So, how do you make the perfect chili for a Detroit-style coney dog? Easy! First, get yourself some ground chuck, some fresh chopped onions and minced garlic, and a top secret blend of spices. Then, throw it all in a pot, bring to a boil, and simmer for up to 10 hours. Resist the urge to use canned tomato paste. Finally, say a quick prayer to the chili gods and take a blood oath to never reveal what you used to thicken the sauce or give it a little extra kick.
Like I said: easy. So how come Richard Harlan’s diner is the only one in the Detroit area that still makes the chili from scratch? For example, he says the chili at the two famous Coney joints in downtown Detroit – Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island – comes frozen from the back of a truck. Don’t believe him? He saw it with his own two eyes, man.
Red Hots Coney Island is all about tradition. The cozy restaurant has been serving up coneys in the same building near the corner of Victor and Woodward Avenue in Highland Park since 1921, and the secret recipe and the business has stayed in the family the whole time. Photos of Henry Ford and old Detroit hang on the wall, a reminder of better days, when workers from the Highland Park Ford Plant refueled at Red Hots and the city was an up and coming suburb of Detroit
While over time Highland Park has become an all too common example of post-industrial Midwest America – with the requisite depopulated neighborhoods, forlorn commercial strips, and decaying factories – Red Hots is kicking strong. OK, so maybe the floor and the bar stools are looking a bit worse for wear, but the place is as clean as a whistle. Highland Park deserves a quality Coney Island, and Red Hots delivers.
Of course, the chili is but one component to a good coney, and Harlan gets that. He squirts the mustard on the hot dog bun first so it’ll act as a sharp undercurrent. He buys the Dearborn Brand beef franks that are packaged 10 to a pound because it’s just the right size for dousing in heaps of chili. And he tops the wondrous dogs with only the choicest diced onions.
Each bite is beef heaven, brimming with beef juice, beef grease, and beef fat, with enough spice to keep things interesting – the first time you notice a hint of cinnamon, your mind will expand, the doors of perception cracking open a little wider. The chili and mustard infects your brain, gets under your nails, and dribbles down your chin. At only $1.70 a pop, you’ll end up ordering a second one… and a third… and a fourth… and, well, you get the point.
As you sit there devouring your plate like a Hoover vacuum, it’s hard not to get drawn into a conversation. Contrary to the popularly held belief in much of Metro Detroit that all 11,776 of Highland Park’s citizens are gun-toting thugs bent on destruction, the customers are your average, chatty, run-of-the-mill people, and the burly, bulky Harlan is quite the talker.
“How’s that Chesterfield [Michigan] beer?”
Red Hots sells beer for $2 a bottle, but closes at 4 PM.
Harlan: “Oh, this?”
He grabbed the beer off the shelf and laughed. The acronym B.O.A.H. was printed prominently on the bottle.
“This is some beer the biker club I’m in brewed. You know what B.O.A.H. stands for?”
“Bunch of assholes!”
The club’s logo is a snake showing off its anus. Harlan stressed that it’s tastefully drawn and essentially family-friendly – an unwitting viewer could easily mistake the anus for the snake’s natural folds. Why, he even got it tattooed on him!
“So did you guys actually have a dance here, or…?”
I pointed to a tattered envelope tucked in between some innocuous photos above the kitchen area that alluded to a mysterious Red Hots “dance revue”. Dancing? Here? REALLY?!
He handed me the envelope.
“Go ahead and take look at it if you want, but….”
It was a photoshopped picture of a naked old man standing next to a stripper pole inside of Red Hots.
“Somebody I know that could shop… or, what do you call it? Whatever you call it – you know – he did that. That was one of our old regulars he put in there.”