The United States is a nation of hot dog lovers, ever since the first frankfurter was wolfed down on Coney Island in the 1880s and quickly became a powerful icon of summer fun. But the pink sausage has other meanings, too. When hard times hit, we often turn to “tube steaks” for sustenance at bargain-basement prices. What’s in them? We wonder, but go on chewing.

America has many hot dog traditions, and they tend to be regionally based. In Northern New Jersey, hot dogs are deep fried until a rip appears on the side, while the southern part of the state prefers them poached in water or cooked on a flat griddle. In New York City, the habit of eating franks with sauerkraut and mustard dates from the days when they were regarded as German fare—which may go back as far as the 1820s, when German sailors flooded the downtown piers.

At least since the 1920s, the Hudson Valley in upstate New York has been a hot bed of hot dogs.

Chicago has its Red Hots, lividly carmine and topped with a frankly weird combination of ingredients too long to mention here; while the opulence and range of choices available at Pink’s in L.A. would make a person from Frankfurt, Germany—where the term “frankfurter” comes from— scratch her head in wonder.

At least since the 1920s, the Hudson Valley in upstate New York has been a hot bed of hot dogs. In fact, the declining fortunes of former industrial towns such as Troy, Cohoes, and Watervliet has placed long-running frankfurter joints at the center of the culinary scene. Mainly fanning out from Albany, the state’s capital, to the north and west, these glorified hot dog stands have some unusual features that make them worthy of exploration. And so it was that two friends and I decided to embark on an extreme hot dog run one winter afternoon in one of the country’s richest regions, wiener-wise.

Next page: The top dogs of Schenectady

We started out in Schenectady, a small city 20 miles northwest of Albany near the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers, known principally as the corporate home of General Electric. Up a hill a few blocks south of downtown lies Newest Lunch (715 Albany St, Schenectady; 518-377-6580). But it isn’t so new: Founded in 1921, the spot shows its age inside, with wooden booths and swirling red stools, along a pale green Formica counter.

The menu has expanded over the years to include soups, wraps, and salads, but hot dogs and burgers still form its core. The slender, natural-skin franks are of conventional length and topped with a chili sauce that’s really just finely ground beef, with perhaps a touch of cinnamon. Raw onions and mustard are added if you want your dog “all the way.” The ancillary “Newest Burger” sports the same ground-meat topping, and is well worth ordering on its own.

If you took a blindfolded taste test, you’d never identify it as chili.

Where did the ground meat topping come from, and why is it sometimes called chili? Well, like the red-braised onion condiment available on hot dogs from New York City street carts, it was invented by Greek hot dog vendors who repurposed a sauce they were familiar with from the old country, something like the filling in the casserole called pastitsio. They may have called it chili based on the nationwide popularity of chili con carne, which caused a sensation at Chicago’s Columbia Exposition of 1893. The chili sauce at Newest Lunch—typical of the genre—contains no cumin, ground chilies, oregano, or beans. If you took a blindfolded taste test, you’d never identify it as chili.

Our next stop was downhill a few blocks and across the street from Schenectady’s Amtrak station. Dating from the 1950s, Mike’s (1135 Erie Boulevard, Schenectady; 518-382-9213) is more well-known than Newest Lunch. The squat brick building boasts an abundance of neon on top, proclaiming “First Prize Frankfurts” and “Finest Ever Made.” The interior is like a museum, with seats limited to a very long counter with views out the picture windows of weeds and rundown railroad architecture.

The hot dog is very good indeed in a veal-y sort of way, the alarmingly pale link is topped with a chili sauce more fine-grained and subtle than most. But even better are the skin-on french fries, and—looking very much like a hamburger on its puffy round bun – a skinless Italian sausage sandwich served with white American cheese, fried onions, and ketchup. It was delicious, but left us scratching our heads as to how it had come about.

Next page: Entering “Tiny Frank Territory”…

A short drive east took us to Hot Dog Charlie’s (618 Saratoga St, Cohoes, NY; 518-235-4494), just 12 miles north of Albany on west bank of the Hudson River. During the drive we crossed an invisible line into what might be called “Tiny Frank Territory.” Part of a three-branch chain that includes stores in Rensselaer and Clifton Park, Charlie’s affects a more modern demeanor than many of the hot doggeries in the area, occupying a low-slung drive-in location with big picture windows that might be mistaken for a McDonald’s or an Arby’s.

