springfield, NJ
Tommy’s South [Middlesex County]
2320 U.S. Hwy. 130, North Brunswick, NJ
Tommy’s Italian Sausage [Union County]
900 2nd Avenue, at South Street, Elizabeth, NJ
Jersey Joe’s [Monmouth County]
712 Port Monmouth Road, west of Wilson Avenue, Port Monmouth, NJ
Dickie Dee’s [Essex County]
380 Bloomfield Avenue, between North Sixth and Seventh Streets, Newark, NJ
Joe-Joe’s Italian Hot Dogs [Ocean County]
2039 Rte. 37 E., near Coolidge Avenue, Toms River, NJ
World’s First Italian Hot Dogs [Essex County]
202 14th Avenue, at South Ninth Street, Newark, NJ
Charlie’s Famous Hot Dogs [Union County]
18 S. Michigan Avenue, between Kingston Avenue and Kenilworth Boulevard, Kenilworth, NJ