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Connecticut's hot dogs worth a detour

Connecticut's hot dogs worth a detour
Credit: Larry Olmsted, for USA TODAY
Hot dogs are the main event, and most guests get at least two. This shows one with and one without the legendary secret recipe hot pepper relish.

The scene: Long a highlight for road food fans, Connecticut is mad for hot dogs, and home to several famous and longstanding mom and pop purveyors, like Ted’s and Danny’s Drive-In, both of which have been featured in Great American Bites over the years. There are enough of these to warrant an entire documentary film about the Nutmeg State’s obsession, A Connecticut Hot Dog Tour. While many acclaimed stands are in a concise southern strip between New York City and New Haven, or in the state capital of Hartford, Blackie’s occupies a middle ground in Southwestern Connecticut, near Waterbury and convenient to the vast amount of travelers headed east or west on Interstate 84 — and well worth the short detour. After a lengthy New England road food journey, longtime Village Voice food critic Robert Sietsema called these “the most miraculous hot dogs of the trip” on Eater.com.

Blackie’s has been here since 1928 and occupies an extremely odd, dumbbell-shaped, roadside building comprising two small octagonal structures linked by a railroad car-sized connector. The octagons are medium-sized dining rooms at either end, while the open kitchen is behind a counter with a handful of stools, very much diner style, in the middle.

Great American Bites: The humble hot dog was made famous here

The counter features napkin dispensers and a couple of double-sided condiment tubs with dark brown mustard and “secret recipe” hot pepper sauce, which is sold in jars stacked behind the counter, along with bags of potato chips. You order at the counter even if you are planning to eat in the dining rooms, and there is something really warm and appealing about the place from the moment you walk through the door. It’s old fashioned but in an unchanged, authentic way that’s not cliché, contrived or ironic.

The service is very friendly even though it’s the kind of place with a lot of regulars who have their own ordering lingo, yet unlike some similar spots, there is no expectation that you be familiar with the jargon (and there are very few choices in any case). One customer approached and simply raised three fingers, the counterman relayed “three!” to the grill, and moments later a trio of hot dogs were produced. “Two plus cheese,” two dogs and a cheeseburger, is a pretty standard order.

Reason to visit: hot dog, cheeseburger

The food: Blackie’s has been in the same family since it opened, and little has changed, though today’s customer is better off than those during World War II, when rationing forced the restaurant to limit sales to one dog per person. Other than that, and the expansion that led to the current weird layout after a 1945 fire, it’s easy to imagine a Rip Van Winkle-style time traveler returning after decades of absence and nodding approval. The hot dogs, the way they are cooked, and the family recipe hot pepper sauce are all the same as they always have been, and as the website history proudly states, “We still do not serve French fries and continue to be closed on Fridays. You can still enjoy a birch beer on tap and cartons of chocolate milk. Blackie’s will always be a place where generations of families can enjoy the tradition of a Blackie’s dog smothered in our homemade relish.”

The menu is simple and straightforward, just hot dogs, burgers and bags of chips. The hot dogs are the main attraction, and have been custom made for Blackie’s to their recipe specifications by local sausage producer Martin Rosol of New Britain, Conn., since 1928. They are cooked Connecticut style (also sometimes New Jersey style), with a quick visit to hot oil (secret but not peanut oil in case you’re worried) where the frying blisters and sometime rips them (in Jersey these dogs are called “rippers”). The hot dogs are always served plain for diners to dress as desired. The frying gives a nice snap to the exterior without it being crispy, alongside a tender but not mushy interior, and the dogs are meaty and flavorful, but you really need the signature hot pepper relish to fully appreciate Blackie’s. There’s also brown mustard and ketchup, the only other options — no kraut or pickles. The relish is chunky, with lots of onion and peppers, slightly sweet and fresh, with just a touch of heat, not really spicy. It is different from other hot dog relishes and very good. Many visitors are so impressed they spontaneously buy a jar to take home — I do.

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There’s not much else here besides the burgers, made from a quarter pound of black Angus beef ground by a nearby butcher daily and cooked to order (medium). It’s a very good burger, fresh and juicy with the perfect amount of exterior char picked up off the flat top, giving it a bit of smoky flavor and a nice touch of crispiness for contrast. The burgers are served on simple standard soft buns and presented plain, the only topping option is cheese (to me adding cheese to a burger is a no-brainer) and of course, the hot pepper relish.

Blackie’s also offers hand-spun shakes and in summer, hand-dipped ice cream cones and cups. The eatery attracts a diverse crowd including couples, working folks and families, and it’s just a great bit of Americana with standout dogs and above average burgers, well worth a detour. French fry lovers are the only ones who will be out of luck, and why the restaurant doesn’t serve fries is one of the Frequently Asked Questions on the website. The answer? “Tradition, Blackie’s has never served fries, and for no real reason. Why not enjoy another dog?”

Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes, if you are on a New England hot dog road trip.

Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)

Price: $ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)

Details: 2200 Waterbury Road, Cheshire, CT; 203-669-1819; blackieshotdogs.com

Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at travel@usatoday.com. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.

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