Circumstances were not ideal when I discovered mini wieners. I was midway through that great American pastime, the road trip, driving north from Brooklyn to Montreal, packed tightly into a rented van with a motley crew of friends in various states of disarray: all were exhausted from work, at least one was deeply hungover, and I, for my part, had just been dumped. The plan was for a lighthearted weekend romp north of the border, but halfway there, morale was flagging.
On a tip from the inimitable highway warriors on RoadFood.com, we stopped just north of Albany in the industrial city of Troy, on the eastern bank of the Hudson River. Troy's tourist attractions are few: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute calls the town home, as does Burden Iron Works and a Gasholder Building dating to the1870s. And then there are those mini wieners.
Since the 1920s, Greek-owned diners and luncheonettes across Troy have been serving the lunch-time treat (often made at local butchers like Hembold's or Rolf's Pork Store) topped with a heady meat sauce, yellow mustard, and chopped white onions, on custom-made mini rolls from nearby Italian bakeries. Don't confuse them with cocktail weenies—clocking in at three or four inches a pop, with snappy natural casings and a light char from the griddle, mini wieners are downed by the half-dozen, in rapid succession, by burly men who wouldn't be caught dead with a pig in a blanket.
I did not know any of this prior to walking into Famous Lunch, a family-run lunch counter that's been slinging mini wieners since 1932. The place is perhaps the best-preserved slice of pure Americana I have ever encountered: griddle piled high with wieners in the window, a sprawling cherry-red counter top with stools occupied by blue-collar locals plus a few local Little Leaguers, and a menu maxing out at $5 (a "World Famous Hot Dog," topped with their signature Zippy meat sauce, costs $.75). Dazed by the drive and our various mental burdens, we hovered the doorway for a beat too long, until a brusque cook waved us inside with his grease-dripping spatula. "Move it!" he yelled, waving us inwards to a booth.
Our group of seven sprawled across two tables, glancing at the printer-paper menus. One side of the menu listed edible offerings from Zippyburgers to Zippyfries and RC cola, while the other contained Famous Lunch's "Famous Facts." It was there that I learned the lore of Famous Lunch: Originally opened as Quick Lunch, it remained as such until 1958, when a Troy-bred Marine stationed in Moscow supposedly craved mini wieners so desperately he had dozens of them shipped to the US Embassy and served at an Ambassador's birthday party."Operation Hot Dogs" was such a hit with the local media that Quick Lunch soon became "world famous," and nearly a century later, the name has stuck. "Why did my family choose hotdogs? I wish I could tell you," says third-generation owner Scott Vasil. "It's obviously not a traditional Greek food. I think my dad wanted to make something all-American: fast, delicious, and a good value," he says, citing the patriotic trifecta that's fueled our eating habits for generations.
So delicious were the dogs, in fact, that we ordered a dozen, and then a dozen more. An hour later, our fingers were stained with the scent of spiced meat and browned onions, and we were in high spirits, if a bit sluggish. Stoned with pleasure and pork, the sting of my heartbreak was temporarily sidelined by sheer sensory overload (and my pal's hangover was sandblasted clean out). Snappy, salty and deeply satisfying, Famous Lunch was, in that moment, the Platonic ideal of what an American lunch should be—and all that I needed to hit the road and keep going.
111 Congress Street, Troy, NY