Noah's ode to local fast food

local fast food

By Noah Sheetz

soapbox badgeWhen I was a freshman at the University of North Texas, just north of Dallas, I worked at an opinion research call center. It was a job that appealed to college students with limited work experience. We were given free rein to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee by the truckload while we worked. We made random cold calls to people on sample lists all over the country and conducted surveys on anything from camera film to real estate. The survey I most often worked on was for fast food -- McDonald's, actually, but we weren't allowed to "speculate" about the survey client. Usually after 20 or 30 McDonald's related questions however, the survey taker caught on. "Is this survey for McDonald's?" "Well I don't know, we're not allowed to speculate about who the client is...."

Despite being McDonalds-centric, I learned a lot about fast food from the survey which, by the time I'd quit working at the call center, I could recite completely without having to look once at the question prompts on the computer monitor.

There are scores and scores of fast food chains all across the country serving up everything: pizza, hot dogs, Mexican and Italian food, subs, burgers, pretzels, donuts, chicken sandwiches and more. Despite the dizzying array of options, the national and global fast food industry is dominated by only a handful of corporations. The food in every chain is meticulously standardized so that a McDonald's burger or a Chipotle burrito will taste the same in Branson, Missouri or Portland, Oregon. There is little or no regional reflection left in any of the big chain fast food restaurants and there are few, if any, independent operators left.

When I moved to New York in 1999 to go to cooking school I was in awe of how much more slowly the process of fast food chain infiltration seemed to be occurring here.

I was happy to discover a number of local fast food restaurants in the Capital Region, each with its own unique history that continues to serve their own interesting specialties.

They are not only successful but they are a regional tradition, part of an independent fast food history that has all but completely disappeared from most of America's landscape. When it comes to the big chains, we should also remember what it means to support the local players in our economy. After all, every dollar spent locally gets re-spent locally. From the perspective of flavor, I personally can't imagine splurging on fast food from any non-local source, not after knowing what I know now.

Here are a few of my favorite local fast food delicacies from around the Capital Region:

Jack's Drive-in, Wynantskill

Jack's drive-in sign.jpg

Everything about Jack's Drive-in is classic 50s vintage, like a backdrop in a set on the movie Back to the Future. The cooks still wear short-sleeve white collared shirts and there is no inside seating area, only a few scattered picnic tables with umbrellas.

Jack's Drive in Kitchen

Jack's Drive in

The small slope roofed shack has one sliding window where orders are taken and relayed to a small army of cooks in some strange verbal shorthand. "Hot wit" means a hot dog with the works: relish, onions, and mustard.

Jack's is known for a great slider (they're about the size of a White Castle burger but infinitely better). Native Trojans dreamily reminisce about the mouth-watering smell of caramelizing onions that emits from the shack hours before the drive-in opens in the late morning. A slider with the works is nothing more than a small burger with caramelized onions. I love it. It's perfectly delicious -- simple by design, no re-invention of the wheel here.

The menu at Jack's features little more than hot dogs, sliders and fries. While the sliders seem to be the stand out, the hot dogs and fries are equally tasty. The fries, while seemingly not hand cut, have an "old fashioned" flavor that is unlike any that are currently being sold by the big chains.

Chubby's Eastside, Troy

Chubby's exterior (Sheetz).jpg

Chubby's is known for its Top Rounder, a roast beef sandwich that is served on a butter griddled sesame roll with tiger sauce, which is basically horseradish and mayo. It is very simple and delicious and I wouldn't change a thing if I could. Again, why re-invent the wheel?

Chubby burger and fries.jpg

Perhaps one of the most decadent fast food creations on the planet to date is Chubby's Michigan Fries. They most definitely are not for the calorie conscious but are absolutely a must try -- even if it's just once in a lifetime. Cheese and french fries is a combination that seems like a fail-safe and natural combination, but many times can surprisingly fall short on expectations. Often hard cheese is coarsely shredded and melted over the top of french fries only to end up like a spackle that pulls completely away when you grab a fry. In the end you eat the fries and cheese separately and then what's the point of trying to combine the two in the first place. Such is not the case at Chubby's Eastside where cheese, chili and french fries come together in a delicious and homogenous mass. At Chubby's they use a "liquid cheese" product that, with the chili, is evenly distributed throughout the fries. You definitely need a fork to eat these babies. Michigan Fries are outrageously delicious and will likely blow your diet for an entire month.

Chubby's also fries potato chips from real potatoes daily. They're addicting.

Famous Lunch, Troy

Hembolts hot dogs.jpg

"How many?"

"Two, three at the most," I replied, thinking about the standard size of most hot dogs and my appetite.

