In Michigan, we have a chain of restaurants called Coney Island, and you can find one on almost any corner. I’m serious – any corner. They serve up decent, all-American food at cheap prices, taking up the niche that all the out of business mom and pop diners used to fill. You can get an omelette with toast and hash browns for $5, for example, or a fish sandwich with fries for $4. Late-night drunks and old grandmas alike love it.
The first Coney Island restaurants were opened by Greek immigrants in Detroit, so there’s usually some Greek food on hand, too – mousaka, pastitsio, gyros, baklava, and that cheese (saganaki) that the waiter lights on fire while yelling “opa!” It might not exactly be fine Greek dining, but it gets the job done.
However, despite how good and well that all is, the real draw remains the coney hot dogs, named – like the restaurant – after New York City’s Coney Island, where the hot dog may or may not have been invented, depending on whether you want to listen to New York or St. Louis. I’ll take New York’s side… this time.
So what’s a coney dog, as the locals like to call them? Well, imagine a chili dog, but somehow it’s different. I don’t know, maybe it’s the specific blend of spices the cook uses, which typically includes cumin, garlic, chili powder, and maybe some allspice, bay leaves, chili peppers, cinnamon, or even oregano. Or perhaps it’s a dash of worchestershire sauce and vinegar, thrown in at just the right time at just the right heat.
But then there’s that dark rumor, whispered in secret in back alleys, taxi cabs, and locked rooms, that the real secret ingredients is… – the one that makes the chili sauce so good, so chuncky – is, ground BEEF HEARTS. Yes, beef hearts, ground to a nice, thick consistency. Mmmmmm…. just like how-a momma used to make ’em. Throw some mustard and onions on top of that and you’re set.
Now, if your average, plain jane customer at a Michigan Coney Island thought or knew that they were being served beef hearts, they’d probably throw up in their mouth a little, call in the health inspector, and have the place closed, permanently. It’s a real throwback ingredient, going back to the days when we weren’t afraid to admit what we really ate, when you went to the butcher to get your chicken and he’d kill it personally for you.
Regardless of whether they include beef hearts or not, if you ask me, coney dogs aren’t that great. For the price (usually a buck or two at the most), sure, it’s not a bad deal. It’s edible and junky enough to be enjoyable, savory and very meaty. And the chili really does have a good texture, atleast when you go to a good Coney Island.
Regrettably, it’s become a tradition for shows on the Travel Channel and Food Channel to visit Detroit and eat at one of the two original Coney Island restaurants downtown, Lafayette Coney Island or American Coney Island. The two restaurants are situated side-by-side, the result of some weird sibling rivalry. The host of the show picks one of the restaurants – now tourist traps for visiting suburbanites rather than a true part of the community – and then raves about great the coney dogs are.
Look, man: they’re just cheap chili dogs at heart. A coney dog won’t rock your world, make you fall in love, or turn you into an addict. They’re just not that awe-inspiring. It’s just good comfort food, and that’s it.