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Kat and Kim Come to the Cap

September 3, 2014

Albany is a crossroads. That’s really the reason why we have a Tesla supercharging station. Sure, some have New York plates, but I’ve seen just as many from New Jersey and beyond. We get traveling concerts, theater, and visual artists.

Occasionally we’ll even have some culinary luminaries come to town. John and Dottie would visit Saratoga Springs when their daughter was at Skidmore, and they wrote about a meal at Hattie’s washed down with a nice carmenere.

But a week from this Friday a bunch of giants in the food world are coming to town. Technically, they are headed to Berne. But they are here for the Longhouse Food Revival. Part of the program includes a Lincoln/Douglas-style debate with Kat Kinsman and Kim Severson debating the merits of pork versus beef. It sounds like a ton of fun, and I really really wish I could be there.

Regrettably, my schedule precludes participation in this event. Regardless, I’m going to take their coming as an opportunity to pitch some of the truly notable places in the area.

Albany isn’t known as a great food city. It’s true, but we’re getting better.

Still, for the most part, anyone coming from a major metropolitan area can get better versions of even our best places back at home. And seemingly inexplicably, in Albany with its lower rents the inferior food may be more expensive.

What the big cities can’t do is revive ancient institutions that have long since perished. Well, for better or for worse, we’ve got those here. And a few of them are even relatively close to our travel hubs.

For anyone coming in by train, the Rensselaer Amtrak station is a mere ten minute drive from Troy. Downtown Troy is a small and beautiful old city (by American standards).

Arrive in the morning, and you can have a real honest to goodness donut from Bella Napoli. There may be no chairs to sit and eat. The coffee is terrible. But the tenderness of their yeast raised donuts is remarkable. Skip the glazed (seriously, it’s way too thin). Opt instead for the Boston cream or any of the jelly filled specimens. This isn’t artisan jam from seasonal local fruits. This is the industrial cornstarch thickened stuff of yesteryear. But it’s still fantastic. Or try any of their impossibly crisp-crusted cake donuts. Whatever you do, just stay away from the cannoli or the tempting (but ultimately unfulfilling) Italian cookies.

Arrive in the afternoon or evening and you must stop into Famous Lunch. These little three-inch weiners topped with mustard, zippy sauce, and raw onion may not be love at first bite. But they are the Capital Region’s taco. Small, cheap, flavorful sustenance that can be wolfed down in a few bites. This restaurant exists out of time. Students, professors, laborers, hipsters, and thugs all eat elbow to elbow at the counter. Honestly, you can come here in the morning or evening too. The egg and cheese on a hardroll with zippy sauce really should be Troy’s official breakfast sandwich.

There could even be an argument made for a stop into The Ruck, The Ale House, or both to sample some of the best chicken wings in the region. I know that Troy isn’t known as the wing capital of New York. But given our relative proximity to Buffalo, the wing standard here is held mighty high. Just make sure to order them “medium extra crispy” at both places, and you’ll get the good stuff.

Now, should you be flying in to Albany International, you’re going to be treated to two completely different regional specialties. Please bear with me, because neither of these is going to sound all the special. Truth be told, neither one will knock your socks off. However, as far as I can tell, each of these is only found in this neck of the woods.

Ted’s Fish Fry is on Wolf Road, just about around the corner from the airport. Yes, it’s a small local chain. No, this location doesn’t quite have the charm of Ted’s older outposts. However, the fish fry sandwich is just as good. And the fish fry sandwich is the thing to get. Sure, it’s well made with a crisp greaseless exterior and a moist, flakey interior. But the curious part is its proportions. Little can prepare the uninitiated for the narrow, foot long piece of breaded fried fish in a hotdog bun. The default sauce is “chili sauce” which is a strange way of saying ketchup mixed with sweet relish. You might prefer cocktail or tartar sauce. I know that I do.

