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Three people stand eating on the tailgate of an orange car in front of the restaurant.
In the Rutt’s Hut parking lot, the tailgate is your table.

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At Clifton’s Incredible Rutt’s Hut, Tailgating Deep-Fried Hot Dogs Is the New Pandemic Ritual

Critic Robert Sietsema makes a pitstop at the legendary New Jersey restaurant on a recent trip back from the Catskills

It’s been 28 years since I downed my first hot dog from Rutt’s Hut. Recently, passing through Clifton, New Jersey, on the way back from the Catskills, I was delighted to discover the place as popular as ever, even mid-pandemic. Patrons wearing masks fidgeted outside in a socially distanced line that snaked through the parking lot, waiting for a taste of the world’s best weenies. But rather than eating them at the counters inside, now off limits, most were dining in the huge parking lot in a tumultuously happy tailgate party. About one third of the 50 vehicles parked had knots of people around them, tailgates flung down as patrons gobbled franks and other local delicacies.

An order counter with clerks behind and customers ordering, with some white standing tables in the foreground.
Step up and order inside, but you can’t eat at the counter.

Founded by Anna and Royal Rutt in 1928, Rutt’s Hut is located just off Jersey Route 3, also known as the Secaucus Bypass — which sounds like a cut-rate cardiac operation. Right after the highway spans the murky Passaic River and begins climbing into Nutley, find Rutt’s Hut on a hillock overlooking the river, though the place makes little of its riverside location. Originally a roadhouse, the complex is a great pile of brown bricks seemingly thrown down at random.

One door goes into a darkened, cavernous tavern, where the bar food holds some surprises — what dive bar has duck on its menu? But much more popular, and looking much the same now as it did three decades ago, is a windowed enclosure that clings to the east side of the building like an epiphyte on a great brown stump.

Dispensed there are beef-and-pork frankfurters, slender and delicious. They are made nearby in the Meadowlands by Thumann’s, so are fundamentally locavoric. True to the north Jersey technique, they are deep-fried, which preserves the pop of a casing made of sheep intestine.

Most folks like their deep-fried hot dogs well done; when so cooked, they are called “rippers” because of the tears that develop along the side, further crisping not only the skin but the meat inside. Similarly exceptional is the house relish, available in big steel pots with flipping lids at various places around the room. Created by Anna Rutt, the relish is yellow, tart, and slightly sweet, and the recipe is of course secret, though this blog post suggests it’s more complex that it appears. The buns at Rutt’s Hut are plain hot dog buns, completely unremarkable.

Three hot dogs in buns, with mustardy relish and mustard on two of them.
Three rippers on a paper plate

When you order your franks, you will be permitted to apply the relish, grainy mustard, or any other condiment before the dogs are wrapped. I recommend asking that the franks be put on a paper plate, which you can then carry out to your tailgate. These hot dogs with the house relish are so delicious, it will be hard to not wolf them down before you get outside. But that’s currently illegal.

And yes, the menu offers many other things. The onion rings are spectacular, the french fries just okay, but better when dipped in the aforementioned relish. They may also be improved in classic Jersey fashion with gravy and cheese, the latter mozzarella, which is better than curds but hard to eat due to gooeyness. Anyway, it takes up space in your stomach where hot dogs could go.

As at Hot Dog Johnny’s in Buttzville, New Jersey, the beverage of choice to go with your hot dogs is birch beer, kind of like root beer but redder. Then there are hamburgers, Taylor ham sandwiches, omelets, stuffed clams, and some surprisingly good chili con carne. But take my advice and concentrate on the franks ($2.50 each), and eat them in the parking lot.

Hot dogs, carbonated beverages, and disco fries on a tailgate.
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