Ask people what makes the Capital District’s food scene unique and you’ll get a variety of responses. We don’t have one signature dish, like the buffalo wing in Western NY. But we do have some interesting smaller dishes like mozzarella sticks with melba sauce or the long fish fry in a roll.
Another one of the Capital District “classics” that I had never tried before this summer is mini hot dogs with meat sauce. I always knew this was a popular thing, but it never seemed to make its way onto my agenda. Since I have been making an effort lately to appreciate the special and unique things about our region, I decided to check it out.
In my head there was one well known place that people always talked about – something like Gus’s Famous Lunch. So I was surprised to find out after a little bit of research that there are actually two different places that I had been incorrectly combining in my head – Gus’s Hot Dogs in Watervliet and Famous Lunch in Troy. And this immediately made me want to do a comparison piece. Because how can two places both be classic establishments serving the same exact thing? Surely one is better.
Gus’s Hot Dogs
Gus’s is less of a restaurant and more of a hot dog stand. Although there are seats inside, most people seem to order at the outdoor window and then sit at the tables next to the building. Not a lot of ambiance, but some friendly banter going on between the owner and customers and a number of visitors who seemed to know one another. We were lucky that the weather was nice and it was actually a treat to sit outside with a little bit of breeze and some sun.
For comparison purposes, we decided to try the same thing at both establishments: a few mini-dogs with the works. This meant a topping of the famous meat sauce, onions, and mustard.
Our hot dogs came out in no time, neatly arranged on a paper plate and ready to be enjoyed. I expected the meat sauce to be more like a chili, but discovered that it’s got a unique flavor profile all of its own – richly spiced with seasoning (perhaps hints of paprika, garlic, and cumin). It was hard to nail down exactly what the flavors were, but the sauce had more of a spiced and savory taste than I was expecting.
The hot dogs themselves were solid as well – slightly longer than the bun, cooked with a nice snap to the shell, and just the right amount of saltiness. I felt like the level of chopped onions was a bit overwhelming, but overall the flavors melded together well.
Troy’s classic mini dog establishment has a very different vibe than Gus’s – more of an old school diner, with a counter and a number of small booths running up the side of the narrow interior. Service was brisk but adequate, and there seemed to be some locals just lingering around the counter drinking coffee. It appears that Famous Lunch has a fuller menu than Gus’s, including breakfast offerings.
The dogs had a much better ratio of meat sauce to other fixings. And the meat sauce was definitely different than Gus’s – chunkier, with a heavier meat presence, and a little more richness. Unfortunately, the sauce was also very greasy. Red oils from the sauce stained the buns and everything else they touched, which is not great when you’re trying to eat such a messy, overloaded creation.
I’ve heard that both places use the same hot dogs (Hembold’s), but it seemed like there was a difference to me. They were shorter at Famous Lunch and had a flavor that I preferred. Perhaps it’s just the method of cooking, but I felt like they could be different brands.
There were some clear differences between the mini hot dogs at Gus’s in Watervliet and Famous Lunch in Troy, but it was actually a pretty close race. Famous Lunch had the better hot dogs themselves and a better ratio of toppings. But Gus’s had our preferred meat sauce, and we loved the outdoor seating and friendly service. The overall win of the day, by just the slightest of edges, goes to Gus’s Hot Dogs in Watervliet.