Hot Dog of the Week: Cincinnati Cheese Coney
"The short, stubby franks are smaller than the bun to hold in the ridiculous amounts of chili, fresh onions, and finely shredded mild cheddar cheese."
Past Weeks' Dogs
You might think we just featured Coneys, but don't say that to anyone from Detroit, where mounds of cheese are as much of a "hot dog crime" as ketchup. As regional food guru Calvin Trillin famously said: "Anybody who doesn't think that the best hamburger place in the world is in his hometown is a sissy." And I'd say the same goes for hot dogs.
Cheese Coneys are a unique piece of the Greek hot dog evolutionary puzzle, served not at hot dog stands but at Cincinnati chili parlors known for cinnamon and chocolate-spiked chili served in "ways." Each "way" includes an additional element—either spaghetti, onions, cheese, or beans—all topped with oyster crackers if you desire. (Saltines are blasphemy.)
Cincinnati chili is the star of a Cheese Coney. The pork and beef natural casing dogs are purposefully made blander than Detroit Coneys as to not interfere with the flavor of the holy chili.
The short, stubby franks are smaller than the bun to hold in the ridiculous amounts of chili, fresh onions, and finely shredded mild cheddar cheese—so much cheese that it barely melts, resulting in a fluffy, heaping bright yellow crown. Mustard is the standard condiment although some prefer a few drops of hot sauce.
There are some variations. You can of course order a Coney without cheese or onions, or even without the hot dog—known as a "chili sandwich"—similar to the loose meat on a bun available in Detroit. The "Alligator" found at Dixie Chili, a small chain in Kentucky, consists of a hot dog on a bun with a dill pickle spear, mustard, mayo, and cheese, but no chili.
All of these chilis and Coney sauces from New Jersey to Michigan are really Americanized versions of a Greek Bolognese sauce that regularly includes cinnamon, cumin, and bay leaf. The Texas or Coney themes were simply a genius marketing tool to sell a new style of dining to Americans.
I'm still convinced there was a secret Greek hot dog society that met in a Brooklyn basement somewhere around 1903.
Over the years the sauces have changed drastically. Every region has its own flavor, ingredients, and secrets, but Cincinnati Chili might have the strongest flavor of them all. This is not a bland sauce—not hot but just a deep, really unique flavor like nothing else you've ever had.
The first on record to serve Greek Chili and Coneys in Cincinnati were Tom and John Kiradjeff, who came over from Greece and opened a hot dog stand next to a burlesque theater in 1922. This stand eventually became Empress Chili.
Chili parlors really took off in 1949 when Nicholas Lambrinides, a chef at Empress, went off on his own and opened the now ubiquitous chain Skyline Chili. Then there are plenty of independent parlors: Camp Washington, also founded by a former Empress chef, and Blue Ash Chili, the locals' favorite.
Cincinnati-style chili and hot dogs have also spread into nearby Kentucky and Indiana. There's a Skyline in Florida, and a Coney Island restaurant in Oklahoma City (which overlaps Texas Chili territory) has been serving Coneys, Greek chili on spaghetti, and Frito pies since 1924.
8340 Vine Street, Cincinnati OH 45216 (map)
Various locations in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana
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/.