Battle of the tiny tube steaks: mini-hot dog taste test

Mini Hot Dogs

Mini-hot dogs from the National Hot Dog Day tasting. Clockwise starting at 9 o’clock: Famous Lunch, Hot Dog Charlie’s, Gus’s, Country Drive-In, Jack’s.

In honor of National Hot Dog Day we attended a mini-hot dog taste test, comparing five prominent vendors in upstate New York. Interns from Gramercy Communications sped to the five locations and brought back their payload at roughly the same time. The establishments involved were Famous Lunch in Troy, Hot Dog Charlie’s of Lansingburgh, Gus’s in Watervliet, Country Drive-In of Clifton Park and Jack’s in Wyantskill.

A mini-hot dog is one of the defining cuisine items of our area. It features a teeny frankfurter, always made by Helmold, on a wee bun about four inches long. The dogs are often garnished with onions and mustard, but more important there is almost always a meat sauce made from ground beef and various herbs and spices plus possibly a tomato component (there is some debate on that last ingredient). You need at minimum three of these to make a meal, and half a dozen is by no means gluttony.

For a fair contest, each of the entrants should have been garnished the same way, probably with nothing but meat sauce. Two of the dogs I tried added onions, and one was slathered with mustard as well. Looking at my photos of the distribution tables after I left the event, I discovered that all but one of the selections was indeed available with just meat sauce. So the interns who had provided such careful control in the hunting and gathering process ended up pushing their personal favorite condiments when it came to serving. (Nobody ASKED me if I wanted mustard and onions.)

But that’s a distraction, because when it comes down to it these dogs must be, and were, judged on their meat sauce alone. (The buns, like the frankfurters, are generic.) And the clear winner was Famous Lunch of Troy. Their “Zippy” sauce has just the right kick from paprika, spices and an overall well-balanced and greasy flavor profile. Jack’s, Gus’s and Country Drive-In were all equivalent just a slight step below, and Hot Dog Charlie’s unfortunately finished out of the running. Their sauce was uninteresting (too bad, since it’s the only one widely available at retail) and also the buns were stale.

The event took place at the Innovation Garage in Troy and donations supported the Regional Food Bank of Upstate New York. If you’re interested in experimenting with your own sauce, here is one that claims to be like Famous Lunch (no tomato) and here is a replication of Hot Dog Charlie’s sauce.

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2 Responses to Battle of the tiny tube steaks: mini-hot dog taste test

  1. KingOfBeacon says:

    I thought some of them get their dogs and buns from different people? Maybe I was misinformed. I do agree that Famous is the best of the bunch. Though I put Charlie well above Gus. Gus’s sauce was like 10 lbs of paprika with water, salt, and a little bit of meat. It tasted like bitter paprika paste. Never again.

    • Burnt My Fingers says:

      I compared the frankfurters for casing, diameter and grind and they looked identical to me. Saw no reason to doubt the usual attribution to Helmold. The buns might come from different bakers, but there’s nothing to differentiate them and very little taste; they’re just platforms for the dog and sauce.

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