I’ve mentioned several times in the past here at Albany.com why my wife and I decided to move to the Capital Region. In our humble opinions, our reasons were fortified with unassailable logic. Our reasons included, but were not limited to…
- Our need to compromise our Long Island vs. Western, New York differences
- The fact that we both enjoyed the nice suburban/rural feel of the area
- I had a good friend who lived here making the transition a little easier.
- Buying a quality house with a modicum of property was relatively affordable.
- The centralized location of the Capital Region never leaves one more than three hours from New York City, Montreal, Boston, and SUNY Oswego, all places near and dear to my heart.
However, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit I haven’t been completely honest with all of you. The thing that clinched the deal for me had a lot more to do with my passion, my addiction, my obsession…yes, that’s right, you guessed it….ice cream. Specifically the soft ice cream available at an establishment known to locals as the Country Drive-In.
Now I know what you all must be thinking. “Rob, how pathetic.” Yes, guilty as charged. My aforementioned friend who predated me as a denizen of the Capital Region introduced me to the wonders of the Country Drive-In. It was somewhere around the summer of 1990. I purchased a “small” ice cream cone which was about the size of my head. It cost like a dollar, and I was in heaven. I think I told my wife that day that we had to move here post haste. I needed to be near the Country Drive-In to satisfy my cravings. It would be the equivalent of a crystal meth addict moving closer to their dealer, except my teeth weren’t falling out and my face wasn’t all scabby.
As great as the ice cream was at the Country Drive-In, it wasn’t until we moved up here that I took notice of their other grand feature, their regular food. You see, growing up on Long Island, we didn’t have a lot of seasonal places, at least not in North Massapequa. If you wanted a good burger, you either went to one of the nearly half-dozen diners in and around North Massapequa, Massapequa, or Massapequa Park, or to a luncheonette such as Marty & Joe’s, in Calvert Manor on Hicksville Road, or the immortal Krisch’s located in the town of Massapequa right near the Long Island Railroad Station. The closest thing we had to a hamburger stand was a place called Sandy’s which featured pizza-burgers, as well as Zeppola’s, the Italian fried dough with powdered sugar treat. However, I’m also old enough to recall when the McDonald’s on Hempstead Turnpike was actually a stand, where there was no “McCafe” to be found, believe you-me. None of these places closed for the winter, so this was an entirely different experience altogether.
The outdoor hamburger stand is literally a slice of Americana. It’s typically a seasonal joint where families, young lovers, motorcycle gangs, and even a happy-go-lucky Mennonite family have been known to congregate together to sample the finest things that can be grilled, fried, or poured. When most people think about the drive-up hamburger stand, their thoughts logically drift towards Southern, California, where one’s life was literally dictated by the ubiquitous automobile. Therefore it’s no surprise that most fast food joints have their genesis in Southern, California.
As every teenager knows, the automobile represents freedom, specifically the freedom to come and go as one pleases. Where is typically the first place in Clifton Park where a new driver goes for their first solo mission? Country Drive-In, what else? What institution represents freedom more completely than a hamburger stand? Don’t believe me? Remember when the Soviet Union attempted to open up their society to a little glasnost, and show their downtrodden citizenry what “Western” freedom looked, smelled, and tasted like? They didn’t have them gather for a reading of the Declaration of Independence, instead they allowed a McDonald’s to open up in Moscow. “I’ll have a “Big Mac” with a side of “Freedom,” comrade.
There are of course many places in and around the Capital Region where one can enjoy the seasonal goodness of the hamburger/hot dog stand. For some though, they are better known as places to get a “fish fry.” “Fish fry” is a concept that was unknown to me on Long Island. This was due to the fact that my father hated fish, so it was a non-starter in the Hoffman house. Also, the concept of the “fish fry” has its roots in Christianity and the dietary rules set down by the church, so that certainly didn’t impact any of the eating decisions made in the Hoffman household.
Still some of the seasonal eateries here in the Capital Region literally bill themselves as “fish fry” joints. In Rensselaer for example, you have Gene’s Fish Fry, a staple in the seasonal burger/hot dog/fish fry community. There’s also Ted’s Fish Fry, but they’re not seasonal. You also can’t rule out Harbor House in Clifton Park, but they’re not seasonal either. Country Drive-In has a wonderful “fish fry” so I’m told by wife and son who weren’t raised by man who forbid fish in his house.
The beauty of a hamburger/hot dog stand is in its chili. There’s typically two kinds, the one that is more like a gravy and has bits of hot dog chopped up in it, the kind found at Johnny’s in Lakewood, New York, and the more traditional one that is chopped meat based, with a tomato sauce influence. From there, you add mustard and onions, and your hot dog has just come alive. It goes good on a hamburger as well, although you’re kind of putting chopped meat on chopped meat, which is sort of like wrapping your sausage in bacon, but I’m not sure anybody would complain about that. The chili sauce is also killer on french fries, which at the Country Drive-In is known as “Michigan Fries.” Why “Michigan Fries?” I have no idea, maybe because it’s taste is as spicy as a Motown record.
At any rate, while I feel that that chili dogs at the Country Drive-In are the region’s best, many claim that the best hamburger stand in the area is Jumpin’ Jacks Drive-In, located in Scotia, New York. Jumpin Jacks is a Capital Region institution, and few locals would even entertain any debate on the subject. Jumpin’ Jack’s in its original form opened in 1952 as an ice cream stand, but in 1956 it morphed into a place for great food as well. It has a great location, and is celebrated every year with a grander than grand opening. Its ice cream is excellent to be sure, and many people swear by its burgers with coleslaw on them, their signature move. However, I was a bit underwhelmed upon my visit there a few years ago, and I’m not sure if what people aren’t really tasting is the hype. In the inane Times Union feature, “Best of the Capital Region” voters always award the title of best hamburger “drive-In” or whatever they call the category to Jumpin’ Jacks, but they also overlook Devoe’s Orchards when they are handing out the award for best cider donuts in the Capital Region, so I wouldn’t read too much into what they say.
The beauty of driving up to an outdoor hamburger stand on a beautiful summer evening is one of the best cultural experiences of living in suburban/rural America. A chili-dog with a side order of onion rings, followed up by a soft-serve ice cream cone is an experience to be savored, and if it weren’t for Country Drive-In, I might be taking my kids for pizza and Italian Ices on a summer night down in Long Island. Wait, that actually sounds pretty good. Damn, why does life have to be so difficult?