Tucked down a side street in downtown Hard Hittin’ (New Britain), Riley’s Hot Dog and Burger Gourmet is turning out some of the most creative dogs and burgers around. From the Nacho Poppa Dog to wild creations brimming with mac ‘n cheese, you’ll find combinations you never dreamed of. But this little “mom and pop” shop isn’t run by a husband and wife team. Rick Charamut and Deb Dalena are two friends, now business partners, who once worked together in a sign shop. “We both kind of needed a change of pace,” Rick says.
The Nacho Poppa Dog dresses up the Jalapeno Popper Dog to make it taste just like nachos—with raw onions, more bacon, Fritos and cheddar cheese, popped under the broiler to get it all melty, then a generous drizzle of cool sour cream and a sprinkling of scallions. Hot diggity!
“We had no restaurant experience whatsoever. Ever. Ever!” Deb admits with a laugh. “We’re freaks of nature. One of my sons says, Somehow they got their stuff together and opened a restaurant that works.” Well, he’s right—they did, and it absolutely does!
It started as a hot dog cart while Deb and Rick were still working at their previous job. Rick’s brother Tommy ran the cart during the day for a couple of hours throughout the week. That endeavor lasted one whole season until the Snowtober nor’easter hit back in 2011. “It wiped out all the inventory we had,” Rick explains. As luck would have it, the current location was becoming available. Previously a family print shop—and a Hudson dealership long before that—pieces of the dealership’s garage door now form a whimsical chalk board and picture frames to retain a bit of the building’s history.
Roughly two years later, with help from friends and family, this casual, hip spot came to life. “It’s comfortable,” Rick says. We expected the clientele would be very diverse—from blue-collar workers out in their work clothes to attorneys to doctors. But, no matter how you’re dressed, you can really walk in here and feel comfortable. And I think that’s kind of important, you know?” And now that the weather’s warmer, you can enjoy your meal outside on the patio.
As to their overall concept and name, Rick says, “That’s where ‘Gourmet’ came from. Your favorite American foods growing up, your picnic foods, and stuff you have good memories of—and just taking them to that next level.” Deb quickly interjects, “All-American—and French fries! We cut those potatoes every day and fry in peanut oil and only peanut oil. We had to find just the right potato—it’s a lot of trial and error.” And the payoff? Fries that remind me of the ones made in my family’s restaurant back in the day for a fond stroll down Memory Lane.
So what makes their food different? Let’s work from the outside in. “The bun has to be good—it’s like the crowning glory! We spent I don’t even know how long trying to find the perfect bun for everything,” Deb says. “This is, I think, the third bakery now. Same style and similar recipe. They’re delivered fresh every day—never old—always a fresh roll. You don’t want the ingredients to soak through.”
This becomes important when you see one of Riley’s loaded dogs or burgers. Of the hot dog buns, Deb explains, “It’s a little chewy and fluffy and soft. You get our Dirty Mac Dog or our Jalapeno Popper Dog, it would just rip apart a New England style roll.” And this is so true. The hot dog buns come from a bakery in Wallingford; Harvest Bakery in Bristol bakes their Italian-style hamburger buns. And they are among my favorite buns around. Or should I say I think they’re top dog?
Now let’s get to what’s inside—Martin Rosol’s hot dogs and one-third lb. burgers, char-grilled to bring that outdoor picnic flavor straight to your plate. Deb says, “I think a lot of people order their burgers rare because they want them juicy. But we’ve tried to make our burgers so even if they’re cooked well, they’re still gonna be juicy. I can’t tell you how many people come in here and they want them well-done—they say hockey puck! We actually have a prompt on our register that says hockey puck. And they say, we can’t believe it—the burger was still juicy! We press them ourselves here. We have a little bit of a spice we put in—not a lot—just to give it a little bit of our own signature flavor,” Deb explains.
As far as what’s popular, Rick says, “Anything with mac and cheese—either a hot dog or burger—that’s definitely something we go through massive, massive amounts.” Then, there’s my own personal favorite, the jalapeno popper burger. While it’s easy enough to make a good, basic burger at home, to get a nicely grilled one with all the goodies—that is so worth a special trip. I love their jalapeno popper topping. You’ll find it generously oozing from your popper burger (or dog). With cheese. And bacon. Because why not?
But if a traditional beef burger isn’t your thing, you have options—from turkey to salmon, made in-house from filet of salmon. They make their own quinoa veggie burger as well. “It’s so labor intensive and it’s just chock-loaded with vegetables,” Deb explains. “People love it. It’s vegetarian, not vegan—it does have eggs in it to hold it together; otherwise, it would fall apart. A lot of people will swap the quinoa patty for the beef for in our Buffalo bleu burger. It tastes like you’re eating a Buffalo chicken sandwich.” Rick adds, “You can dress it up anyway you want. It’s just delicious—it’s flavorful, it’s got lots of garlic and onions, but cooked, so it’s not strong.” Having tried it on a recent visit, I wholeheartedly agree. With a slight peppery bite from the arugula, among other veggies within, topped with their red pepper relish, it’s fun to try for something different.
Another favorite is the club stacker. “It’s like a BLT and a cheeseburger in one. You can really taste our burger. There’s stuff on it, but there’s not a lot of stuff. On toasted wheat. It’s just wonderfully delicious.”
Even the beverages have a local focus. “We do have Bud or Yuengling. But everything else is small batch, a lot of them are local craft beers from Connecticut.” And the soda is Avery’s Soda, hometown proud from New Britain. “It’s fun to see especially older people come in and say, Avery’s! I haven’t Avery’s since I was a kid! I don’t know if I should have the birch beer, the cream or the root! They’re almost like kids again. They’re getting a hot dog and an Avery’s. What’s really more American than that? It’s just nice to see it,” Deb says.
“We cook everything from scratch--even our sauces. Capitol Lunch, here in town, it’s historical—it’s like the kingpin of hot dogs. I said, we cannot open until we have a bangin’ meat sauce. We finally got it. People will walk in, especially older men, and say, What do you have—Capitol Lunch hot dog sauce or The Strand hot dog sauce? No, we have Riley’s hot dog sauce,” Deb says with a grin.
And then—the sides. I’m crazy about their cole slaw with a kick of jalapeno heat. As Deb describes, “It’s got a little mayonnaise, but it’s more of a vinegary-spicy. We have an issue with spicy. We love spicy!”
Beyond their old-fashioned excellent fries, the salty balls—that’s salt-brined baby potatoes—are plenty tasty in their own right. Trick ‘em out with all the treats to take them straight over the top or enjoy them in their salty simplicity with melted butter or chives and sour cream.
Though they work hard and put in lots of hours, Rick and Deb genuinely love doing what they do and it shows. Deb recalls a recent day when new customers came in and tried the popper burgers. “They said, Ohmygod, this was the best burger, we loved it so much. Thank you! I forget what was going on that day, but we were having a rough time. And it was like, thank you, it was the best thing. That’s why we do it. It’s nice to see people come in and enjoy everything—it makes us feel good.”
Riley’s Hot Dog and Burger Gourmet is located at 61 Glen Street in New Britain, CT.
Closed Sunday and Monday.