The late Leonard “Artie” Castrianni was a young WWII veteran when he purchased Callahan’s Auto & Gas in 1950. The location sat on Palisades Avenue in Fort Lee, not far from the popular, now-defunct Palisades Amusement Park. At the time, Callahan’s had a short menu; some burgers and snacks, plus one gas pump out front.
By his second year in business, Artie removed the gas pump and transformed Callahan’s into his own hot dog restaurant. He specialized in deep-fried dogs, and the place soon became a household name in both Bergen and Hudson counties.
I was still in grammar school when my dad and uncle brought me to the original Callahan’s restaurant. After just my first bite into a hot dog, I turned to my dad and said, “When I get my license, this is the first place I’m driving to.”
Sadly, in 2006, Callahan’s closed its doors, shy of me receiving my license. Artie passed away in 2000, after leaving the operational aspect of the business in the 1970s. In fact, the Callahan’s name wouldn’t light up in Bergen County again for about a decade.
But in 2014, Artie’s grandson and biggest fan, Dan DeMiglio, brought back Callahan’s in the form of a truck. Serving the same excellent quality hot dogs and fries as the original eatery, plus a few new treats, proved successful. One year later, DeMiglio settled down in Norwood, part of the same county his grandpa did 65 years earlier.
With Executive Chef Daniel Fabian in the kitchen, Callahan’s serves hot dogs, burgers, fries, desserts and more alongside old classics. In addition, DeMiglio operates four aspects of the business in his storefront, two food trucks and a van.
All it takes is one bite to know exactly why Callahan’s has attracted the attention of major outlets; including the Travel Channel, BuzzFeed, Cooking Channel, Thrillest, Insider and many more.
“It’s Callahan’s, man,” DeMiglio tells Best of NJ. “We just want you to have a good time and feed you good food and have an experience. That’s it.”
Want the full story about what makes Callahan’s great? Then check out our full interview with Dan DeMiglio below.
Best of NJ: There are a lot of different memories of Callahan’s—from 1950 all the way up to the 2000s. Do you find that to be a big part of your business?
Dan DeMiglio: Definitely. People have memories of their parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles who used to take them to Callahan’s; and those may be some of their most cherished memories. Now, they have new memories made from these crazy burgers and the shows people are seeing. So everything about Callahan’s is like bricks of memories built on the legacy and foundation of what Callahan’s was before me.
BONJ: What made you start with the truck, instead of reopening just a store?
Dan: The first six months of me bringing the business back in the truck was for two purposes: The first purpose was to see if the business was alive. The second purpose was to see where the people went and where they kind of migrated to; because a lot could change in eight years. So I went all around the farmers markets. It was like my marketing strategy, trying to find the best place for Callahan’s. So I brought it down [to Norwood], and it was the best thing I did, because now all the families have shifted this way. People always ask me why I opened the store here, and it was because the truck told me where [laughs].
BONJ: How did you get an executive chef for Callahan’s?
Dan: I had an executive chef, Daniel Fabian, who was with me when I had a fine-dining restaurant for a few years before I brought Callahan’s back. After the business closed, I asked Chef to come with me on a food truck; I told him I was going to bring Callahan’s back in the truck. I told him, “I want you to change everything, but don’t touch the hot dog. It’s off limits.”
So Danny started with me five years ago when I was in the trucks, as well as Danny’s girlfriend who manages the trucks. She’s been with me from the beginning, also. So it’s pretty amazing to have the core group still together, and seeing it evolve is incredible.
Having an executive chef doing things similarly to my grandpa—how he did a majority of stuff from scratch—is a huge advantage to being successful, because your food not only has to look good in pictures, it has to taste good, too.
BONJ: Your grandpa was obviously very influential, not just inside this business but also outside of it. What qualities did he instill in you growing up?
Dan: He’s someone who I always looked up to, who was a role model and a best friend. He was a typical loving grandpa who would do anything for his grandkids. One of the qualities that I think I’ve taken from my grandpa is his work ethic; because I’ve been able to take his dream to a whole other level. I wanted to make his dream into mine and create my own dream through it.
He taught me that if you work very hard, eventually things will happen for you. Persistence is something I learned through him—to go out and work hard and do what you love. It shouldn’t be about money. It’s persistence—persistence and passion. Those are the two things that I really saw in him and from his experience and his stories.
BONJ: You’ve been winning a lot of awards for your truck and food. What was one of the most recent ones—specifically the award you’ve won for the fifth year in a row?
Dan: Ah, (201) Magazine, The Best of Bergen. They do voting every year. Around 200,000 people vote. So we won Best Food Truck for the fifth straight year; and we won Best Hot Dog for the second straight year. And last year we won Best Burger, which was the Cap’n Crunch Burger. It was crazy, because it was Best Burger, Best Food Truck, and Best Hot Dog all in the same year; and we’re like, “Yeah, everyone hates us now” [laughs].
BONJ: What makes Callahan’s different from most other places?
Dan: Callahan’s is like fine dining into fast food. It’s like a fine-fast-food-type mix—like a fast-fun-casual business. So that’s what sort of makes Callahan’s completely different from any other type of genre of American food; because you have an executive chef and people underneath him learning his recipes and techniques, and it’s top notch. That stuff also goes into indoor catering and weddings and other special events that you wouldn’t get from other places. The business is really providing an “experience.”
BONJ: Do you have any new creations that will be featured on the truck in 2019?
Dan: So the food truck is a bit different from the store. With the truck, of course, the hot dogs and fries are the staples. But it’s what you put on those hot dogs and fries that makes them so different and creative.
We do a lot of secret menu items for them in the store. We’ve never done those secret menu fry items on the trucks, because it’s just so labor intensive; but we’re going to start doing it at Laurita Winery. We’ll be doing a lot of the secret menu items at Laurita as specialty menu items.
Having an executive chef is great, because you can tell him, “So we’re doing this event down at Laurita Bacon Fest; give me something,” and he’ll come up with something crazy. Last year for Bacon Fest, we did the Flaming Hot Cheetos version but with bacon and different types of crackers, and we breaded and fried it. And Danny made it, and we won the Bacon Fest belt. We won Bacon Fest 2018, and Five Sisters is one of the sponsors.
So the new things that we’re going to have this season are really fun, creative toppings; out of the ordinary, extraordinary toppings. For example, we’ve done a peanut butter candy bacon hot dog topping on the truck that we don’t do in the store, but we’re going to try to bring a little bit more craziness and secret stuff to these events and festivals this year.
Want to learn more about The Best New Jersey Food Trucks? Then check out The Best New Jersey Food Trucks: The Complete Series.
Hero (Top) Feature Image (& Additional Images): © Patrick Lombardi / Best of NJ