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Small Hot Dogs, Big Differences

December 22, 2010

Despite all odds, the Tour de Hot Dog will go down as a success.

I awoke early on Saturday morning to find myself in acute gastrointestinal distress.  Coincidentally Albany Jane found herself in a similar (but clearly worse) condition and apologized for canceling at the last minute.  But I knew that at 11am there were people showing up at the Cohoes Hot Dog Charlie’s.  And I couldn’t let them down.

Pills were swallowed.  Fluids were consumed.  A power-nap was taken.  And unbelievably I found the <ahem> intestinal fortitude to sample two dogs from each of the five establishments on the tour.

Granted, there was a lot of groaning and whining at the last two stops.

Officially we were ten, as determined by the number of ballots completed.  Six of us went to all five destinations.  The other four completed just the three most famous local hot-dog joints that constituted Round One.  I finally have all the score sheets in front of me, and am ready to dish about dogs.  Even if it makes Mr. Dave cry.

What follows is just about the dogs themselves.  I plan to write more about the individual places, and their own unique character on Yelp in the days and weeks to come. So keep your eyes open.

But here is the most interesting thing.  Considering how few ingredients there are, and considering how many of them even come from the exact same place, it is amazing to see how much variation there is from joint to joint.

This is not just me talking.  This was a sentiment that was echoed by everyone who ate these regional delights back-to-back.  The other interesting thing was the wide range of personal preferences that came into play.  Case in point: smokiness of a dog wasn’t a universally liked attribute.  Go fig.

Anyhow, let’s just talk about the holy trinity of Hot Dog Charlie’s, Gus’s and Famous Lunch for starters.  These fine folks have been carrying the torch for one of our few remaining local foods.  It may not be as refined, as iconic, or as well known as San Francisco’s Dungeness crab, but dammit, it’s ours.

Hot Dog Charlie’s dog won points for its smokiness and the nice snap of its casing.  Their bun was praised for its softness and warmth, and four people thought its sauce was the best of the three.  I was not in that camp.  There was a raw spice component in the meat sauce that I could not abide.  But overall, by the narrowest of margins, the crowd crowned this the best overall dog from round one.

It should also be noted that the four friends who showed up together for the tour all agreed their favorite joint was Hot Dog Charlie’s.

Gus’s could have been having an off day.  However it was a great choice for stop number two, because it was immediately apparent that the dogs were significantly different from the ones we just enjoyed.  The dog itself was meatier and without perceptible smoke.  They were cooked a bit longer to the point where they picked up some exterior crust, but at the same time they were less juicy.  Some preferred this style while others didn’t.

What almost everyone agreed upon was that Gus’s sauce was the worst of the three places, and that this storied and beloved hot dog hut was their least favorite of the day.  I agree with the ultimate conclusion, but I’m not so sure about the sauce.  Yes, it had the raw spice grittiness that I don’t like, but it did have a nice subtle heat to it.  And while certainly the overall flavor profile was remarkably bitter, I am fairly certain that flaw came from a problem with their onions and not the sauce.  But I’m splitting hairs.  Moving on.

Famous Lunch was my favored spot going in and it was my favorite one coming out of round one.  Critics of this spot faulted them for too many onions and a cooler bun.  But its fans praised its good snap, sweeter onions, assertive mustard, and rich meat sauce.  I appreciated that this was the first meat sauce where the spices were actually cooked, and while the dog itself wasn’t as aggressively smoky as Hot Dog Charlie’s I found that it had a nice balance.

With four of the ten round one ballots, and my own personal endorsement, Famous Lunch has earned its seat at the table.

Round two was a real eye opener.  Thank you Ed L. for recommending Hot Dog Heaven and Bob W. for throwing Anton’s into consideration.

Hot Dog Heaven is a hoot and I think everyone was surprised that they could run with the big boys.  Sure, they do things a little different, but it works.  For starters they grill the bun instead of steaming it.  They also grill the dogs to order.  Thankfully there was no raw spice in their milder meat sauce.  For plain dogs, this humble little luncheonette garnered the prize of being one taster’s top pick, and it did better across the board than the storied Gus’s.

At the end of a long stretch of eating, Anton’s was viewed with a jaded eye.  Were we seriously considering ending this epic marathon with a hot dog from a Greek place?  Maybe we should just get a Gyro and call it quits?

That would have been a mistake.

66% of the overstuffed tasters deemed Anton’s to be either the best or tied for the best sauce of the day.  The sauce was rich and spicy, and its richness really set it apart.  Those who didn’t care for it just found it to be too heavy and thick.  It was clear they used the same variety of Helmbold’s hot dogs as Hot Dog Charlie’s, but when we walked in the restaurant was out of buns.

The obvious solution: wrap them in pita.  Some people loved it.  If it sounds good to you, they said they would be glad to make it again on request.  But it wasn’t for me.  Still, Hot Dog Charlie’s smoky dog topped with a significantly improved meat sauce would have all the potential to be a knockout specimen.  Except without a bun, it’s all just a theory.

Congratulations to Hot Dog Charlie’s for winning the popular vote, and to Famous Lunch for winning the endorsement of the profussor.  Like Mr. Dave suggested, there is something to love about all of these noble establishments, even Gus’s.  But if for some reason you can only make it to one of these five joints, I now feel very confident in recommending Famous Lunch above all others.

