The Jersey Shore is a seaside of many faces. Citizens of the late-19th and early-20th centuries knew it as the resort area where seven different presidents spent their summers. In recent decades, a couple of local bards began to sing epics of Jersey girls and boardwalk soothsayers. Presently, the spotlight has shifted to a group of televised young inhabitants with curious accessories and dating rituals. What has endured through these cultural shifts? Hot dogs, of course.
One of the oldest and more memorable establishments along the 127-mile stretch of coast that makes up the Jersey Shore is Max’s Famous Hot Dogs, in Long Branch. Through 80 years of service, a change in ownership, and three different locations, Max’s has spun a tale of local pride to accompany their food: the walls are adorned with signed headshots from New Jersey’s illuminati (cast members from “The Sopranos,” state politicians, local bishops, the aforementioned bards, Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi).
When I was a kid growing up in Little Silver, eating at Max’s was an occasion, which meant cheese fries and a root beer float would arrive with a slow-griddled footlong beef-and-pork frank. Throughout the place stood pump-topped jugs of Heinz ketchup and Gulden’s mustard paired with disarmingly large jars of pickle relish. I would dress the length of the frank in both ketchup and mustard and savor my treat patiently. Those early trips to Max’s with my family weren’t without the significant revelation that charring a hot dog brought its flavor and texture to a better place. The hot dog was a singular pleasure that I’ve somewhat abandoned as an adult. Nowadays, I tend to explore the offerings on Max’s menu that were less appealing to me as a youngster: zucchini sticks, fried mushrooms, and clam strips that rival what’s available at local stands that specialize in such things.
Though my recent guest checks from Max’s show a shift in preference over the years, one tradition has been steadfast. Beside the register sits a stainless steel bowl of watermelon Jolly Ranchers, a thank-you offering and a taunt to those with full stomachs. It’s never occurred to me to not line my pockets with these tooth-aching sweets, which keep my mouth and mind filled with fragments of Max’s far, far down the road. —Matthew Chamberlain, SAVEUR