Cheap Eats: Jack’s Hot Dog Stand

Ahhh, Spring Street. As the center of commerce for our small campus, Spring Street doesn’t really offer many options in the way of good, cheap chow. On the one hand, we’ve got the stores that cater to adults, specifically those who descend upon the town over the summer to enjoy the Theater Festival. The food’s respectable at these establishments, but the prices are a bit steep. And when I say “a bit steep,” I mean it would be more cost effective to send away for a mail order bride and convince her to make your lunch sandwiches.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Subway. Subway’s prices are just what a college student is looking for, but unfortunately, that’s not the only thing a college student ends up looking for at Subway. There’s a reason it’s called a “ham sandwich.” If I wanted a “chopped lettuce sandwich,” I would have asked.

Complaining without a better option in mind doesn’t do much good. With that, I encourage you to take a short field trip out of our overpriced “cultural mecca” and head down Route 2 into North Adams to Jack’s Hot Dog Stand. Here, for less than five dollars, you will fill your belly up with the good stuff: dogs, burgers and fries – all of which are customizable with chili, cheese, peppers and onions, bacon or sauerkraut, and all of which will be grilled to order by Jeff Levanos, the proprietor.

The formula at Jack’s is beautiful in its simplicity: take a piece of meat, throw it on the griddle and start sizzling. The burgers are fairly equivalent in size to those you can get down the block at McDonald’s, but the quality is superior – while the average fast food burger looks like a cross between dog food and a cow patty, the meat at Jack’s is the same kind of stuff you’d use on your own grill. Portions are not large, but neither are the prices: eighty cents for a plain hot dog or burger, with toppings that cost between ten and fifteen cents apiece.

Jack’s low prices allowed me to try almost everything on the menu in one sitting. My order consisted of a burger and a double burger, a chili cheese dog, both the hot and sweet sausage sandwiches, the hot ham and cheese sandwich with a side of onion rings. I topped all of the sandwiches off with fried peppers and onions, which added variety in texture and a nice flavor. They went especially well with the sausage sandwiches, which weren’t as juicy as the burgers and therefore benefited from the additional moisture of the peppers and onions. Of the two sausages, I preferred the hot variety, mainly because their taste was more consistent with the flavors of the rest of my meal.

The sweeter iteration reminded me of a breakfast sausage, and since I was there for dinner, it didn’t jive quite so well with the rest of the flavors in my mouth, nor with my expectations. Ultimately, your choice of sausage sandwiches will come down to personal preference. While slightly more expensive than the burgers, you should strongly consider spicing up your order with one of these sandwiches, which run a close second to my favorite items: the burgers.

As far as burgers go, the extra ten cents for the double burger is definitely a leap you will want to take. The price inches up by twelve and a half percent, but is worth it for the increase in burger size. Most patrons will want to fill up on meat, not bread, and therefore should pony up for the deuce. After watching, hearing and smelling the food cook in front of me after ordering, the burgers arrived to fulfill my expectations: hot and juicy, with lots of toppings with flavor to savor. It would be consummately wrong to visit Jack’s without sampling this most simple delicacy.

The chili cheese dog was all right, though with equal parts good and bad elements. The frankfurter itself was some sort of unclassified mixture of white meats that did not appear to be of the highest quality. I suppose that the adage “you get what you pay for” applies here, so I won’t complain because the price is right. But while I think the burgers give you more than your money’s worth, the hot dog simply gives you what you bargained for – no more and no less. Hence also the famous name. The cheese is the same type that would be found on a cheeseburger: a slice of white American wrapped around the dog itself. The best part of the chili cheese dog experience at Jack’s is definitely the chili itself, which is meaty and really carries the ensemble as a whole.

As for the rest of the food, everything was satisfying and showed up quickly and with a smile. The onion rings had an especially thick, crispy breading and came in a hearty portion size, as did the chili cheese fries, which I mooched off of my buddy’s plate. I also took a bite of his pepper steak sandwich, which seemed to me to be a more expensive version of a standard burger with peppers and onions. We were informed that the pepper steak came from a leaner cut of meat, but the actual difference seemed minimal. Save your money and just get the hamburger.

The only item I would not recommend to the discerning palate is the ham and cheese. The ham was fine if a little chewy. The cheese was the usual white American, and it was served on a hamburger bun. The combination did not work for me; perhaps it was the American cheese – not my favorite cheese with ham – or perhaps it was the hamburger bun the sandwich was served on. Additionally, the sandwich is more expensive than the burgers and dogs, for what I think is an inferior offering. My advice: stick to the basics.

After washing it all down with a cold soda, I paid the tab – ten dollars and change for seven different items plus a drink – and waddled out of the establishment as Jeff Levanos and company closed up shop for the night. I had a renewed appreciation for Williams College’s own Justin “Big Daddy” Classen ’03. “Big Daddy” has the all-time record at Jack’s, having eaten more than $25 worth of food. As much as I enjoyed my meal, I could not imagine eating anywhere close to that quantity of hamburgers.

Jack’s Hot Dog Stand is a great place to forget about the food pyramid and all other tenets of healthy eating, and has been since it was founded by Jeff’s grandfather decades ago. Unless you are a finicky eater or a calorie counter, you will appreciate Jack’s for what it is: an unassuming place to chow down on some tasty grub for a minimal cost. While it is not a paragon of culinary excellence, Jack’s knows what it wants to do and does it well, and that is good for four out of five stars in my book.