Seasoned hot doggers and travelers who've been to (or read about) countless old-school "Coney" stands around the country might be thinking, "Big deal, another 100-year-old Greek lunch spot that serves cheap hot dogs covered in not-so-secret sauce." At least, I was, before actually visiting Detroit. But Detroit Coneys are not the same as every other place—not even close—and Lafayette's Coney is up there with the best hot dogs I've ever had.
A true Detroit Coney starts with a grilled, natural casing, beef-and-pork "Vienna"—sort of a hybrid between a milder German wiener and a Chicago-style all-beef dog. It's slightly spicy, reddish-pink, just a bit longer than the bun, and blanketed with mustard, diced onions, and so much Coney sauce that it needs to be served on a plate with a knife and fork.
Along with the awesome frankfurter, the coney sauce is what really vaults the Detroit Coney far above the competition. This is not the hastily thrown together, burnt, bitter and greasy "hot dog sauce" you find at lesser hot dog joints, nor is it anything at all like the allspice- and cinnamon-spiked Greek chili you find in Cincinnati.
It's a rich, deep, yet mildly spiced and intensely meaty sauce—made with things like beef hearts and kidneys, and maybe even ground up hot dogs or cracker meal. Whatever the ingredients, it's the best hot-dog-sauce style "chili" I've ever tasted.
I couldn't leave without also trying American Coney Island next door, which has been Lafayette's rival since they both opened in the early 1900's. For me there was no question; Lafayette won, hands-down. The atmosphere was right up my alley—locals lined up along the counter, lots of chrome, old Greek cooks in white uniforms, crazy stuff on the walls, a minimalist menu. And Lafayette's dogs were just a bit snappier and more flavorful, and the sauce more satisfying.
When I was there, the hot dogs served at Lafayette Coney Island were Winter's Sausage L-901 Coney Wieners, supposedly only sold to Lafayette, while American uses Dearborn Sausage Company's Natural Casing Viennas. But all that changed when Winter Sausage Company made the L-901's available to the public, even shipping them to off to Coney Dog LA , a Detroit Coney-themed restaurant in Los Angeles owned by Adam Sandler (!). Since then, Lafayette has also started serving dogs from Dearborn, but I'm betting the sauce and atmosphere is still better.
Squabbles between stands and manufacturers aside, I think the Detroit Coney should be considered one of the great American "Heirloom hot dog styles" that has stood the test of time—as important a part of hot dog history as the Chicago dog and New York Kosher style, and just as delicious.
Lafayette Coney Island
118 West Lafayette Boulevard, Detroit MI 48226 (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/.