Thanks to everyone who came out and dedicated their time and stomachs to this effort. I wish I had been feeling better so I could have been my usual vibrant self.  But it was still great to meet a bunch of likeminded fussy food people and eat our way to some answers.

If you missed it, don’t worry.  We’ll do something like this again in a few months.  And if you need any last minute gift ideas, there is always this or this.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. December 22, 2010 10:57 am

    So. Here’s my argument. I understand that the goal of the tours is for the locations to be within a reasonable driving distance of each other. However, it cannot be claimed a regional tour, toting the best of the region, without visiting Schenectady and Saratoga counties. May I suggest two day, all day or bracket tours in the future?

    For example, a Capital District Tour de BBQ would need to include both the Capital Q and PJ’s in Saratoga. And I’m just not buying completely into a Tour de Hot Dog that skipped Mike’s First Prize Hot Dogs on Erie Blvd in Schenectady.

  2. December 22, 2010 10:57 am

    Thanks for the link and for having my friends and I along for the event. We all enjoyed trying to describe the subtle difference in dogs (to the farthest extent that you can eating hot dogs).

    It was hard for us to classify on the bitterness of Gus’s sauce, but raw paprika makes perfect sense now that I read your “raw spice” comment.

    • December 22, 2010 11:09 am

      Also, for what it’s worth, I’ve added your blog to my blogroll.

      I’m looking forward to future events!

  3. December 22, 2010 11:42 am

    I love this. I told derryX, if you’re ever north of nowhere (aka Chazy, just north of Plattsburgh) try their Gus’ – they make make their hot dogs “Michigan” style – with a meat sauce that is just…yum.

    Also, Mike’s on Erie Boulevard makes (or used to make) a pretty good hot dog. I haven’t been there in years, though.

    • Doug Grover permalink
      December 26, 2010 3:28 pm

      You mean Gus’ Red Hots, corner of Rte 9 and Cumberland Head? Or is there really a Gus’ in Chazy? Michigans are a whole nother story (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michigan_hot_dog) yet strangely similar to these miniatures. Forty years ago in Troy the little guys were called hot wieners, though that may have been just one location’s name for them.

  4. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    December 22, 2010 12:24 pm

    I’m shocked. I’ve only been to the Saratoga Charlie’s but it was so awful I won’t go back.

  5. Bob W. permalink
    December 22, 2010 12:45 pm

    Although bitterly disappointed that attending the tour wasn’t in the cards, I still enjoyed the post-event breakdown.

    The funny thing about the lack of buns at Anton’s is that I’ve always considered that particular component to be the weak link in their mini-dog chain. They are tasty rolls, to be sure, but they are not as soft as I’d like with a mini-dog. But that meat sauce…oh, that delicious meat sauce…

    And I am shocked — SHOCKED, I tell you! — about Gus’s. Perhaps my memories of the glory of Gus’s past has clouded my judgment?

  6. December 22, 2010 12:49 pm

    Your results ended up pretty much how I expected they would. I really would have liked to come along, but alas, I was working.

    Anyhow, I have a general soft spot fot Hot Dog Charlie’s. This is mostly due to childhood nostalgia, that is the place I frequented most as a child. But it is apparent to me that their dogs are the most “user friendly.” Their sauce is the least bitter, I have described this as the prevailing, and somewhat surprising flavor profile in my innumerable posts on the subject, you hint at this as well. The bun there is soft and squishy like the Freihoffer’s we were all reared on. For your entry level hot dog eater, this dog is the easiest to deal with.

    I think Famous has a better bun (I like the dusting of cornmeal). The zippy sauce is like a dry red wine, a little more complicated than Charlie’s, but good. Without the nostalgia, Famous might get my nod, but it is very close.

    I agree that Gus’ is its own deal, my last visit was a while ago, but I agree that this place probably takes the most intestinal fortitude.

    As for a Greek restaurant having a good sauce, this is not surprising. All of the hot dog restaurants described where started by Greeks. In fact, that tasty flavor in the hot dog sauces that you can’t put your finger on, that is probably cinnamon. A decidedly Greek influenced spice choice.

    I think a lot of the differences in flavor between the sauces is a matter of the amount/type of paprika, chili powder ration, and who puts in a little cayenne. My attempt at recreation may be a resource if you are wondering what is going on in the sauce.

    http://ridiculousfoodsociety.blogspot.com/2010/03/capital-region-style-hot-dog-sauce-mr.html

    I like a high fat sauce that is liquid and glistening when heated and congealed when cold. I find that this gives the right mouth feel. I would like to see other attempts at recreation. Like every Provencal housewife has her own cassoulet, every local household should have its own hot dog sauce.

  7. Barry McOkner permalink
    December 22, 2010 2:19 pm

    There is another Joint that has been overlooked. Maybe not at the time of this taste-testing but there’s a place in Lansingburgh, Ryan’s Dogs.

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Ryans-Dogs/168308636522572

    I have to say they are the best dogs I’ve tried so far. If you get a chance, swing by for a few, you won’t be disappointed.

Trackbacks

  1. derryX Dines: FUSSYlittleBLOG’s Le Tour de Hot Dog (Updated)
  2. derryX Dines: Gus’s Hot Dogs / Snowman Ice Cream « derryX.com

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