Saturday, September 12, 2009

Chowing down

Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a thing for road food. That term, in my mind, refers to chow you order at a counter (preferably outdoor, at a drive-in and not a drive-through) at an old food stand that has no relation to any kind of fast food chain. No waitress service, or if there is, it's in an area adjoining said walk-up counter. Mostly, it's hot dogs and hamburgers, though other regional specialties (Italian hot dogs, Texas weiners, etc.) do qualify. Most of them hark back to the '20s or '30s, before suburbanization, when most of the highways in New Jersey were routes to the countryside and it made sense to put up a hot dog stand at the side of the road for hungry travelers.

It wasn't until my college years that I got a serious taste for these joints. Oddly enough, my parents never took my sister and me to any of the local places. As a kid, I successfully petitioned my dad to stop at the White Castle in our town, out of sheer curiosity. It was a classic tiny box of a Castle (that's all there was in the pre-Harold and Kumar days), and on a Saturday night the parking lot was filled with undesirables, yet Dad agreed to go in for a bag of rats. Somehow I knew there was a road food junkie lurking within that middle-management exterior. (The Castle, incidentally, is the one exception to the rule that road food doesn't come from chains.)

College brought me a road food cuisine guide in the form of Marty, college student/computer programmer by day, road trip leader by night. He's the one who introduced me to the White Rose System, a landmark just a few miles from Rutgers-New Brunswick. Open 24 hours with the exception of Sunday, the System is acclaimed for three things: incredibly good California cheeseburgers, the fact that they have your order bagged and rung up within three seconds or less of when you've finished ordering, and the persistent rumor that all of the guys behind the counter are ex-convicts who live in a small building behind the joint. There's diner-style seating available at the front counter, or against the front window, but if you're there at prime-time (after the bars close) it's also worth eating on the hood of your car so you can watch the sea of humanity entering and leaving the place. I hesitate to post their website; it looks like the menu has gotten a lot more diverse over time, and I don't know how I feel about that.

While Marty and I never dated (neither of us had the desire), the fun we had in checking out the System and other greasy spoons prompted me to add 'preference for road food' to the criteria by which I judge potential boyfriends. Don't get me wrong: I like getting dressed up and going to nice restaurants, but I'd turn my nose up at any man who'd turn his nose up at the aroma of fried onions and hamburgers nestled in a gently steamed bun. (I'd like to say that I was the inspiration for Shake Shack, but alas, I was not.)

Anyway, I digress. Back to local joints, the classic in my hometown is the Galloping Hill Inn, founded in the '20's at a confluence of roads aptly called Five Points. It's the quintessential hot dog and beer kind of place, and when I was a kid, it looked like something you'd find on some rural road -- whitewashed exterior with ordering windows on both the street- and parking lot sides of the building, and a porch with picnic benches. The ordering process is not for the hesitant: customers crowd the broad (8-10 foot wide) window to shout out their orders as the counter guys randomly call "next." Often chaotic, but efficient. There's also a small dining room with waitress service.

Like most road joints, atmosphere is half the experience at Galloping Hill. In more recent years, they've closed the street-side windows and put an awning over the back of the building to create a vestibule and dining area. Sadly, they appear to be going for a diner look now, with enamel walls, chrome accents and faux-pressed tin ceilings above the porches. Fortunately, my standard order is none the worse for wear: a 'complete' hot dog (kraut and mustard) and cheese fries with a generous amount of the tasty yellow stuff. Yum.

Five Points is a very busy intersection, so you can't really blame the Galloping Hill guys for moving the transactional part of the business to the back of the building for safety. When my sister and I first started going there in the mid-eighties, we'd eat our meals on the street-side porch and count the near-miss accidents. While we never actually saw a collision, we heard one once, first the screech of tires and crash of car against car, then the very loud string of obscenities expelled by one of the drivers. Jersey road food ambiance -- can't beat it.