Hot Dog of the Week: Mini Dogs from Troy, New York
Past Weeks' Dogs
This week we follow the trail of Greek-owned New York state hot dog stands to the Troy/Albany area for a truly unique regional variation. Since the 1920s this region has been known for a handful of places that serve mini hot dogs, produced by local butcher shops and served on custom-made three-inch hot dog buns. Served with spicy meat sauce, onions and yellow mustard, they are normally eaten six or ten at a time and cost around 65¢ a piece.
The first stand to become known for these mini hot dogs was New Way Lunch, opened in 1922 by Greek immigrant Strates Fentekes and his secret chili sauce recipe. Before the health codes kicked in, the cooks lined up the dogs on their bare arms (10 or 12 at a time) to be dressed with sauce and mustard in a procedure known as the "Hairy Arm."
New Way eventually became Hot Dog Charlie's which now has several locations. Famous Lunch in Troy and Gus's in nearby Watervliet are the other main spots for mini dogs. Legend has it that, at one point, the owners of all three stands were related.
We drove up to Gus's during lunch on a Friday and it was buzzing. Construction workers waited for crates of 30 or 40 mini dogs at the front take-out window, and the inside counter was lined with locals watching the cooks grill off piles of dogs. The meat sauce is cooked in clay pots right on the grill in the tiny busy kitchen, and the walls are lined with photos of regulars and records from mini-hot dog eating contests. Meat sauce is available for take-out by the gallon.
Gus's dogs have a nice mild snap and light char from the grill, covered with a spicy paprika-heavy sauce and bright yellow mustard. They go down quickly at 65¢ a pop. We also tried the sausage sandwich ($1.70), a sausage patty on a burger bun with peppers and onions (decent) and a Greekburger ($1.30), your standard, thin diner patty smothered in Gus's signature meat sauce. The bill for four people was less than $10.
Part of what makes these dogs so special, aside from the awesome atmosphere, is the local ingredients. While we were leaving Gus's the bakery truck rolled up to replenish the supply of mini rolls, which come in fresh from nearby Bella Napoli Bakery. For years, many of these stands got their mini franks -spiced with cardamom and mace from the Troy Pork Store, a local butcher shop which closed last year.
In some towns the closing of a butcher, meat packer, or bakery—or purchase by a national company who then stop producing the regional products—can easily render an obscure hot dog variation gone and forgotten. It's a story that's become sadly familiar, and not just in the world of hot dogs.
But Troy's mini dogs, while almost unknown outside of the area, are gobbled up by the thousands every day—and don't seem to be disappearing anytime soon.
The mini-dog phenomenon has even spread to nearby western Massachusetts at the Hot Dog Ranch (with two locations) and Teo's Hot Dogs in Pittsfield, a tavern that grills off hundreds of mini dogs at a time.
I assumed the dogs and rolls came from Troy, but until recently they used natural casing beef dogs from Pittsfield's own Whorle's Meats (which looks like it might be closed) and rolls from Pittsfield Rye Bakery.
I haven't been up to Pittsfield to try these yet but we might need to perform a New York vs. Massachusetts mini hot dog challenge. Any suggestions on other spots for mini dogs? Let us know so I can add them to my ever-growing list.
Gus's Hot Dogs
212 25th Street, Watervliet New York 12189 (map)
Hot Dog Charlie's
Rolf's Pork Store
Teo's Hot Dogs
Hot Dog Ranch
20 Linden Street, Pittsfield MA 01201 (map)
Hawk Krall is a Philadelphia-based illustrator who has a serious thing for hot dogs. Dig his dog drawings? Many of the illustrations he has created for Hot Dog of the Week are available for sale: hawkkrall.net/prints/.