Update (Aug 2013)
Charlie’s Pool Room can no longer serve food until they upgrade the kitchen to meet code requirements. A fundraising effort is underway to help the Fencz brothers make the necessary upgrades.
Before the internet, you wouldn’t have heard about Charlie’s Pool Room unless you lived very close by in New Jersey’s Northwest corner. Before GPS, you couldn’t have found the place, an old white house on a residential street, without getting lost in and around Phillipsburg. The Pool Room has served hot dogs, only hot dogs, for eighty-seven years. Thanks to food writers like Holly Moore (HollyEats.com) and Pete Genovese (The Star-Ledger), these hot dogs and the brothers who serve them are well known. Eating a hot dog here is one of the “20 Jersey Food Experiences You Must Try Before You Die,” according to the Star-Ledger’s Pete Genovese. Thanks to GPS, the spot is easy to find. You too can experience Charlie’s Pool Room.
Experience is the right word. Eating a hot dog here, while sitting at the communal round table next to the pool table, is thirty percent food, seventy percent atmosphere, and 100% hospitality. Walk through the front door into an old style corner store with a candy counter, an arcade Ms. Pac-Man game and a Pepsi machine. Joe Fencz at the counter asks your name and writes down your order. His brother John, stationed in the kitchen behind the pool room, cooks each hot dog to order – a pan fried Kunzler’s beef and pork dog with a steamed bun. The specialty is a “Mealie” with Grandma Fencz’s Secret Hungarian red onion sauce, chopped onions and exactly four hot cherry pepper slices.
I stopped in with my son on a Friday afternoon on our way back home from a Lehigh Valley summer camp. We were greeted as if we lived just down the block. (I attribute this level of friendliness to Warren County having more of a rural Pennsylvania than urban Jersey sensibility.) After ordering two Mealies, a plain dog for my son, two cans of soda and some chips, Joe invited us to have a seat in the pool room while we waited for the hot dogs. Behind the wood partition in a narrow room with an original metal ceiling, the single pool table sits alone, covered with newspaper clippings extolling the Pool Room. The wood panelling is covered with pieces of paper inscribed with Christian exhortations and hot dog tidbits – Mark “Mongo” Ankudovich is the reigning Charlie’s Pool Room Hot Dog King after putting away 20 dogs with sauce in one hour 27 minutes on January 30, 2010. We grabbed two rec room chairs and sat at the large table where a tattooed and pierced twenty-something couple was finishing their dogs. I asked what made Charlie’s dogs special. The boyfriend replied without losing a beat, “The time it takes to make them.”
Joe arrived with our hot dogs on paper plates, each served with a single pickle spear, and advice for eating the Mealie. “Eat it straight on,” he advised. I followed Joe’s instructions. The Mealie is a flavorful dog, the hot peppers and onion sauce the perfect complement to the fried (but not crispy like Rutt’s Hut) hot dog. I’m partial to toasted buns, but I’m not about to nitpick what’s worked at the Pool Room since 1925. Charlie’s Pool Room is worth a visit for the dog itself. It becomes an EthnicNJ favorite spot for hot dogs factoring in Joe, John and their one of a kind spot.
Joe will sit with you and talk about the history of his family’s Pool Room, and may ask you to sign the log book listing those who have travelled from all over to experience this place. After learning I grew up in Somerville, Joe reminisced about when Phillipsburg High used to play Somerville annually on its regular football schedule, and traveling Route 22 East for the game. According to Joe, he and John would have had to close the Pool Room seven years ago if it weren’t for the first blog post about it on HollyEats, which led to hot dog lovers seeking it out. If you’re ever in the area, you should too.