By B.A. Nilsson
111 Congress St., Troy,
272-9481. Serving Mon-Sat 7-10. Cash only.
212 25th St., Watervliet,
273-8743. Serving Mon-Sat 10:30-10. Cash only.
Entrée price range: 50 cents to a couple of dollars
Ambience:: not a priority
Clientele: the neighborhood
dealing with sheer sensuality here. It begins with the soft
warmth of a bun, perched between fingers and thumb. A sweet
aroma of onions and spices rises from the contents, a fat
finger of a hot dog covered with mustard and chopped onions
and homemade meat sauce. As you bring it to your lips, the
aroma deepens as the sour smell of the mustard eases in.
then you take your first bite. It’s a ritual as solemn and
as complicated as savoring sashimi, and it should be conducted
with as much dignity. First your lips make contact with the
meat sauce, and you should sneak a moment just with that flavor—a
sensation enhanced by having such a strong presence of it
under your nose.
Then you bite. The hot dog casing is just firm enough to protest
briefly before yielding to your teeth, at which point a jet
of roasted meat flavor mixes with the rest, prolonged by the
spongy bread of the bun. Your second bite confirms the tastiness
of the first; the third one finishes it off.
These dogs are barely four inches long. That’s why you can
buy two of them for a little over a buck. The Troy Pork Store
has been making these mini-sausages for years, but they need
that meat sauce to really come alive.
And so you sit at the counter of Famous Lunch or Gus’s, or
wait near the door, or line up at the ordering window, and
hear patron after patron intone solemnly: “Gimme six with
the works.” “Four with everything.” “Start me off with eight.”
Famous Lunch notes that one determined patron set a record
by packing away 38 of them in half an hour.
In his short story “Different Cultural Levels Eat Here,” Peter
DeVries presents a counterman in a timeworn diner who invariably
asks, after a customer orders a hamburger, “Mit or mitout?”
This fascinates a quartet of sophisticates, one of whom indiscreetly
terms the counterman “a character” and characterizes him as
“wonderful,” inciting the following tirade from the man:
know what wonderful means. You don’t have to tell me. Saloons
full of old junk, they’re wonderful, old guys that stick cigar
butts in their pipe . . . ”
At Famous Lunch, you’re simply asked if you want onions on
that burger, but it’s hard not to think of the DeVries story.
Here’s a counter at which all types mingle, but with a sense
of neighborliness. It’s hard not to be drawn into adjacent
conversations. You’ll find this also at Gus’s, although in
the warm weather you’ll probably elect to sit at one of the
dozen picnic tables outside.
Gus’s is a Watervliet institution, opened in 1954 by Gus Haita.
Four years later he met and married a recent Greek immigrant,
and Renay Haita joined him in the eatery’s operation. Now
their son Steve runs the restaurant. “I was born into the
business,” he says, “and took over in the early ’80s.”
These are stories of New World dreams: Both restaurants were
founded by Greek immigrants; the Troy Pork Store was founded
in 1918 by German immigrant Charlie Comertz.
Famous Lunch has been on the same busy Troy corner since it
opened in 1932. At first it was known as the Quick Lunch,
but it gained national attention in 1958 when a Troy native,
a Marine stationed in Moscow, flew over a batch of hot dogs
with which to celebrate the U.S. ambassador’s birthday. Thanks
to the resultant media coverage the restaurant acquired its
present name—and they’re still FedEx-ing hot dogs to far-flung
Owner Scott Vasil acquired the business from his father, Steve,
who in turn took over from his uncle, Chris. “We try to keep
it a family kind of place,” says Scott, and the easygoing
friendliness is testimony to his accomplishment. The hot dogs
have been celebrated in magazines as diverse as Gourmet
and a glossy biker’s journal. There’s more to the menu: fries,
for one thing, and you might as well get them with the Zippy
sauce (the same meat sauce the hot dogs wear). Breakfast is
available, with omelettes and pancakes in the $3 range, and
other lunch sandwiches are offered, including a $1.35 cheeseburger
that a small heap of caramelized onions transforms into a
wonderfully sweet snack.
When you’re asked if you want cream on your rice pudding (it’s
homemade, but very much of the deli variety), be prepared
for a dollop of half-and-half. Not what I was expecting, but
Across the river at Gus’s, the menu is more streamlined. No
fries, which keeps the line moving more quickly, and the only
other sandwiches are a hamburger (80 cents, a dime more with
cheese), a Greekburger (onions and meat sauce, 80 cents) and
a sausage sandwich ($1.10), a flat patty served with sautéed
peppers and onions.
So you get your order, your can of soda (they serve RC and
iced teas at Famous Lunch, with a more name-brand variety
at Gus’s), find your spot and contemplate your meal. The hot
dog is quickly cooling, but the bun is still warm. A sweet
aroma of onions and spices rises from the contents. . . .
Action Network of New York State holds
its 13th annual Feast for Famine on Thursday,
June 12, from 5:30 to 8 PM in the Egg’s Hart Theatre
Lounge at the Empire State Plaza in Albany. Feast
on some of the finest food and drink the area
has to offer while trying not to think of the
hungry folk who eventually will benefit from this
event. Dozens of the area’s leading eateries will
participate, including Bangkok Thai Restaurant,
Big Dipper Bakery, Debbie’s Kitchen, dine, Ichiban,
Lo Porto at the Sign of the Tree, Longfellows
Restaurant, Malt River Brewing Company, Nettle
Meadow Organic Farm, The Palmer House Café, Quintessence,
Rock Hill Bakehouse & Cafe, Shades of Green,
Shalimar, and A Taste of Greece. The Hunger Action
Network is a statewide membership organization
that helps provide food to 900,000 New Yorkers
each week, while working for long-term solutions
to hunger and poverty. Tickets are $40 per person;
for more info call 434-7371. . . . Remember to
pass your scraps to Metroland (email@example.com).
fax info to 922-7090)
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.