Monroe’s Original Hot Dog Drive-In

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!”

Grease stains.

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.”

“That’s it?”

“Yep.”

“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.

Chow time!

“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.

One of Monroe's finest.

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.

THE CARNAGE!

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!”

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7 thoughts on “Monroe’s Original Hot Dog Drive-In

  1. It seems like coney dogs get sloppier and sloppier as you travel south on I-75 south from Flint down to Monroe. It my opinion, that means worse and worse: I prefer a meatier, more ground beef oriented coney. But I can dig the sloppy style on occasion.

    I think that the idea of “venerating” the animals we eat sounds good in theory. No one wants to see animals treated poorly. But mass producing chicken and beef makes it more accessible to many low income families. With the middle class slimming down, more and more people being forced into poverty and the world’s population EXPLODING – I’m not sure we can afford to completely rely on the locally grown, organic food that everyone prefers.

    No need to show-off your macho side by reeving the engine, George. Your confidence to drive your girlfriend’s gold cobalt speaks volumes about your manliness.

  2. It’s my personal preference to eat meat only on “special” occasions. In America, we actually have a problem where a lot of men are actually taking in too much iron, which is sort of crazy. I mean, if you’re going to eat meat for every meal, of course you’re going to need to water down the product. But I think maybe one really great hunk of beef is worth a thousand McDonald hamburgers.

    This is the last time I’ll talk about this, though. I don’t want to be a downer. And don’t worry, I didn’t really rev my engine. I just thought it was a funny flight of imagination to throw in. I admittedly do that sometimes when writing.

  3. You should talk about these issues as much as you like. It’s interesting discussion. You make an important point that our bodies are not built to eat this much meat, and I agree that part of the problem is too much meat consumption and too little vegetable/fruit consumption. But then again, there are economic barriers to accessing that kind of produce too.

    Unfortunately, many low income families need every cost-cutting measure available to them just to avoid getting by or living miserable lives. The real problem is the number of families living in poverty and the world’s exploding population that cause these problems.

    I could tell you were joking about your “display of masculinity.” I thought it was funny – kind of like the write-up of our main man Peter in the post below.

  4. What is also unfortunate is that efficient meat production is often used to produce unhealthy food options (fast food, deep fried), rather than less expensive but healthy food choices (grilled, broiled, deli). It’s a separate but closely related issue.

  5. I get your economic angle, but keep in mind that it requires more energy, land, and water to produce meat than vegetables, fruit, or even dairy. So, in terms of cost-cutting, it should theoretically be cheapest to not eat meat. Now, that may not always be the end result at the grocery store, but that’s because of market manipulation.

  6. I appreciate your perspective, George. I don’t think a vegetarian or organic-only lifestyle is realistic on a global or national scale, but I can certainly appreciate individuals who make the choice to abstain from meat. It’s a great decision for those with the means and willpower to make it happen.

    Obviously, eating less meat is better for your health and more environmentally friendly. Towards that end, I’d be interested in any SIMPLE recipes that you care to link or share.

    Lastly, I thought that my coney dog observation was nothing short of profound. The topping goes from seasoned beef in the far northern parts of SE Michigan to coney sauce in the midsection to chili based in the southern eastern edge. It gets sloppier and sloppier the further south you travel. If that’s not a deeply insightful coney dog observation, I don’t know what is.

  7. You do have a great point. I’ve noticed that Flint people absolutely detest the sloppiness of Detroit coneys. I do think the Flint take is a little better. I’ve yet to try the up north variation, but I plan to this summer.

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