But here’s something weird: In addition to the typical franks with chili sauce, the chain also sells a miniature hot dog that’s only three inches in length, deposited in a wee little bun as if manufactured by Munchkins. The tiny frank seems to be made from the same forcemeat as the regular hot dog, and comes with the same standard toppings of chili and mustard. We were going to see many more of those miniature franks before the day was done, which led us to wonder: Why would anyone want to eat a wiener so small? The answer: It’s just plain fun! My crew and I also enjoyed another of Hot Dog Charlie’s specialties—french fries sluiced with melted cheese and topped with tons of bacon. It was so good, we nearly forgot to eat our franks.

During the drive we crossed an invisible line into what might be called “Tiny Frank Territory.”

The town just south of Cohoes is called Watervliet. Despite its Belgian name, the last syllable is pronounced “Vleet” instead of “Vlie-ay,” and its most famous eatery is a hot dog stand called Gus’s Hotdogs (212 25th St, Watervliet, NY; 518-273-8743). The place is housed in a ramshackle frame structure painted dark red, whose interior has only two booths and five stools. I’ll never forget the first time I went there in the dead of winter—the fry cooks were wearing bubble parkas and huddling together near the stove. The stove itself was just a giant rectangular griddle with a ridge around it, which filled up with grease as the day progressed, proving the perfect medium to cook hot dogs and hamburgers.

At this point we were totally in Tiny Frank Territory, and all the hot dogs were of the three-inch variety, with no regular franks served. You’d better eat four or five of them if you want to fill up—topped with the rather oily chili that’s Gus’s trademark.

The place also sells small hamburgers and small Italian sausage sandwiches—the latter featuring a round skinless patty made of pork laced with fennel seed and topped with onions and peppers like a regular Italian sausage hero. The hot dogs are fine, but this sausage sandwich— akin to the one at Mike’s only smaller— is one of the great culinary wonders of New York State, along with Buffalo chicken wings and beef-on-weck. Gus’s also offers a small so-called “Greek burger” topped with the same meat sauce, confirming our impression that the “chili” is of Greek origin.

Next page: How Famous Lunch became famous…

But we’d saved the best for last. Directly across the Hudson River lies Troy, New York—a town that once made celluloid shirt colors, but is now famous principally as the home of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, an engineering school located on top of a bluff overlooking the city. Below is Famous Lunch (111 Congress Street, Troy, NY; 518-272-9481), where there’s a griddle in the window with tiny hot dogs perfectly aligned like soldiers on parade.

The inside is similar to Newest Lunch, and of about the same vintage. It turns out Famous Lunch was founded in 1932, when it was known as Quick Lunch. As the story goes, in 1958 a marine stationed at the Moscow embassy developed a craving for the tiny franks that the Russian capital could not satisfy. So he arranged for the hot dogs to be shipped from Troy to Moscow and ate them with the American ambassador. The story which was picked up by the wire services, leading the hot dog stand to rename itself Famous Lunch.

Like Gus’s, Famous Lunch serves only miniature hot dogs in miniature buns, but theirs are topped with “Zippy Sauce,” a name coined for the meat sauce, in apparent acknowledgement that it has nothing to do with chili con carne. The Zippy Sauce has some finely chopped onions in it, and folks usually eat five hot dogs with mustard and meat sauce, washed down with an RC Cola. But Famous Lunch may harbor the explanation for the origin of the tiny franks. Until seven years ago, there was a German butcher shop called Troy Pork Store, founded in 1918 just a few blocks from Famous Lunch. It was the place that supplied the sausages until it closed.

Why would a German butcher shop carry tiny hot dogs? Well, a similar-size product has long been available everywhere in the U.S. in cans, called Vienna sausages. So maybe the tiny hot dogs originated in Vienna, rather than Frankfurt. Only a careful search of immigration records from a century ago can confirm this. Until then, let’s just enjoy the tiny hot dogs.