Detroit’s Dog, The Coney Island
Culinary discovery: The Coney Island (aka Coney Dog, Coney Island Dog or just Coney)
With its ethnic diversity and great new local restaurants opening up on a regular basis, Detroit is enjoying a bit of a culinary renaissance. Being a traveling chef, I found myself heading there for a couple of days, and again set out in my hunt for hidden regional American culinary gems. I started my research on what was truly “Detroit food” and unique to the area. After a brief search, three things kept popping up: Detroit-style pizza, the loose meat hamburger, and the Coney Island. To narrow this down I talked to a few Detroit natives. It quickly became clear that the Coney Island Dog was the hands-down winner in their hearts.
A little history: in 1913 New York passed a law that Coney Island restaurants could no longer use the words “hot dogs” on their signs (apparently many patrons were easily confused believing that they contained actual dog in the sausage). Around this same time, New York also saw a large influx of Greek and Macedonian immigrants, who settled in the Coney Island area. Since there was a law forbidding the wording of “hot dog”, the Greek and Macedonian immigrants would not come to know them by that name, and began to only refer to them as Coney Islands or Coney’s.
As the Greeks and Macedonians moved west and began to settle the Midwest, particularly Michigan, they began to open restaurants supplying American-style cheap eats that were easy to make, including the Coney Islands. As the first establishments became popular, copycats began to proliferate across the landscape. There may well be more Coney Island restaurants in Detroit than gas stations. When and where the first Coney Island restaurant was established is something of debate. What is obvious, though, is that the Coney Dog is near and dear to Michigan residents! You may just start a public brawl if you ask a group of locals where you can find the best one.
I plotted my route, grabbed my appetite, and off I went, guided by my friend and fellow research chef Jim Lombardi.
What components make a Coney Dog?
While there are slight differences between restaurants, it is a simple recipe with standard items that were not often deviated from.
- BUN: Steamed white bun, no seeds, no garnish.
- HOT DOG: Either pork or all-beef. If you ask a Coney dog aficionado, an all-beef natural casing is a must and I agree.
- CONEY SAUCE: This is where you will taste the most variation between establishments. It reminds me of thinner, finely ground chili. The cheaper chili, the better, closer to what comes out of a can than one that would win a chili cook off. Apparently the Coney sauce recipes are closely guarded, but should come as no surprise that these started off as inexpensive meals. The sauce is normally made from almost exclusively finely ground beef hearts and kidneys that are cooked in a chili-like sauce.
- MUSTARD: Standard yellow American mustard.
- ONIONS: Diced white onions. The size, freshness, and variety will make a subtle, but in my opinion, large impact on the finished product. I liked them very fresh, small diced, but not ground, with a slightly sweeter taste.
This Detroit tradition is almost always made in the same order; bun, dog, chili, mustard, and onions. Sometimes in our complex lives life we crave a little simplicity.
1. Leo’s Coney Island
LOCATION: A true chain with 58 locations
NOTES: A solid entry into the Coney Island category, and a good place to start my culinary field trip. It had a brightly lit neon outdoor sign and was clean on the inside. The Coney sauce was very thin and made for a messy eating experience. In the end, it was a good place to get a Coney fix.
2. National Coney Island
LOCATION: They have over 18 locations.
NOTES: A classic Coney Island dog, but it felt like a chain from the second I walked in.
3. Lafayette Coney Island
LOCATION: 118 W Lafayette Blvd.
NOTES: This is a Detroit staple since 1914 and from the décor I’m guessing it hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1917. This is a classic, old world diner complete with outdated seafoam colored walls, covered with pictures of famous customers, slightly dirty tiles and a busy-at-any-time of the day counter around the grill. This is the definition of a hole-in-the-wall. If you don’t come here expecting anything more than a great Coney, a trip back in time, and slightly grumpy service, you won’t be disappointed.
My friend Jim was correct in saying this would be the best Coney of the day, executed to simple perfection. The bun was soft and warm, the hot dog had snap from a natural casing, the sauce was not dominating, the mustard sharp and the onions a nice size and very fresh.
4. American Coney Island
LOCATION: 114 W Lafayette Blvd.
NOTES: This is right next to Lafayette Coney Island, and yes it was started by a rival brother who at one time had the same recipe for the Coney dog. While a good Coney, it did not match up to the Lafayette. The bun was not as soft, and I question if they even steamed it. The chili seemed to have less mystery meat and more cumin, and the onions were almost ground and not as fresh tasting. I am being nitpicky here, but I had them two minutes apart and it was a hands-down win for Lafayette. The decorations were all red, white and blue to go along with the American name, and in my opinion took away from the traditional feel that their rival had. If you make it this far for a simple Coney, you must try both and make up your own mind.