I felt wrong parking my car under the awning of Monroe’s Original Hot Dog Drive-In. The mood was off. Shouldn’t I be in a muscle car or a sexy, modern sports car? Y’know, something that shifts like dream, kicks up dust and burns gas with no apologies. Bob Seger playing was on the classic rock station again and it just wasn’t cutting it.
“I think I’m going to Katmandu! That’s really, really, where I’m going to!”
A young, blonde carhop stepped out of the little orange shack to my left in blue jeans and white tennis shoes. She walked up to my car with a self-conscious confidence. I rolled my window down – and since I didn’t have power windows, this meant furiously turning the crank handle until I broke out in cold, cold sweat.
“What can I get for you?”
“Well, what do you got?”
By now, my arm hung carelessly over the side of the front door, breezy and free.
“Well, all we have here are like hot dogs, chili dogs, potato chips, and root beer.”
“I’ll have a chili dog and a root beer, then.”
“With everything on it? Mustard, chili, and onions?”
“That sounds great.”
“Alright, then. That should be right out.”
I tapped my foot on the accelerator a couple times in a display of masculinity, but I don’t think it made much of an impression on anyone. About a minute later, the waitress came back with my order on a small silver tray that she told me to attach to my window. White napkins fluttered in the wind.
“Here you go, sir. That’ll be $2.75 (note: I forgot the actual price – I know, poor form on my part).”
“Thanks. Keep the change.”
I handed the root beer to my girlfriend. She’s a strict vegetarian, so the sugar rush would have to pacify her for now. I was actually a vegetarian before she was, but now I eat meat again on occasion for cultural reasons. It’s not that I ever thought eating meat was unhealthy or spiritually profane. It’s the factory farms that bother me. We should venerate the animals that we eat. What’s it say about us when we treat the very food that sustains us like a cheap commodity?
But that’s beside the point. We want to know about the chili dog, right? After all, that’s why I drove all the way here to Monroe, Michigan, where they don’t even call the damn coney dogs coney dogs. They call ’em chili dogs, but the dogs here clearly have that indefinable magic that makes a dog a coney. You can tell by looking at one, the same way Moses could tap his cane on a rock and tell you if there was water. Monroe is just off I-75, the highway that connects Detroit to most points south, and it’s obvious that the Motor City’s culture has rubbed off on the place. They eat coneys here, whether they realize it or not.
Sorry, but the grease from the food somehow got on my lens, giving this shot a surprising look of action. Look at the chili dog move!
So yes, I took the coney dog out of the flimsy paper wrapper and bit into it. I couldn’t tell if there was mustard, but whatever, it was good. The casing had a good snap, the bread was crazy moist, and the chili was tomatoey and sweet with huge chunks of meat in it. No, it wasn’t going to win any awards, but I could’ve probably eaten a million of Monroe’s Original chili dogs right then and there. Very satisfying.
Decades ago, it’s worth mentioning, Monroe’s Original used to be an A&W stand. That changed when former owner Delmar Groves decided he didn’t want to add hamburgers and fries and all the other funky stuff A&W was trying to push onto the menu at the time. Groves was happy making really good chili dogs, and honestly, who wouldn’t be? When it was all said and done, he didn’t want to cheapen the experience, so he gave up the franchise rights and went wholly independent. It was sort of a rock and roll gesture, an extreme dedication to a pure ideal – a middle finger – and it paid off.
In fact, if it wasn’t for Groves, Monroe’s Original would be serving up the same bland, homogenized chili dogs every other A&W dishes out nowadays. Instead, we have a chili dog that, at the least, truly is original.
Happy, I turned my car back on. The carhop stepped back out to take away the remains of the carnage, a soiled napkin and crumpled wrapper. Before I put the car in reverse, I took a few sips of my girlfriend’s root beer. It was smooth, real smooth, kinda like this ride, actually. Peeling off into the hazy sunset, I felt vaguely OK about this 2007 Chevrolet Cobalt. We’re going to make it.
“If I ever get out of here, if I ever get out of here, IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE… I’m going to Katmandu! Go!”