Gus’s or Famous Lunch? A Troy Newbie Decides
“You have to choose,” my coworker feverishly explained.
As a newly minted resident of downtown Troy, I had now been drafted in one of the Capital Region’s greatest feuds: Famous Lunch vs Gus’s Hotdogs. The history between the two was described not-so-dissimilarly from the Hatfields and McCoys and I was excited to fulfill my civic duty.
First, my credentials as a hot dog connoisseur: I’ve sampled many of our nation’s fine amalgamated meat products from Washington state to West Virginia. My favorite night to go to a ballpark is Dollar Dog Night. I once participated in a hot dog eating contest in Kentucky in which I placed second, which wins you nothing but indigestion.
In my restaurant briefing, I was informed that both Gus’s and Famous Lunch hot dogs would have three key main ingredients: yellow mustard, minced white onions, and meat sauce. Meat sauce?? We’re not talking about ragu here, are we? Both establishments are cash only, which automatically checks one of my “green flag” boxes for a great restaurant. The remaining info received: Famous Lunch is filthy. With intel collected and my weekend ahead of me, I set out over the Hudson to start in Watervliet.
Gus’s Hot Dogs
Gus’s is a charming roadside stand. The man at the window was friendly, but also gave the distinct impression he does not like people making up their minds at the counter; they have a business to run. Fortunately, it was an easy choice - six hot dogs with the works, two with the works and cheese. It took about two minutes for me and my fiancée to get our dogs, then we slathered two up with hot sauce from a non-labeled squeeze bottle.
Maybe I missed this in the description, but I was surprised by the mini hot dogs – about half the size of a normal, regulation frank. I’ve seen this before in Cincinnati. If you’re that concerned about the portion size, there’s an easy solution: buy more. While they had signs for an indoor eating area, I chose the collection of fenced in outdoor picnic tables outside, which I eventually regretted because it was 50 degrees and windy. Here are my tasting notes:
Admit it: meat sauce is just chili. Maybe the meat sauce doesn’t have all the same spices as what you’d put in a bowl, but it’s still chili. The variations are what makes chili great – you may not like how white chili is still somehow chili, but it is. Gus’s meat sauce is about the same consistency as liquid papier-mache. Taste-wise, I didn’t get much out of the sauce, either.
Between Famous Lunch and Gus’s, Gus provided the best toasted buns – edging into crunchy territory but just stopping before the precipice. Gus’s also had thicker casing on the hot dogs, which some don’t care for, but I think added texture that the meat sauce lacked.
The secret to mastering the Gus’s hot dog is the extras. The cheesy dogs had an extra boost, but the real secret was the hot sauce from the squeeze bottle. If I’m not mistaken, it’s Frank’s Red Hot, which is my least favorite hot sauce of all time. If you had asked me before Friday night what food pairs best with Frank’s, I would have told you nothing. But now? I know Red Hot has one singular purpose on Earth: to pair with Gus’s meat sauce. It’s a wild, shocking transformation, like My Fair Lady. Something so average and non-descript becomes more than the sum of its parts. I don’t know exactly what supernatural occurrence is happenings here, but I will return until I figure it out.
Somewhat satiated, I waited 24 hours to digest and reset before walking to Famous Lunch from my apartment.
I love Famous’s frontage. It has the yellowed, weather-beaten lighted sign out front and an awning that proudly declares, “World Famous Hotdogs Since 1932.” But between my coworkers and a Google review that said it hadn’t been cleaned since the ‘70s, I was wondering what I’d see when I stepped in. And you know what?
What bourgeois hot dog spots are you all going to that you think Famous Lunch is filthy? Sure, it’s not a Michelin starred dining room, but it’s on par with any diner in America. If I walk into a pristine, medically-sanitized space for low-cost sausage, I’m immediately suspicious and uncomfortable. Hot dogs should be served in dives, ballparks, and roadside stands/street carts. Plus, Famous has the grill right out by the counter so you can watch them cook up your meal in front of you. It’s Springsteen-everyman-hibachi. There’s also a weird hobbit doorway behind the counter that either leads to a coat nook or Middle Earth. I spent too much time trying to figure it out while eating.
Now that’s settled, let’s get to the food. Famous calls their meat sauce/chili Zippy Sauce, and will add it to anything on the menu. I think if you brought in food from home they’d give you a full scoop on it if you slid them a $5. My fiancée and I ordered eight dogs, two Zippy Cheeseburgers, and a large Zippy Fries. Yes, this was too much food. You’ve made it this far into the article, why start judging me now?
The buns are large and soft, like the kind Sir Mix-a-Lot made a living out of praising. The hot dogs are dainty, yet flavorful. The Zippy Sauce is thick, rich, chunky, and holds up completely on its own. Good spices throughout and not too runny, but still with tasty drippings. This really shined in the fries. The hot dogs were well rounded. My one complaint is that the burger had white cheese on it. I’m not crazy about white cheese on a burger, but that’s my idiosyncrasy, not Famous’s. I finished my food, paid the bill, and was left to make a decision.
Cost really isn’t a factor. Gus’s are a few cents cheaper a la carte, but Famous’s daily special, four hot dogs with soda, makes up the difference. For the ambiance, I’m sure Gus’s outdoor seating is much nicer when its warmer. Also, much like how Taco Bell won’t actually make you spend the day in the restroom unless you’re genetically weak, Famous Lunch defies their cleanliness rumors. As for the dogs themselves, the defining factor is the sauce. Famous’s Zippy Sauce is simply superior, even with Frank’s Red Hot giving Gus the boost.
So maybe it’s the convenient location, the warm surroundings, or just my newfound civic pride, but like most things in life, it really came down to the meat sauce: the winner is Famous Lunch.
Fun fact: the record for most hot dogs consumed in one sitting at Famous Lunch is 50 in 30 minutes. The man who did that scares the heck out of me.