Weiners I Have Known
The first time I tried a New York System Hot Weiner was six years ago at Rod’s in Warren (6 Washington Street). My boyfriend and I were visiting his parents in Rhode Island, and I was really trying to impress them. So despite having been a vegetarian for five years (tofu pups? Loved them), I enthusiastically wolfed one down, hoping they’d think I was normal, you know, just one of those East Coast, eats meat kind of girls. Not some odd tofu-eating long-hair from Colorado (which I actually sort of was).
Despite my seitan-inclined stomach and the grotesque nickname (I mean is it called a gagger because it’s the perfect size to gag yourself with, and this is supposed to make you want to eat the thing?), I actually liked it, pleasantly surprised that a skinny piece of incandescent orange meat, covered in finely diced onions, beef sauce and celery salt could taste so good, so deliciously…well…meaty. And celery and onions — these are vegetables after all, noted my boyfriend’s mother (thin, beautiful and classy despite her apparent penchant for fast food). His father nodded approvingly and said things like, “I knew you’d like it. Heh heh heh.” I saw a certain gleam in their eyes — I knew what they were thinking, that I may just be the right girl for their son.
Turns out I am. Flash forward a few years. I am no longer a herbivore. I have lived in China with the boyfriend, who is now my husband, and have eaten some truly gag-worthy stuff. Things unidentifiable. Things like organs and eyeballs. And I have gained a deep appreciation for all things meaty and strange. And now that I’ve lived in Rhode Island for awhile, I’ve found that it’s not just this fluorescent food that I’ve become enamored with, it’s the whole gagga experience: the counter service, the characters, the bantering between customers and cooks, the little bits of local cultcha gleaned from this ultracheap bite to eat. With all this in mind, and feeling well enough acquainted with the dish’s culinary subtleties to expertly evaluate their weenerness, I set out to find the best New York System joint in Rhode Island. I could imagine no better way to learn more about my new home.
And so after thirty-three-and-a-half dogs, 124.1 miles and a number of added inches to the waist that shall remain confidential, I present the first (and quite possibly the last) Best of Rhode Island’s New York System. But before you read further, a quick disclaimer — I do realize I’ve probably left out several good spots (so no hate mail please), but you must understand: I love these teeny-weenie treats, but my gut could only take so much.
Best Meat Sauce
1009 Oaklawn Avenue, Cranston
A pervasive taste of nutmeg, with just a hint of cinnamon, characterizes the complex flavor of this delicate meat sauce. With its sweet bouquet and earthy finish…okay, I’m just kidding about the bouquet and finish, but seriously this sauce really stood out. And it really did have hints of nutmeg and cinnamon. This was also the most crowded weiner place I visited, a sign I think that Rhode Island weiner-eaters are actually quite discerning.
Best Excuse to See Arctic
1246 Main Street, Arctic, West Warwick
While driving and getting completely lost on the way to and from Ferrucci’s, I began to wonder if the section of West Warwick I was searching for in vain had earned its name because of its hard-to-reach locale. I felt a bit like Robert Peary, but instead of searching for a northwest passage and losing eight toes to frostbite, I was hunting for dinner and, in the end, suffered only from a bit of indigestion. But what I really gained from my drive here (and to all other weiner destinations) is a better sense of place. These cities are places I saw on a map but never really saw until I went looking for a good bite to eat.
Best Counter Service
Olneyville New York System
20 Plainfield Street, Providence
This is a tough one. A close second is Wein-o-rama, where an extremely brusque serving manner is complemented by a picture on the wall of a smoking gun with the words “We don’t call 9-1-1” (next to a decidedly more upbeat sign that cheerfully counts down the days until the owners get to go on vacation). But Olneyville beat out the others, mainly because the counter guys here are friendly without being cloying, dishing out jabs and compliments with equal aplomb. One counter jockey admiringly likened my dining companion to Lois Lane. Another nearly laughed me out of the restaurant when I fell for the sign that advertised free beer from 1-5 p.m. and asked eagerly (it was nearly 1 p.m., and I was thirsty), “Do you really serve free beer here?”
