Thursday, August 9, 2012

Nathan's Famous

I'm not sure how to write this one.

On a recent Friday night, Elizabeth mentioned something about Nathan's hot dogs. Over the years, I'd grilled a few Nathan's wieners, and once, in the middle of last decade, I stopped at a Nathan's at the Vince Lombardi Service Area on the New Jersey Turnpike. But now, living in Brooklyn, I realized something utterly obvious that I had not yet considered: I can go to the original Nathan's Famous in Coney Island.

I suddenly wanted very much to do this. I had watched the hot dog eating contest every 4th of July for many years and wanted to see the location. I had never been to Coney Island. "Can we go tomorrow?" I asked.

"Sure," Elizabeth said. "Can we invite my dad? He loves it there."

So we all took the subway down to Coney Island the next day. On the way, Rick shared stories about the place, he's been going there for more than half a century, and he called them "the best hot dogs in the world." My anticipation was almost as intense as my growing hunger.

It was surprisingly empty when we arrived. This was just after noon on a July Saturday and I had expected a crowd. (I'd read about the crowds that gather, and when we had invited Rick he expressed concern that it would be really crowded.) Maybe people were staying away because it was a slightly-overcast, extremely humid day? I don't know.

The atmosphere was fantastic. Everything I hoped it would be: the yellow signs, the shaded tables, the American flags. A classic piece of Americana: a boardwalk hot dog stand. Hell, The boardwalk hot dog stand.

A large number of employees were standing around at the counter. A couple of the registers had lines but most were vacant. We chose one of those empty lines and I ordered a bacon-cheese hot dog and corn dog. (Elizabeth ordered some cheese fries and I knew I would be sharing them with her.)

The fries were delicious. I am not sure if this was before the recent "controversy" about Nathan's changing their fries, and to be honest I don't care. If these were the old fries, great. If they're the new fries, then I can only wonder how good the old fries were. The cheese sauce was exactly what it looks like: the runny, slightly-fake-tasting stuff you get at ball games and carnivals. Which isn't all that bad. And it seemed appropriate here.

"What do you think?" Rick asked me after I'd taken a few bites, and I didn't have the heart to tell him what I thought.

The hot dogs were awful. Just awful.

Now, the bacon topping my bacon-cheese dog was really good - crispy bacon pieces, and after I finished my two dogs I went back and got a chili cheese dog, and I enjoyed the chili. But the wieners were as bad as any I can remember having. I don't know if you've ever overcooked a wiener in the microwave, but that's what these tasted like: skin that was shriveled and a burnt flavor, the salt pulled into the center and each bite more reminiscent of jerky than anything else. The corn dog was the worst I have ever had: flaccid batter that crumbled with each bite. By the last two bites it was just a wiener on a stick; the soggy batter had all fallen off.

Maybe they had cooked a lot of hot dogs anticipating a crowd that never arrived and these wieners had been sitting around for a long time? All of the Nathan's hot dogs I have grilled myself have been pretty good.

Or maybe Rick's love of Nathan's is influenced far more by his aggregate of memories of the place than the quality of the food. Back in Pasadena I knew a lot of people who loved Pink's and Dodger Dogs, and I've never thought either of those were anything better than mediocre.

Or maybe it was one of those fluke things and I caught them at a really bad moment. I cannot believe the hot dogs always taste like this. No matter how much people love the atmosphere, it would shock me if a place as beloved as Nathan's consistently turned out this quality of food, especially considering each relatively small hot dog costs about four bucks.

Still, I can't say I didn't enjoy myself at Nathan's, and I can't even say I wouldn't go back. It was fun, the people were friendly, and those fries were really good. Normally when I have food this bad, there is very little chance I will ever return, but I would like to give Nathan's another chance. I don't believe I have ever so wanted my first impression of a restaurant to be changed.


Bekah said...

I am seriously disappointed. It's on my list for the next time I hit NYC. Shoot. Although my sister (who lives in Queens) has always told me that the hotdogs were highly overrated.

I'm also surprised that they have such menu variety. That's not what I picture in my minds eye.

Anonymous said...

I've found that with so many "legendary" eating places. Most are disappointments.

Michelle said...

Have you found a place in NYC you like as much as Dog Haus?

JustinM said...

Bekah: I would actually still recommend going there. It was really cool. And hopefully you'll get better hot dogs than I. But don't get your hopes up.

Anon: I didn't much care for Pizzeria Uno in Chicago or Corky's BBQ in Memphis either, but a lot of other famous places I loved: Arthur Bryant's, Katz's, Pat's King of Steaks, Bobcat Bite, and probably a lot of others I'm forgetting.

Michelle: As much as Dog Haus? No. But I've been to a couple of hot dog places here that I love and have yet to write about.

Anonymous said...

expectations determine a large amount of happiness.

this is something i had always wondered about you, pp. say someone you know takes you to their favorite restaurant and you don't dig it- does it get awkward? do you fear the blowback if you bash the place on your blog?

JustinM said...

Interesting question.

I'll start with the last question first: I do not fear any blowback about my food or restaurant opinions from anyone, let alone someone I like well enough to dine with. No two people have the same opinions about everything, ergo two people will always find something on which to disagree. There is almost no characteristic I dislike more than someone who is threatened by another person's opinion and reacts defensively. You like tomatoes? Avocado? Burger King? The Red Sox? Keeping Up With The Kardashians? Great. I do not. You like a restaurant I do not? Great. Your opinion does not upset me, please extend me the same courtesy.

As to whether it gets awkward if someone takes me to a restaurant and I don't like it? (Assuming that they're not one of my family or best friends, where I have no problem telling them I don't like it.) I don't think awkward is the word. Like the old advice: if you can't say something nice, etc. And there are very few restaurants about which I have not been able to find a single nice thing to say. So, for example, at Nathan's I just said "These fries are really good" and "the chili on this dog is nice."

The only time I can ever remember this being an issue was at a wedding where the food was terrible. When the groom asked me, I lied. If he were to ask me again today I would tell the truth, but I saw no reason to say that on his wedding day.

Amy W said...

Have you been yet to Papaya king?????

JustinM said...

Yes, in the summer of 2006 I spent 9 days on the UES and I went there. I loved it. But that was before the blog. Would you like me to go back?

Bekah said...

Papaya King is on my to-do list too!