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B.A. Nilsson

Dog Day Afternoons
By B.A. Nilsson

Famous Lunch
111 Congress St., Troy, 272-9481. Serving Mon-Sat 7-10. Cash only.

Gus’s Hot Dogs
212 25th St., Watervliet, 273-8743. Serving Mon-Sat 10:30-10. Cash only.

Cuisine: dogs, burgers
Entrée price range: 50 cents to a couple of dollars
Ambience:: not a priority
Clientele: the neighborhood

We’re 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.

And 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:

“I 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 fans.

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 it works.

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. . . .

TABLE SCRAPS

Hunger 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 (food@banilsson.com).

—B.A.N.

(Please fax info to 922-7090)

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