When I lived in Manhattan, where public transportation is king and parking is as valuable as gold, friends would sometimes joke that the only reason I bothered to keep a car in the city was for my trips to Rutt’s Hut, a sprawling hot-dog stand a few miles past the Meadowlands. The restaurant specialized in what it called the Ripper, a sturdy frankfurter plunged into boiling oil until the casing exploded, the skin frizzled and the suddenly crunchy sausage became riddled with deep crevasses along its length.
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Love at first bite: Joe Fabrocini and Susie Speck Mayor
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The Ripper in all its relished glory
New York, of course, is rich in crisp-skinned hot dogs, and except among partisans of dirty-water Sabrett’s franks, the default New York hot dog is usually a griddled juice bomb from Gray’s Papaya, the original Nathan’s in Coney Island, or a deli like Katz’s, Adelman’s or Pastrami King. A crunch, a snap, a mouthful of salty juice — that’s the lingua franca of the mid-Atlantic dog. But the Rutt’s Hut model, picked up by dives all over northern New Jersey, takes the paradigm to a new level. They are extreme, those Rippers, and it can almost make your stomach hurt to see teenage Rutt’s Hut customers plow through three of them, then swagger up to the counter to order three more.
For those for whom an ordinary Ripper is too tame, there is always the Cremator, which is the same dog fried until it shrivels into a wizened twig of meat.
Fab Dogs is a tiny new stand in an obscure corner of Reseda, next door to a self-described Brooklyn-style pizzeria and around the corner from a concentration of skeevy beer bars, not far from the ancient sub shop Zig’s (known for an overstuffed sandwich it calls the Ton on a Bun). Fab’s, a labor of love curated by hot-dog scholars Joe Fabrocini and wife Susie Speck Mayor, could serve as a three-table museum of American wiener culture. There is a lovingly constructed version of a Coney Island hot dog — the goopy Detroit classic, not the Nathan’s frank — only slightly undone by the tautness of Fab’s high-quality dog and a house-made chili that owes nothing to the sweet, cinnamon-spiked Greek chili of the original. An orthodox if ultimately unmagical interpretation of a Chicago dog is garnished with the requisite pickle spear, mustard, tomato, onion, sport peppers and neon-green relish, lashed with celery salt and served on a steamed bun rolled in poppy seeds — exact but slightly too perfect, like a Vermeer rendered by a masterful art forger.
There are hot dogs topped with cheese and chopped roasted green Hatch chiles, close to the way hot dogs are presented at the Lotaburger chain in New Mexico; slaw dogs prepared in the manner of southern West Virginia; BLT dogs as made famous at Crif’s in New York’s East Village, and close facsimiles of Central Park cart dogs authentically doused with sweet pink stewed onions. If you are nostalgic for northern-New Jersey–style Italian hot dogs, served like sausages, with peppers and onions on stiff hoagie rolls, you’ll find them here, made like the rest of Fab’s offerings, with the artisanal, small-production franks Joe imports from New Jersey. Fab’s even makes a version of cheesy, bacony Sonora dogs, which are as ubiquitous in Tucson as they are unavailable in California, the unrequited crush object of hundreds of local Arizona expats.
Fab’s also celebrates a couple of native Los Angeles hot dogs, with a close approximation of the Oki Dog, tucked inside a tortilla with pastrami, chili and cheese (they call it a Fairfax Burrito Dog, although, to be fair to the originators’ stand, it should be called the Pico Burrito Dog), and the only appealing version of an L.A. Danger Dog I’ve seen that didn’t come from a bootleg downtown cart: wrapped in bacon, squirted with mayonnaise and ketchup and piled with grilled onions, peppers and jalapeños, all of the flavor with none of the fear.
“If I were blessed with a better metabolism,” Susie moans, handing me a carton of crackly homemade tater tots, ”I could eat a couple of those street dogs every day. Have you tried the garlic fries?”
Joe’s profile on Yelp identifies him as “Jay ‘Bacon-wrap me’ F.”
But, already, Fab’s is best known for its rendition of the Ripper, and I suspect half of its customers may be unaware that the stand even serves another kind of hot dog — when certain regulars walk through the door, Joe doesn’t ask them what they want to eat, he asks how many. And really, the Fab’s Ripper is as it’s supposed to be, all heat and crunch, the swim through the hot oil exponentially amplifying the chomp, boiling down and reducing the garlicky juices until they reach nearly the syrupy intensity of a doggy demiglace.
Rutt’s Hut is famous for its relish, a mustardy half-slaw enriched with carrots that has the exact color and consistency of something you might find in the diaper of a newborn. The Fab’s version of the condiment, which introduces a slurrylike consistency into the equation, is even more alarming in appearance — really, you have to suppress your gag reflex — but, if you close your eyes, it is a remarkable substance, settling into the blistery fissures of the hot dog and adding both a tartness and a complex layer of spice: essential.
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And if too much is never enough, there is always the off-menu Cremator.
“New Jersey people ask for them all the time,” Susie says. “They figure out that they have to call in advance, though. Those things take a long, long time to cook.”
Fab Dogs, 6747 Tampa Ave., Reseda, (818) 344-4336 or www.fabhotdog.com. Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Street parking only. AE, MC, V. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $10-$15. Recommended dishes: tater tots, L.A. Street Dog, Fairfax Burrito Dog, the Ripper.