If there is a signature food of the Capital Region, the little hot dog is it. Available at various Hot Dog Charlie’s locations, Troy’s Famous Lunch and Gus’s Hot Dogs, it is a part of the take-out food landscape here.
At Gus’s, customers are loyal. There’s a large customer base, said Steve Haita, who co-owns the restaurant with his mother, Renay. His father, Gus, started the restaurant in 1954. And that means a lot of little dogs; in fact, Haita estimates he sells “thousands a day.”
Gus’s Hot Dogs
WHERE: 212 25th St., Watervliet. Phone 273-8743.
WHEN: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays. Closed Sunday.
HOW MUCH: $8.40
MORE INFO: Cash only. No credit cards. Accommodations made for people in wheelchairs.
My mom was wearing a neatly ironed yellow cotton outfit embroidered with flowers when I picked her up for lunch. “You’re going to be the best dressed person there,” I told her. But Gus’s is democratic, drawing from all groups in our community, we discovered. You see, everyone can afford to eat there, and the food is especially good.
Plain and simple
Gus’s has the ambience of no ambience. It’s a hot dog stand, not much more than a shack, and the asphalt dining area consists of about a dozen picnic tables with umbrellas in various states of fadedness. There are 15 seats inside. In the winter, it can be bleak, but in the summer, some loving gardener fills the raised beds to bursting with flowers. Sunflowers and dahlias tower over roses, cleome, marigolds, saucer-sized hibiscus, petunias, cosmos. Pots strewn casually about the place overflowed with more. It’s absolutely, utterly charming.
We approached the window cautiously, craning our necks to take it all in. The front of the stand is part menu, part community bulletin board. And everyone was really nice to us, especially the guy who patiently wrote our order on a small white tablet.
So you tell the guy what you want and you move over two feet to the next window to pick it up and pay. Don’t root around in your pockets for exact change, there’s a line of people behind you, for Pete’s sake. But be careful — I almost stumbled off the small step in front of the window. The guy behind righted me, or perhaps moved me out of the way to put in his order for “six with the works to go.”
I took the loaded tray to the shady spot Mom picked out near some roses and cosmos, and we examined everything closely. Mom got a dog with the works (60 cents), a cheeseburger ($1.30), and sausage patty with onions and green pepper ($1.50). The hot dogs come from Old World Provisions, which has acquired Troy’s Helmbold’s.
“The meat sauce is delicious, with just a little bit of heat,” said Mom, between bites. The Bella Napoli hot dog buns have a nice chew to them and the thin meat sauce doesn’t warm the entire mouth, just bits of it. I’m not a meat sauce fan, but Mom loved it. Gus’s is generous with the condiments, and we both liked the fresh chopped onions. As for the hot dogs, they’ve been described as honest, hard-working dogs. They snap when you bite ’em.
The burgers look a bit small in their buns but are thick and satisfying. These have chopped onions, too, and plenty of ketchup. There are no frills. “Just give me the basics,” said Mom, approvingly, finishing hers off.
The sausage patties ($1.50) are topped with onion and pepper. “Cooked together and slightly browned,” said Mom. “Just the way I’d do it at home.” It’s sweet Italian sausage, purchased in bulk, a bit spicy. “I’d go back for another,” she added.
A bag of Lay’s plain potato chips and a can of soda will set you back 80 cents each and round out the meal. As we dined al fresco, we appraised the clientele — families with small children, guys dressed in business casual, grandmas, toddlers. Some have been eating Gus’s food for generations. They must know something, but now you do, too.
You bus your own table, separating the cans from the trash. And here’s the thing: Everyone does it. There wasn’t one stray plate, bag, or straw left behind; every table was clean. Clearly, there is a feeling of sharing something special here. On a local restaurant rating site, one customer called Gus’s “a happy place.” Another said, “It’s so much more than it seems.”
Our lunch came to $8.40. It is, as someone wrote, “an insane deal.” Oh, and “Gus’s rocks!” Part of the appeal, I think, of the little dogs is that they’re ours. And certainly, part of the appeal of Gus’s, is that it’s ours, too.