Photograph by Michael Amsler
Happiness Is a Warm Bun: Ralph Morgenbesser of Ralph's Santa Rosa Subs and Ralph's Courthouse Classics serves up classic dogs.
In search of an American classic
By Sara Bir
In terms of respect, hot dogs are underdogs, perceived as kid food, junk food, the final destination of all pig and cow (and God knows what else) parts deemed unfit for other uses. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, millions of hot dogs are tossed with little mind onto grills and left to blister and sweat until they are as blackened and chewy as seared rubber sneakers.
Then there are the baseball games, amusement parks, county fairs, and seaside boardwalks. Here, where we find the hot dogs others make for us, are the stuff dreams are made of: moist, plump casings taut and beaded with a dew of grease. Their buns are cottony and yielding; their wrappers--foil, waxed paper--are always disposable.
It was in New York that I discovered the adult pleasure of hot dogs. What better place for a hot dog lover than New York! (I've never been to Chicago, so I can say that.) While young and in New York, when money is always in short order, hot dog vendors are ready and willing to supply low-cost fuel for carnivorous starving artists.
Particularly alluring was Papaya King and its nearly identical though inferior rival Gray's Papaya, who hawked the inspired combination of fresh tropical fruit juices and very cheap hot dogs. You asked for kraut and onions (adding flavor, nutrition, and bulk), and then piled on the spicy mustard. You could eat your papaya dogs there at the counter, but the best thing to do was barrel down the crowded sidewalks, needling your way through pedestrians and consuming each hot dog in a feverish rapture spanning no longer than 30 seconds. Then you'd chase the salty-greasy bites of hot dog with sips of sunny sweet-tart papaya juice, and the whole world came alive.
Since that time, I've hungered for an equal, if not identical, hot dog sensation. Here's the key: Superior hot dogs are best consumed outdoors or while standing up--preferably both. Also, there must be more on them then just mustard and ketchup. And also also, the hot dogs themselves must have natural casings so that they snap playfully when bitten into.
Jimbo's Hot Dogs, visible from Highway 101 as it traverses that particularly hopeless stretch around Terra Linda where boxy, fortresslike corporate offices rise up from the hills as faceless and awful as giant broken robots, is right on the frontage road. A million times commuters must drive past it thinking, "Who in their right mind goes to eat hot dogs on a frontage road?"
Hot dog lovers, for one. It's not very often in these parts that you find an entire commercial space devoted to hot dogs, and it's pleasantly startling to enter Jimbo's and see the worn linoleum floors, the low lunch counter scattered with newspapers, and the letterboard on the back wall spelling out Jimbo's menu.
To get my bearings, I ordered a kraut dog ($2.65). A plain hot dog is called a Jimbo. (Note that regulars just order a Jimbo and not a Jimbo dog, a faux pas that will identify a newcomer.) The dogs are fat and elongated beef franks on steamed buns, topped with a choice of mustard (yellow, spicy, or Dijon), caramelized or raw onion, sauerkraut, relish, pepperoncini, jalapeños, and sliced tomatoes. Oh, and ketchup. Many people came in and effortlessly ordered elaborate personal variations on their Jimbos-to-go; these must be regular customers, hot dog addicts who take their daily vegetables in relish form.
It was a good hot dog. I don't remember much, because even when seated it's difficult to break that indelicate habit of scarfing down hot dogs, a rebel without a pause. Mostly, I was taken with the charm of Jimbo's, whose interior emanated a roadside aura instead of a frontage-roadside gloom. A glass-fronted refrigerator held styrofoam containers of homemade potato salad ($1.75--classic stuff, laced with yellow mustard and dotted with relish) and half-pint cartons of milk.
On the counter were boxes of individually wrapped moon pies, Fig Newtons, and miniature Duchess-brand pecan pies, whose listing of ingredients was heavier on preservatives than pecans. I wanted a milkshake but only had a bit of change, so I got a moon pie instead, which was a whopping 85 cents or so.
On my next trip to Jimbo's, I got a chili dog ($4.25). "For here or to go?" asked the young fellow behind the counter. I said I was eating in, and when I received a plateful of chili totally obscuring a bashful hot dog, I wondered how on earth anyone could manage to consume the to-go version without making a complete mess. I had to resort to using a plastic knife and fork to get through the layers of piquant onion, melted cheese, steaming chili, hidden hot dog, and soggy bun. To make up for the moon pie of the last visit, I also ordered a strawberry milkshake ($2.75), which arrived at the lunch counter in a paper cup, the surplus still residing in the metal container it had been churned in.
And here I made an important, if blundering, discovery: Chili dogs and strawberry milkshakes were made for each other. This is the honest-to-God truth. There's a symbiotic relationship akin to that of the hot dog and papaya juice. The earthy chili--livened with the occasional bite of hot dog--darkened the palate, while the cheery, pink, fruity milkshake refreshed and invigorated the senses. Like yin and yang, without the healthful aspects.
Jimbo's, despite packing a great deal of old-school charm, is indoors. Lunch-goers in Santa Rosa can look to Ralph's Courthouse Classics to supply them with the outdoor hot dog element. It's sort of a satellite of Ralph's Santa Rosa Subs off Courthouse Square. The cart itself is perched on the prominent corner of Mendocino Avenue and Fourth Street. Sometimes there's a little cafe-style table set up close to the cart, but the best thing to do is to sit on the green of Courthouse Square facing Fourth Street and watch the bums and punk rock kids and suits.
I lean toward the Classic ($3), which you can modify with the typical kraut, diced tomatoes, relish, and onions. Ralph's diced onions are the fancy red kind too. How's that for class!
The other day, I had neglected to bring a lunch to work, instead planning on quelling noontime belly rumblings with a big, fat hot dog eaten under the sun. So I was strolling down the sidewalk, dreaming of that perfect first hot dog bite, when I realized the cart was gone. Gone! Begrudgingly, I went to Ralph's Santa Rosa Subs instead, where I discovered that Ralph had an event that day, hence the MIA cart. Which proves that even though you can always count on hot dogs, you can't always count on them.
The delightfully named Inn the Hot Dog House, right off the plaza in Sebastopol, is a stationary walk-up and thus won't vanish into thin air. From the view into the kitchen afforded by the narrow order window--you can see a warmer full of buns and a soda dispenser, if that--there's little to indicate what sort of hot dog experience the diner is in for. The answer is sublime.
I ordered a foot-long ($2.50) but what I actually got was a short-fat--meaning it was a foot's worth of hot dog condensed into a frankfurter as chubby as a cherub's arm, full of hot doggy goodness. The casing packed that elusive snap, yielding a spicy interior good enough to be consumed on its own--a truly noble sausage. This one I had to be mindful of and enjoy, taking a whopping two minutes instead of the usual 30 seconds. Sometimes, you have to slow down and taste the hot dogs.
Jimbo's Hot Dogs. 4288 Redwood Hwy. San Rafael. Open weekdays, 10am-4:30pm; Saturdays, 10am-3pm. 415.472.7707. Ralph's Courthouse Classics, Old Courthouse Square (corner of Mendocino Avenue and Fourth Street), Santa Rosa. Open weekdays, 11:30am(ish)-2:30pm(ish). 707.526.6309. Inn The Hot Dog House. 150 Weeks Way, Sebastopol. Open Tuesday-Friday, 11:30am-5:30pm; Saturday, 11:30am-4:30pm. 707.829.8353.
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From the August 7-13, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.