Even stranger is what they have at Ralph’s Tavern on Central Avenue not far away from the foot of Wolf Road. Fried mozzarella is nothing new. But the thing here is to get it with melba (raspberry) sauce. To some this sounds odd or even vile. But with further consideration, it’s essentially a working man’s baked brie en croute. A salty gooey cheese with a crust and some sweet jam. Except in Albany, we just like to fry it. The version at Ralph’s is a bit rustic, but this ain’t a fancy joint. These are made by hand, and it shows. They are salty, oily fingers of joy that may just give you a reason to live through a harsh Albany winter.

Or, you know, you could just skip Albany altogether and head down to Local 111 or any one of the great restaurants around Hudson.

Notable local foods aren’t always made with great local ingredients or by top local chefs. These are ours. I hope you get a chance to try them. At least once.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 3, 2014 1:51 pm

    I’d add a few more local delights: Bread and Honey for very good bread, The Cheese Traveler for the obvious and more, Rolf’s Pork Store for things you can’t get anywhere else, like rabbit, The Berry Farm for the obvious plus other great organic and local cheese and produce, Tierra Farms factory store for fabulous nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and nut butters, Hawthorne Valley Farm store for their raw milk, yogurts and other lovely odds and ends, The Daily Grind for fresh roasted coffee, Roma Foods for your Mediterranean specialties, Nora’s for your Armenian needs, DniPro for your sausages, smoked fish, pickles, etc. Parivar for Indian, Honest Weight Coop for your bulk foods and a great cheese case. Oh, and the Asian groceries are fun too, not to mention the 30 or so Italian delis. Yeah, I know these are not “regional specialties” like fried mozz in raspberry sauce, but these places actually supply the region with fabulous food from near and far.

    • September 3, 2014 4:01 pm

      @LorreS – Without a doubt those places are a fantastic part about living in the region. And there are many more including Ala Shanghai, Sweet Sue’s, The Lucas Confectionery, The Speakeasy, Crisan, Shwe Mandalay, Tara Kitchen, TC Bakery, Mrs. London’s, etc. etc. etc.

      These are all establishments that rise above the “good for Albany” to “good for anywhere.” Just the same, if someone is visiting from afar, I’d like to offer them a taste of something they can’t get anywhere else.

      Independent donut shops are a dying institution thanks to the ubiquity of Dunkin’ (although there are some upmarket versions that have been making a bit of ground), good wings are virtually unheard of in 49 states, and the other foodstuffs in the post can’t be found beyond our borders.

  2. Josh K. permalink
    September 3, 2014 4:00 pm

    Say what you will – Mozz and Melba and Fish Fry on a hot dog bun are ours. You won’t fine great fine dining here, but our taverns really show off Albany’s finer points: lots of tasty comfort food and good company in historical settings.

  3. Pam C. permalink
    September 4, 2014 8:23 pm

    Great post! I live in Florida now, and came up to Troy to visit family in late July. One of the places I had to go was to the Ale House for wings. I ordered them medium and crispy like I have for 30 years or so…but the wings I got were too hot for me to eat. I gave them to my brother and he ate them, but agreed they were “hotter than usual”. Did they change their sauce? I was so disappointed! I guess next time I’ll have to go to the Ruck.

  4. September 5, 2014 10:27 am

    I know it’s a bit of a drive and I don’t know that I’d recommend it to visitors; mainly because there’s not much else in the area; but a Sunday morning drive to Cambridge will bring you to magical, freshly fried and filled doughnuts made with love by the King family and filled with all home made jams and preserves made with local fruit.
    They even sell maple syrup from trees that they tap themselves.
    The glazed are wonderfully light and greaseless and the Bismarks are my favorite but anything filled with their homemade preserves is worth trying.
    And really, what could be more charming than doughnuts from an old Cambridge family; the former owners of a beloved bake shop; selling doughnuts from a restored Freihofer’s bakery cart right in their driveway.

  5. September 5, 2014 4:46 pm

    Re “Albany’s not a great food city but we’re getting better” an ancient thread bubbled to lift today on Tablehopping: http://blog.timesunion.com/tablehopping/9209/who-serves-the-areas-best-chinese-food/

    It’s a discussion of “What’s the best Chinese in the Cap District” from 2009. Yes, things have definitely improved.

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