The Coney Challenge

American or Lafayette? Here’s how to decide which dog cuts the mustard once and for all
Photograph by Joe Vaughn

As co-authors of the book Coney Detroit, Katherine Yung and I must keep many secrets about the hundreds of coney islands we have visited, and that includes the name of our favorite.

We think everyone should decide on their own, and for this we recommend the side-by-side coney island taste test. Don’t trust cable TV coney throwdowns, “Best of” polls, or high-pressure advice from friends. Trust your tastes, bud. This is how we do it.

Approach the epicenter of the Coney Nation that is American and Lafayette from the Lafayette Boulevard side, where the grills are just feet apart. Flip a coin. Enter one of the restaurants. Order one coney — you’ll see why — in the classic formulation: steamed bun, dog, beanless chili, mustard, onions. No ketchup. Not ever. Do not order fries. They’ll confuse the palate. A beverage is allowed.

Coney dogs are best tackled with bare hands, so silverware is discouraged. Downtown coneys are neat, not the big sloppy messes some places serve, so leave the fork on the table. You might want a napkin, but in Detroit chili is not a stain — it is a badge of honor.

First, regard the coney. Study it from the side. Regard its pulchritudeness longitudinally. Then, sample the chili all by itself. The chili is where the coney maker’s art is best expressed. Taste. Evaluate. Is there sweetness? Heat? File away your impressions. We know you can’t wait any longer, so go ahead and take a bite. Note how your teeth snap that natural casing. Too tough? Just right? Do not wolf. How’s that beef and pork dog? How does the mustard complement the chili? Note the softness of that bun, the cut and taste of the onions. Note how flavors combine.

After you have eaten and paid, immediately go next door. Order your second coney and another drink. You may now order fries, but set them aside for the afterglow. Repeat the process: inspect, taste, bite, bite, bite. After you are done, walk out to the sidewalk and play it back. You will have found your favorite and declare it with personal conviction.

The coney challenge is also a compatibility test. Our older son moved away and fell in love with a woman in New York, city of Nathan’s and Papaya Dogs. On a visit home, we arranged for them to take the Detroit coney challenge together. We wanted to know: Were they right for each other?

They solemnly sampled their coneys. They stepped outside under the streetlights and I popped the question: Which was their favorite? Each wrote the name of their favorite coney on a napkin.

They were … a perfect match!

Counter Culture

Real Detroiters, plus ones who moved away, plus those who heart Detroit, all claim some Motor City cred by repping one of these iconic coney islands. Both have that great equalizer: counter culture. When you slide onto a stool at the counter, you are one with the people around you. Age, race and income, gender and politics don’t mean a thing. Everyone is on the same plane, having a quintessentially Detroit experience.

Detroit coneys are distinctive and Detroiters are modest. We do not claim to have invented the coney. We do not claim to be best. (But, really, who does coneys the way we do?) We do have way, way more coney islands than any place on Earth. We wrote Coney Detroit to find out “Why here?”

The answer, in two bites, is the auto boom of the 1920s and 1930s and the freeways that took coneys to suburban shopping centers in the 1950s.

While going behind the scenes, we discovered these gems:

• The extended Detroit metropolitan areas has about 500 coney island restaurants. Half are related by blood or training to the Keros family from Dara, Greece, which founded American and Lafayette.

• Speaking of Greeks, we can pretty much bet that they created the coney. But which ones? We don’t know who or exactly why or how coneys got that name. During the Greek diaspora of the early 20th century, they settled all over the eastern United States. Like many immigrants, they had to hire themselves. Greeks opened coneys in Michigan, Florida, New Jersey, and other states. Did Greek immigrants see people eating hot dogs, figure that’s what Americans like, and dress them up with a sauce they knew from Greece?

• One of Detroit’s premier coneys is largely owned by Muslims. They make great coneys they can’t eat.

• There has been a chili war and there are still quiet incursions in which Detroit and Flint butchers and chili makers have tried to encroach on each other’s turf.

• Chili recipes are super secret, even from significant others sometimes.

Richard Harlan runs Red Hots Coney Island in Highland Park. He makes great chili. “I could give you my recipe, but it wouldn’t help you. It’s not the ingredients you put in the chili; it’s what you do with them.”

Leave this to professionals.

A lifelong Detroiter, Joe Grimm is visiting editor in residence at Michigan State University. For 25 years he worked at the Detroit Free Press, conveniently located just a few blocks from American and Lafayette coney islands.

Special thanks: American Coney Island, 114 W. Lafayette Blvd., Detroit; 313-961-7758.

Not Every Coney is a Detroit Coney

Flint Style

This one-time car-making capital has its own coney tradition, also dating to the 1920s. Flint chili is thicker and drier and is called a topping. Ground beef heart is more prevalent. One Flint resident who ought to stay there sneered that Detroit chili is like gravy. Most Detroit dogs come from Dearborn Brand Sausage and National Chili Company, while Flint uses the local Koegel’s for dogs and the Abbot’s Meat Co. for the topping. Flint’s classic place is Angelo’s, though you ought to try Starlite, too.

Jackson Style

Here is a bubbling pot of controversy. Jackson has had some nice coney islands, including two on the same block, and they are more in the style of Flint. The controversy is a Jackson columnist who subscribes to the Todoroff family’s claim that the coney dog was invented in Jackson. When challenged, the columnist said, “Just because you can’t prove something doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

Over The Top

The Mama Vicki’s trio, rooted in Port Huron, serves “over the top” coneys. The chili covers the mustard and onions. When we asked for a “normal” coney, they offered to throw us out in the street. (At Red Hots in Highland Park, Richard Harlan puts the mustard under the dog and the chili on top because he wants your first taste to be his chili.)

Red Sauce

As you go north, the chili runs red. Detroiters swear they do not put tomato in the chili. Around Bay City and Saginaw, they do. One old Greek coney maker in mid-Michigan was a tease. He allowed a peek into his pantry. There were his spices, all in paper bags — unmarked. He said he used a sauce from Greece. He wrote its name on a scrap of paper, in Greek. It seemed this could unlock the secret. We had the words translated. They said: “Red sauce.”

Grand Rapids

The farther west you go, the more people want to dress hot dogs with little slices of pickles. Really? It must be the Chicago dog’s influence. Even so, Grand Coney in Grand Rapids will serve you Detroit- and Flint-style coneys on one plate.

Part of our 2016 Food Issue series on iconic Michigan dishes.