Chili is the lone star at the Hot Dog Ranch

Lawrence Peter once said, “The noblest of all dogs is the hot-dog; it feeds the hand that bites it,” and as the days get shorter and that chimney smoke smell begins to linger in the frosty air, you know it’s time to give up those summer salads and hunker down for some more substantial, warming fare. Hearty stews and steamy bowls of soup are the staple of the season, but the idea of a hot dog is not unwelcome after a late afternoon snowball fight. We tend to place hot dogs in the sweltering backyard barbeque-type category (July is National Hot Dog Month) but there’s something extremely satisfying about gulping down a hot, messy frank when the weather’s cold outside.

Luckily for the Williams student, the Berkshire area boasts a long-standing hot dog culture, beginning in 1917 with the opening of the famous Jack’s Hot Dog Stand in North Adams. The hot dog tradition of the Berkshires features “shorties,” which are mini hot dogs that measure only about four inches long. The dogs are somewhat larger than pigs-in-a-blanket, which are really too small and under-equipped to give the full hot dog experience. Shorties still manage to look cute, but when topped with the works, they become deceptively hefty. Other notable hot dog hotspots include Teo’s Hot Dogs and The Hot Dog Ranch, two rival establishments located in Pittsfield. The mini dogs from these restaurants are rumored to come from the same hot dog supplier in Pittsfield, which makes sense considering that probably not very many meat manufacturers produce special mini franks.

Against these popular favorites, The Hot Dog Ranch in North Adams, which shares its name but no other identifiable connections to its larger Pittsfield cousin, is often overlooked. However, the restaurant’s prime location, right on the way to Wal-Mart, makes it the most accessible of the four hot dog houses.

The Ranch’s décor seems vaguely western, with wooden floors, TVs in every corner and a partially enclosed bar area in the center of the restaurant. During the daytime, the sunlight falls through the wide windows in the front of the restaurant, falling on the ketchup squirters just right. The menu gives you the choice to decorate your baby hot dog with “our everything”: mustard, sauce and onions, while the additional toppings of sauerkraut, relish and cheese are $1 extra. Go for as many toppings as your taste permits – the actual hot dogs at the Ranch leave something to be desired. While there is nothing wrong with the franks nestled in their little buns, they lack that smoky bite you get from the grill, or better yet, an open fire. The blandness of the meat, however, is compensated for by its surroundings. The buns are soft, the onions sweet and the sauce is made of ground beef with a surprising hint of cloves.

The Hot Dog Ranch should really change its name to The Chili Ranch. Whatever oomph the hot dogs lack can be found in the homemade chili, which is a steal at $2.95 a bowl. With chunks of tomato, kidney beans and clumps of ground beef that were deliciously moist (this is coming from someone who is usually scared of any form of ground meat found outside a bun), the chili was practically perfect.

The clam chowder is homemade as well, and is a nicely creamy substitute for those who aren’t fans of chili. Apart from hot dogs, there are mini kielbasa dogs, a sweet sausage sandwich with roasted peppers and onions, as well as the standard cheeseburgers and grilled chicken sandwiches. The menu also features a section “From our Fryer,” including, among the tater tots and onion rings, notables such as sweet potato fries and something called Macaroni and Cheese Nuggets. You bite into these fried round nuggets, which reveal hot gooey insides of bright orange cheese. There is not much Mac in this invention, but the combination of two greats: melted cheese encased in a fried coating, is initially awe-inspiring. Admittedly, you can only eat two or three nuggets before your stomach rationally tells you to stop, although they prove rather addicting.

The Hot Dog Ranch provides speedy service, and the turnover time for seats is quick, as hot dogs are not the type of food one lingers over. The food is served with no frills, in paper-lined baskets with plastic utensils – anything fancier would be completely wrong. The Ranch provides that perfect “road food” feel, where you can congratulate yourself for having found the local watering hole on your way to Wal-Mart, and where the chili, if not the hot dogs, is done just right.