Fast food franchises have swept away all that. Unique flavor has been replaced by mass-produced, standardized flavor. You can't go back to Cliff's.
You can, however, go to Herbie's.
"I went out throughout the U.S. and found almost every major city has a featured hot dog place except for Philadelphia," says owner Herb Gross. ''There's isolated places in South Philly that have them, but they don't make much noise."
Gross hopes to make noise by serving six varieties of hot dogs with 19 choices of toppings. You can build your dog in an effort to duplicate that favored taste of old.
Herbie's, of course, is swimming upstream in an age of health- consciousness. The hot dog, full of animal fat and salt, is arguably the unhealthiest food known to man. Herbie's offers a reduced-fat hot dog, but, really, that's like going to a steakhouse to fill up on the salad bar.
Gross has done enough research to know that there is a sizable gap between thinking about eating healthy and actually doing it.
"Low-fat food is more talked about than eaten," Gross said. "Chik-fil-A introduced a low-fat chicken in 600 stores and then had to pull it off the market."
Americans, Gross happily points out, eat an average of 60 hot dogs a year.
"It's the third most popular food product," he says. "Hamburgers are No. 6."
We paid a visit to Herbie's, which opened June 30, and the big hit of the evening turned out to be - chicken. This is mainly because I am the owner- operator of the only 8-year-old boy in captivity who doesn't like hot dogs, a trait he inherited from his mother.
Mom ordered the Richard's Special ($4.95), which was a basket of fried fingers of chicken breast with satay (peanut) sauce for dipping. The chicken was light, not oily, and the sauce was tasty.
Nick, the 8-year-old, was forced to eat most of an all-meat hot dog, which he ordered with mustard and relish ($2.50), finding the relish too sweet. He then had a cheeseburger ($2.05), which he liked just fine.
Beeka the Destroyer, 5, ordered the all-meat dog with cheddar and mustard ($2.50) and french fries ($1.50). He ate the dog this way: He licked off all the cheese; he broke the hot dog into pieces; he discarded the bun.
I had the all-meat dog with mustard, chopped raw onions and Texas chili sauce ($2.50), which Gross says is his most popular item. It wasn't the same as at Johnny & Hanges, but it was close enough.
Herbie's grills its hot dogs, far preferable to boiling or steaming them, but that doesn't quite duplicate the deep-fried flavor (or hazard to your health). Herbie's also uses brown mustard, understanding that yellow mustard belongs only on soft pretzels, if anywhere.
I followed up with a Chicago special ($3.45): an old-timer dog (slightly fatter than the regular and spiced differently) with mustard and fried onions. It was very good.
The other dog choices are all-beef, giant dog, jalapeno cheese dog (yes, the peppers and cheese are inside the dog) and the leaner wiener.
Gross says he combed the nation for the right dogs and ultimately selected the Berks company in Reading. I thought the meat was better than store-bought, but not as good as the German frankfurters I get at the Chestnut Hill Farmer's Market, which have some veal in them. On the other hand, if you're going to eat them with raw onions and chili on top, it probably doesn't matter.
Each hot dog came with a little cup of coleslaw. Besides the fries, Herbie's also offers sides of baked beans ($1.50), pierogies with fried onions ($3.95), fried green peppers ($2.45) and a few other choices.
There are also sandwiches and salads on the menu, and soon Herbie's will be adding pasta dishes.
Beverages include a New York chocolate egg cream, but on the night we visited one patron complained they didn't serve milkshakes. That is easily remedied. There is a Hillary's ice cream shop two doors down.
The Herbie's dog probably won't taste as good as those hot dogs with Mom and Dad when you were 6. But nothing can compete with a memory. And maybe someday your kids will remember Herbie's the way you remember Levis.
HERBIE'S FUN FOOD
12 W. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore, 610-642-1414.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Credit cards: No.
Atmosphere: Bright and new.
Family values: Nice alternative to McDonald's.