It was my birthday and my Troy co-workers were treating me to Famous Lunch for lunch. "Why don't you start with six and if you're still hungry you can eat more. They're small." I was told. Turns out I was good for eight and they were delicious. Tiny dogs in tiny buns, all covered with chili and kraut and lined up in large white trays. The White Castle of chili dogs, they're messy but hard to put down. The fries, cut from real potatoes and fried to order, are also delicious.

Legend has it that, until recently, the hot dog makers could be seen through the massive glass windows of the storefront as they mass produced the hot dogs. First they would line the entire length of one arm with hot dog buns and then, with circus showmanship, would toss on the hot dogs and toppings (unfortunately, this practice stopped at some point after a visit from the health department).

Red Front, Troy

Red Front sign (sheetz).jpg

I'm often surprised that commercial pizza chains were bold enough to venture into the home-land of multi-generational "classic pizza." I'm even more surprised that there are native New Yorkers out there who are open to the idea of slumming it at any of the commercial chains when the real McCoy is on just about every street corner.

To a southerner who knows little more than Pizza Hut and Dominos, learning about good pizza has been exciting as I learn about alternate styles and toppings: Sicilian, wood fired, white, with broccoli, with broccoli rabe, with ziti? Yes, countless pie shops like I Love New York make the classic pie with ziti baked into cheese topping. It's kind of a baked ziti/pizza hybrid of sorts, I guess.

COB Redfront.jpg

To a novice pizza eater such as myself Red Front's COB (or cheese on bottom, sauce on top) seems to defy the traditional principles of pizza making and would seem to be the perfect recipe for a culinary train wreck. The results are actually quite delicious, however. The pizza sauce and cheese seem to reverse roles as the cheese melts into soft molten lava and the tomato sauce bakes into a thick red paste that cracks. But, as with any great pizza, a crisp and chewy crust is a must and Red Front does not disappoint. The COB is another simply designed creation that is perfectly satisfying all by itself without any hokey toppings or side dishes.

The restaurants above are only a few that have come highly recommended to me by locals and friends alike, and that I have had the pleasure of checking out in person. There are still several independent fast food businesses in the Capital Region who continue to serve up their own unique and historical specialties every day.

For me life has changed a bit since my care-free college days. I don't smoke anymore, or drink quite as much coffee, and I try to exercise... and eat healthy. Most of the time. When I decide to throw caution to the wind, those are a few places where I might turn up.

While I was in cooking school I learned the statistics for restaurant failure. Half of all restaurants that open will go bankrupt within the first year that they are open for business. Half of the half that make it past the one year mark will go bankrupt within the next five years. Beyond five years I'm sure that the failure rate continues to increase. Restaurants like Jack's Drive-in and Hemboldt's that continue to do business more than fifty years later must be doing something that continues to put smiles on fast food lovers' faces.

There are just too many great places in the Capital Region to cast your diet aside and dive into divine local specialties.... like Michigan fries.

Noah Sheetz is an executive chef, local food advocate, and a member of the Chefs Consortium.

Update: This piece originally referred to Famous Lunch as Helmbold's -- which is the brand of hot dogs served there.


When referring to Hemboldt's, I think you may of had Famous Lunch in Troy. Famous Lunch uses Hembold's hot dogs and as far as I know Hembold's make the dogs but doesn't have a restaurant that serves them.
--Respect where its due, Famous Lunch rocks....

Editors: Thanks for catching that. Fixed.

Hot Harry's Fresh Burritos on Union Street Schenectady and a number of other locations in the region is a wonderful example of fresh and fast food. California style and so yummy!

Mmmmm, Jack's. My mouth is watering. Definitely my favorite hometown fast food joint.

Famous Lunch is so good! I'm so in love with Red Front's regular pizza I can't seem to bring myself to order anything else off of the menu.

I too love local fast food options - so fun!

I have to confess that Chubby's wasn't even on my radar until reading this. Now it's on the short list. It sounds like the top round sandwich is a version of the heralded Neba that Mike's used to make. I wonder if we can get a ruling from Mr. Dave.

The beautiful fast food eats that are Rensselaer County. Next Rensselaer County fast food stop: Off Shore Pier in North Greenbush - combination fish monger and fish fry.

Would love to see more fast food eats from Saratoga, Schenectady and Albany Counties. Maybe a regular feature from Chef Noah?

Oh, how i miss L-Ken's on Central Ave in Albany.Does anyone know of an outdoor driove in style place like that near the Pine Hills neighborhood? Kurver Kreme does serve hot dogs,but not burgers , or fries, etc?

Everything tastes better when prepared with the love and attention of a local foodie. I'm sure international franchises have a place in society though local fast food joints have the corner on "real" food that are unique to their neighborhood. All it takes to keep these jewels around is to drop-in and enjoy!

You forgot to add Gus's hot dog in Watervliet and Hot Dog Charlie's and ted's fish fry to the list.

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