All over New Jersey this time of year, people brave parking-lot-type traffic jams to drive west to the Poconos to see the fall foliage. This is true even of those who live in tree-studded "garden" suburbs like Montclair, where there are plenty of leaves of all colors right at home. But what's not right at home is Hot Dog Johnny's. This rustic stand sells garnished dogs (plus a few nonalcoholic beverages simply to wash them down), which are what really make autumn, not some accident of Northern nature.
Down this deep in the South it's naturally not possible to duplicate fall foliage, in any case. Fortunately, though, the old-fashioned fall-frankfurter experience can be found at Arbetter Hot Dogs on Bird Road.
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As at Hot Dog Johnny's, it's not the dogs themselves that are better at Arbetter. They are all-American versions of pleasantly bland bratwurst, mild mixed-meat franks that are skinless and soft enough for an infant to gum, with the neutral nonflavor (and noncolor) of a Midwestern "White Hot." As such they're an ideal blank canvas for the real point of the three classic dogs that made Arbetter's rep more than 40 years ago, when this family-run joint first opened in Miami: their generous garnishes.
My favorite is the chili/onion dog, identical to what when I was growing up were called Texas Weiners (for unknown reasons -- they were invented in New Jersey): a topping of rich, flavorful but not overly hot homemade all-meat (no beans) chili from an old Arbetter family recipe, topped with diced raw onion for that added zing as well as that comforting crunch conveying the message: "You are eating a healthful greenish vegetable, clearly counteracting this item's otherwise pure cholesterol content, fer sure." At $1.75 the chili/onion is the top-of-the-line tube steak. But health-minded budget diners will want to know that the topping on the $1.45 onion/relish dog, speaking of green vegetables, is so green it practically glows in the dark.
Arbetter Hot Dogs
8747 Bird Rd.
305-207-0555. Open Sunday through Thursday 11:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Also appetizing is Arbetter's kraut/mustard dog, featuring classic yellow mustard and tender, cooked-all-day kraut that tastes, somehow, beautifully buttery -- very different from the crisp-raw kraut on a New York-style Nathan's dog but just as appealing.
The only side, aside from soft drinks, is fries, which I'd advise skipping since they're frozen. But deep-fry fans needn't despair: Added to Arbetter's three original franks is a corn dog whose grainy, greasy cornmeal coating beats mushy supermarket-model corn dogs hollow. (Actually a hand-lettered sign from the originally Boston-based Arbetter family does proclaim that free sides of Boston baked beans will be served -- when the Red Sox win the World Series. But since that seems as likely to happen as fall foliage in Miami, I'd go for the corn dog.)