"Like any hot dog style that's been around for almost 100 years, the Detroit Coney has migrated far and wide."
Detroit's Coney Island hot dog phenomenon has almost nothing to do with Brooklyn's Coney Island (similar to its cousin the Texas Weiner, which has absolutely no relation to Texas). At first glance, the Coney might just look like your average chili dog—but don't say that to anyone in Michigan, Ohio, upstate New York, or any of the other far-reaching places where the Coney has migrated.
In Detroit, a "Coney" is a natural casing beef and pork dog covered in ridiculous amounts of Coney Sauce, yellow mustard, and chopped fresh onions. Served at Greek diners at all hours, one of the defining characteristics of a Coney seems to be the sauce—there's so much of it, you need a plate and full set of silverware. Cheese is an option but not as standard until you start moving toward Ohio and Cincinnati chili territory.
The mysterious "Coney Sauce" bears a resemblance to the Texas Chili and Greek Sauce you find on hot dogs in New Jersey—beef chili, no beans, cooked slowly and flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. Some recipes call for ground-up hot dogs thrown in the mix (as do some Jersey Greek sauce recipes). But the difference is in the texture and secret ingredients like beef hearts, lard, bacon grease, and olives. The Detroit Coney sauce is much "wetter" and a bit milder than the East Coast's Greek sauce, and more often served on its own in a bowl.
Many of the older Coney Island restaurants in Detroit also offer what they call a loose hamburger, a Detroit version of the Maid-Rite burger, but served on a hot dog bun. The truly adventurous can order a combo: a hot dog covered in both Coney sauce and loose meat plus cheese, onions and mustard. At this point we're almost getting into poutine and Frito pie territory (which sounds pretty good to me).
The Legend of the Detroit Coney Dog
It goes back to Gust Keros, a Greek immigrant who went to Detroit (by way of Coney Island, New York) and opened American Coney Island in 1912. A few years later his brother opened Lafayette Coney Island right nextdoor, and both still operate to this day in an awesome side-by-side restaurant battle.
All over Detroit there's an abundance of Coney Island restaurants that serve Coney dogs as well as a full diner menu of gyros, liver and onions, Greek salads, hot wings, and fish sandwiches. The atmosphere is more like an East Coast greasy spoon or Greek pizza place than a hot dog stand.
Like any hot dog style that's been around for almost 100 years, the Coney has migrated far and wide. In Flint, Michigan you can get a Flint Coney that locals will stress has nothing to do with Detroit. A Flint Coney has a much dryer sauce that doesn't run everywhere (similar to the "loose hamburger" mentioned above) and seems to favor Koegel's brand hot dogs. Over in Jackson, Todoroff's has been open since 1914 and sells chili, baked beans, hot dogs and beer next to the train station.
Video: Foodways in Michigan
Coney Dogs Outside of Michigan
You can find Coney Islands as far east as Massachusetts (at George's Coney Island Hot Dogs in Worcester) and north into Canada.
But by far the most interesting riff on the Detroit Coney has got to be the "Michigan" or "Red Hots" served in Northeastern New York state at institutions like Clare and Carl's, where they serve the dogs blanketed in Coney sauce, on New England-style buns—a variation I hope to try someday soon.
There's a sort of "Hot Dog Twilight Zone" in central New York state and Pennsylvania where the "Texas Weiner-Coney Dog" line is very hard to define. Some stands use both "Texas" and "Coney" terms on their menus, and are usually Greek-owned (or used to be). Generally the hot dog wording is indicative of where the regions cultural and culinary influence comes from—the East Coast or the heartland. Sort of like the invisible "Hoagie-Submarine Sandwich" line in New Jersey that separates the Philadelphia-Jersey folks from the New York-Jersey folks.
If you want to make your own Coney sauce, check out this great recipe made with beef hearts. Or if you're in the area, swing by one of these Detroit and Flint Coney Island Dog institutions.
American Coney Island
115 Michigan Avenue, Detroit MI 48226 (map)
Lafayette Coney Island
118 W. Lafayette Blvd., Detroit MI 48226 (map)
Angelo's Coney Island
1816 Davison Road, Flint MI 48506 (map)
Todoroff's Original Coney Island
1200 W. Parnall Road, Jackson MI 49201 (map)
Hawk Krall is a Philadelphia-based illustrator who has a serious thing for hot dogs. Dig his dog drawings? Many of the illustrations he has created for Hot Dog of the Week are available for sale: hawkkrall.net/prints/.