A Hamburger Today
A Tour of Michigan's Coney Island Hot Dogs in Detroit, Flint, and Jackson
Nobody's exactly sure where the Coney Island hot dog originated. Some claim that Greek immigrants visited Coney Island in Brooklyn before moving on to the rest of the country, where they eventually came up with the distinct chili sauce that tops these dogs. What I do know is that no other state has embraced this variation on the chili dog more than Michigan.
The most distinctive feature of Coney Island dog is the sauce, which is a non-bean chili-like concoction. As Hawk Krall explained in his post about the subject, the sauce is "rich, deep, yet mildly spiced and intensely meaty sauce—made with things like beef hearts and kidneys..." That said, few places make it precisely the same way, and the sauce's consistency varies wildly as you travel across the state. It is standard to top the sauce with mustard and diced onions.
The other defining element of a Coney Island is the hot dog. While chili dogs around the Midwest often use skinny skinless wieners, the best Coney joints use a larger natural casing dog. My favorite hot dog comes from Koegel's, a Flint-based company that makes a great beef and pork blend that is smoked.
While you'll find Coney dogs all over the state, three cities seem to take the dish more seriously than others. Detroit is the center of the state's Coney culture, and when driving around town you're likely to see more Coney joints than gas stations. Flint has a style of sauce all its own, which is drier and meatier. Not to be outdone, residents in Jackson claim the Coney dog was actually invented there, and this year is actually the 100th anniversary of the town's first Coney shop.
The Coney sauce you'll find it Detroit is soupier than it tends to be elsewhere, so don't be embarrassed if you need a knife and fork to eat your Coney dog. The two most famous Coney Island shops in Detroit have been sitting side by side since 1917. American Coney Island was opened up by Gust Keros, a Greek immigrant who went to Detroit looking for work, shining shoes before opening his shop. Shortly after opening, he brought his brother stateside, who opened Lafayette Coney Island directly next door. The brothers used different chili recipes and, until very recently, served different hot dogs, basically requiring residents and visitors alike to try both and pick a side.
American Coney Island seems to be the more favored of the two—they've been on countless shows, won numerous competitions, and also have a bustling location in Las Vegas. Having been to both shops in the same day, I'd say it's hard to pick a winner. I appreciated the look and feel at Lafayette more, but liked the fact American used the right amount of sauce—I didn't have to worry about staining my shirt.
Both now serve a plump natural casing hot dogs from Dearborn Sausage Co., though a number of other places in town use Koegel's, which is a Flint based hot dog company that makes a mean natural casing wiener.
One of the better Coney atmospheres is inside Duly's Place, which was recently featured on Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown series. In the morning, you'll find the narrow restaurant packed with people from all different walks of life. Unfortunately, they use bland skinless wieners that aren't up to par with other local favorites.
I prefer Hamtramck Coney Island, which has all the hot dogs and sauce on display in the front windows. Plus, there's counter-top seating and a longtime employee to serve you. It's like stepping into a time warp.
Flint has its own Coney culture that continues to thrive despite not-so-great economic times. They also have their own sauce that is much drier—it looks almost like a loose-meat blend. The sauce is said to be made with regular ground beef and hearts, along with a secret mix of spices. I slightly prefer this style because I feel like it's more intense and less of a mess.
Many of Flint's Coney makers purchase the sauce from a local place called Abbott's Meats. This blend was created by a Macedonian immigrant named Sam Brayan in 1919, who also teamed up with Koegel Meats to make the hot dog that they still make in Flint today. It's still the hot dog of choice for most joints in the city.
Over at Angelo's Coney Island, they've been making their own secret sauce blend since opening in 1949. Like other Flint-style sauces, it's thicker, but it's also extra beefy. I think it feels more unique than most of the Detroit-style dogs. Angelo's also uses Koegel hot dogs, which are always a good choice. Angelo's claims to be the best Coney Island in the state, and I think they make a good case.
If you're feeling adventurous you can try their signature hard shell coney with cheese, which is exactly what it sounds like. Believe it or not I actually liked it. The wiener fit perfectly inside the taco shell, and when topped with coney sauce, onions, and cheese, tasted like a satisfying hybrid of the two.
We end in Jackson, where George Todoroff claims to have have invited the Coney dog in 1914 when he opened Jackson Coney Island. It's hard to know if that's is true, but the restaurant is the oldest continuously running Coney joint around. The sauce is on the drier side, closer to the kind you'll find in Flint. It's a solid Coney, if not quite great—most of that is down to the hot dog, which is small and skinless, so it's missing the snap.
I'm a bigger fan of Virginia Coney Island, which is nearby. Once again, the hot dog is skinless, but the sauce is a little meatier and more substantial on the Virginia dog.