Best Destination Dog
Saughkonnet Coney Island Hot Dogs
527 Main Road, Tiverton
The forty-five-mile round trip from Providence will cost you at least three weenies worth of gas, but the gagger guzzling here is worth the occasional other kind. And I know there are purists out there who may dispute the inclusion of “Coney Island” dogs in the New York System, but why waste time quibbling when you could be eating? Not only are their dogs worth a mention, so is an item on the menu that makes the perfect weiner side — not clam cakes, but chorizo cakes. Brilliant.
Best Dirty Jokes
Original New York Systems
424 Smith Street, Providence
Most of the jokes told behind the counter here are much too racy for the pages of this respectable magazine (surprising since this is the oldest — and so one might assume the most refined — New York System purveyor). Let’s just say that on the day I visited, the humor revolved around the Pope, Michael Jackson and the weiner-preparer’s wife. I’ll let your imagination conjure up the punchlines. Still, all the foul wit was sweetened by the weiner-preparer’s pronouncement that I look much younger than I am. Thanks weiner guy — may I have another?
Best Idea for an Omelet
716 Reservoir Avenue, Cranston
The McGinest and Seymour omelet: eggs, chopped-up weeners, meat sauce, onions and celery salt. Enough said.
80 Higginson Avenue, Lincoln
When I asked my server why this place is called Weiner Genie, he replied, “Because when my dad bought it, that’s what he named it.” When pressed, he found his dad, Chris, who gave me a similarly cryptic answer. “A lot of places that serve weiners, people think they’re dirty, you know?” he said. “You see this place, though, it’s really clean, right?” “Yes,” I answered, because truthfully this is a very tidy and clean establishment. “Well that’s why I named it Weiner Genie,” he concluded proudly. And so the name’s origins remain fittingly mysterious.
Best First Bite
2168 Elmwood Avenue, Warwick
Our intern is from Massachusetts and will be a senior at Providence College this fall, but had yet to try a New York System dog. She doesn’t eat red meat, looked skeptical when I tried to convince her that pork is the other white meat, and remained so when I told her that weiner is actually more of a burnt sienna anyway. Despite her protestations, I dragged her along on a research outing to Harry’s. I wish I could tell you I created a convert. But alas — she took one small bite, followed by a large swig of water and left the rest untouched. We still have two more months to change her mind, though. Maybe we should send her to China…(FYI: Harry’s weenies actually are quite nice — if you like weenies.)
So I’ve listed my personal bests, but what did I learn in my quest for perfection? I think one of my most profound realizations — so those not including pounds gained, antacids eaten, bad jokes learned — is that gaggers bring unlikely people together. Rhode Island is a state of contrasts. We’ve got mansions and pre-fabs; country clubs and supper clubs; Audi wagons and souped-up Toyotas; daughters of the revolution and immigrants escaping revolution. I like to think of the New York System as the great equalizer, unifying these worlds that exist side by each (as they say in Woonsocket) but rarely meet.
Go into Wein-o-Rama on any afternoon, and you’ll see two gray-haired Greek couples at one table, three burly young construction workers at another and a WASPy-looking guy in a business suit at the counter next to a Portuguese woman and her toddler. Look around. They’re all eating hot weiners. These places make no distinction between a Rolex and a Timex; everyone at Harry’s gets five for the price of four; everyone at Olneyville is greeted with the same gruff question: What do yous want?
But wait, you’re probably still wondering: all this talk of hot weiners and unity is very nice and everything, but where can I find the BEST one in Rhode Island. Well, this is another thing I learned. It’s not so much about the weiner (because let’s face it, one does not, in fact, vary wildly from the next) as it is about the place, and that perfect place is different for everyone. So though Saughkonnet beckons to me from Tiverton and New York Systems is just up the street, I choose Rod’s. Their weenies are wicked good, but I like it for a different reason: Rod’s reminds me of falling in love with my husband and convincing my future in-laws to fall in love with me. So go, find your best weenie. All you need, after all, is $1.50, an intrepid palate and a roll of Tums.