Before it was famous, Famous Lunch in Troy was called Quick Lunch when it opened in 1932. And it's still quick today. In the front window hot dogs are plucked off the griddle, topped with mustard, chopped onions, and zippy sauce, and handed to eager customers in mere moments.
Zippy sauce -- for the uninitiated -- is a deeply savory concoction of onions, meat, and spices.
Those in a hurry could surely eat these diminutive three-inch wieners as quickly as they are assembled, although I wouldn't recommend it. Some things in life deserve to be savored. But that doesn't stop people from ordering them by the trayful in quantities of four, six, eight, or more.
Now while it may not be quite as quick, Famous Lunch's decidedly less famous breakfast is a very special treat. Specifically I'm referring to their egg and cheese sandwich on a hard roll with zippy sauce. It's not exactly on the menu, but they are more accommodating than one might imagine.
Some people might contemplate the notion of going to a famous hot dog place and not getting the hot dogs with deep scorn. But are you sure it's the restaurant's hot dogs that made them famous?
The story goes that in 1958 a Marine corporal stationed in Russia staged something called "Operation Hot Dogs" in which he arranged for Troy's unique mini dogs to be flown from Quick Lunch to Moscow. After the international media picked up on the story, these dogs, and this shop, became world famous. And thus, Famous Lunch was christened.
However, Hot Dog Charlie's has been doing it longer. Its Troy location opened in 1922 under the name of New Way Lunch. And what's more, at the time both places were getting their mini-dogs from the same provider, the now-closed Troy Pork Store.
So why did this corporal choose Quick Lunch over New Way Lunch?
We may never know for sure. But I would like to believe that the decision was based on their execution of the chili sauce. Today, it's clear that Famous Lunch has the best sauce of the bunch. Gus's in Watervliet may have a bit more heat, and Hot Dog Charlie's "pungent" version is the favorite of Mr. Dave. But I contend that the zippy sauce at Famous Lunch has a richness and depth that sets it apart. And more importantly, it's the only one of the three that, to my palate, doesn't suffer from the gritty, bitter taste of raw spices.
Behind the counter at Famous Lunch you will periodically see someone running a fresh hot pan of deep red zippy sauce from the kitchen, down the galley, to the front of the restaurant. Everyone makes way for the zippy sauce. In the window its contents are deposited in the porcelain pot of honor, which sits on the griddle to keep warm and ready for the next wave of mini hot-dogs.
There is a certain brilliance in taking this rich stewed concoction of onions, meat, chili powder, and other spices and pairing it with contrasting flavors and textures. Soft sweet cooked onions meet the crunch and bite of their raw counterparts. The richness of the sauce is cut by the acidity of the mustard. And the soft, unctuous quality of the meat is juxtaposed with the firm, juicy hot dog and the snap of its casing.
But pairing likes with likes can also give you something amazing.
Remember, fat carries flavor, and an egg and cheese sandwich is kind of like fat on fat. When it's done right, it's fat on fat on fat. A raw egg, even before it's been fried in fat has 63 percent of its calories from fat. American cheese can have over 70 percent of its calories from fat. And at Famous Lunch they know to "toast" the hard roll on the griddle with even more fat.
Really, this sandwich is a brilliant zippy sauce flavor delivery device. The richness of the sauce is wrapped up in the creaminess of the cheese and enriched by the egg yolk. There aren't a lot of strong flavors competing for attention. Just supporting players that make this classic warming, meaty, oniony concoction achieve the pinnacle of its existence.
No hot dog necessary. Although, while you are in Troy, you can always get one with the works as a side dish of sorts.
And breakfast is served all day. Just go to the counter and don't be shy about giving your order to anyone who will listen. If they are really busy, you may need to place your order up front before you take a seat.
When you're done with your meal, you'll have to go back up front and recite everything you ate so you can settle up your tab. Sometimes that can be daunting if you've had multiple waves of hot dogs with your friends. But luckily everything here is crazy cheap, so at least the bill itself is never painful.
It may not be the quickest system anymore, but that's the price of fame.
Daniel B. is the proprietor of the FUSSYlittleBLOG.
111 Congress St
Troy, NY 12180
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