It looks precisely the same. The pillowy-soft steamed bun, gently surrounding a specially seasoned, natural-casing hot dog. The generous ladle of savory chili sauce that remains a secret family recipe. And, of course, the thin line of bright yellow mustard and a sprinkling of sweet, freshly chopped onions.
(We’ll give you a minute to put down the magazine and wipe your mouth.)
Ah, but how does it taste? From that first bite, when all the toppings blend gloriously inside your mouth and you hear the familiar snap of your teeth breaking through the casing, any Detroiter knows this is a true taste of home: a genuine, straight-outta-downtown, American Coney Island chili dog.
But this isn’t Lafayette Boulevard, or even Detroit. It is, however, downtown — downtown Las Vegas, where amid all the glitz, glitter, and nearby celebrity chef dining emporiums, one of our fair city’s oldest family-owned and -operated businesses has been hitting the jackpot since October in a happy niche within The D Casino & Hotel as part of “the Fremont Street Experience.”
“It’s just a little mini version of home,” says Grace Keros, the third-generation co-owner of American Coney Island. Keros has expanded her family’s 96-year-old coney kingdom to the Detroit Zoo, Ford Field, and a satellite restaurant in Canton, but she never envisioned their iconic coney would be served outside of southeast Michigan, much less in Sin City. “This is the best move we ever made.”
The cozy 1,000-square-foot eatery, including office and storage space, formerly housed a Krispy Kreme franchise. “We’ll still get the periodic person who’ll come in and ask, ‘Where are the donuts?’” Keros says. (This American location also carries Sanders bumpy cake, but they have a hard time keeping it in stock.)
There’s no mistaking the place now. Wide red-and-gold stripes across the off-white walls … framed, faded photos of Detroit locations … a wall-sized mural depicting festive American Coney diners from the early 1900s — it’s an exact, vest-pocket replica of the American flagship on Lafayette. “We’re keeping it tastefully tacky,” Keros says. “Just like in Detroit.” It’s faithful down to the open grill placed against the picture window and next to the on-street entrance, so passersby can see the dogs cooking and step right inside to buy one.
“A lot of the people here in the building, the executives, didn’t get it,” Keros recalls. “They’d ask, ‘Why does the grill have to be here? Why can’t it be there?’ Because it doesn’t work that way! There’s a reason, a method to this madness. Don’t ask; just trust us. It’s not just a hot dog.”
Derek Stevens got it. Fact is, he’s the one who wanted it. When the East Side industrialist purchased the former Fitzgeralds Casino & Hotel from the estate of the late Detroit magnate Don Barden in October 2011 and transformed it into The D, many Vegas mavens assumed the initial stood for “Downtown.” Others thought he was massaging his ego by naming it after himself. But Stevens knew he wanted it to be a thematic tribute to his beloved hometown.
In the 1990s, Stevens lived on Detroit’s riverfront while earning his master’s degree from Wayne State, and night classes frequently ran past 11 p.m. A fellow can get hungry after all that learning, and “American was always there for me,” Stevens says. “When we decided to rename this property ‘The D,’ I thought, ‘What’s the most iconic place I can think of?’ I kept coming back to American Coney Island.”
Coming back to American this time, however, was not initially filling. Keros, already immersed in opening new locations, wanted no part of westward expansion. Undeterred, Stevens persuaded her to fly in and just see the hotel, share his vision. Bingo. “It was just the right fit,” Keros says, “and not just because it was Vegas. If it wasn’t for the person [Derek] is, I truly believe this would not have happened. We are very family-oriented, and it’s like we were all one family. He’s a great guy — he goes all the way, first class — and that’s why we clicked. If you’re going to do it, go big or go home.”
Stevens didn’t stop there. Wanting a top-drawer restaurant to replace the Don B Steakhouse from the Fitzgeralds era, he reached out to Joe Vicari, owner of metro Detroit’s Andiamo restaurant group, to join him at The D. Same story. “Derek and his brother (Greg, his business partner), were customers at Andiamo, so they had been experiencing us for many years,” Vicari says. “I was in Vegas, and he approached me and asked if I had any interest. I said, ‘Not really. The economy is tough in Detroit, and I’m just trying to survive.’
“He said, ‘Well, I really think there’s an opportunity here,’ and just through perseverance on his part and negotiating, it ended up making sense for us.” The lush Joe Vicari’s Andiamo Italian Steakhouse opened at The D last Super Bowl weekend, featuring the signature 32-ounce, bone-in “Tomahawk” steak. Vicari has also assumed management of The D Grill, the casino’s impressive midrange café, as well as the hotel’s banquet and catering operations.
For American Coney to happen in Vegas, Keros lured her younger brother, Chris Sotiropoulos, from his position as vice president of marketing for the Pita Pit sandwich chain to join the family business as co-owner. “I’m very pleased, and I’m blessed,” Keros says. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this if he hadn’t come on board. Would I have tried? Yeah. But we have other things to take care of at home. We’re a little busy! At some point in my life, I have to rest, so this is the best thing that could’ve happened.”
Maintaining coney integrity in the desert is a strategic undertaking that involves Dearborn Sausage helping coordinate the arrival of its dogs, chili from American’s Detroit Chili Co., and buns from Metropolitan Baking Co. in Hamtramck on the same Detroit loading dock at the same hour. Then all the core ingredients are packed into a refrigerated semitrailer and driven to Las Vegas at least once a month. “Logistically, it’s not easy,” Keros says. “But it’s not impossible. Too bad they don’t know how to make bread here.”
Sotiropoulos says that at first, the bun conundrum was their biggest issue. “Obviously, bringing the hot dogs and chili was a no-brainer, but we figured, ‘OK, everything else we’ll be able to get here.’ So we’re having meetings with all these huge bread manufacturers that bake for the Bellagio, the Venetian. They make 80 percent of the bread in all the hotels. They bring in their samples, and they were pretty cocky. ‘Here they are! Regular hot dog steamer buns!’ We’re going, ‘No, we don’t use poppy seeds.’ ‘No, that’s too big.’ ‘That’s too hard.’ I think we literally tried over 100 different buns. It was just nuts.”
“Metro Bakery went as far as to say, ‘Find someone there who’s willing to work with us, and we’ll give them the recipe,’ and they still couldn’t do it,” Keros says. “It was annoying, but if you know us, we were like, ‘That’s it! Enough of these people in this town. We’ll handle it.’ ” The coneys are a little pricier at The D, $3.75 as compared to $2.35 in Detroit. That can be explained in two words: Shipping and Vegas.
American’s desert dogs attract a large, diverse clientele. There are the many Detroit expatriates who moved to Vegas during the great economic migration of the ’90s and miss the taste of an honest-to-Motown coney. There are the Fremont Street revelers who drop by the 24-hour spot for a late-night snack. There are the tourists and conventioneers who are either current or former residents of Detroit, like Brian Shillair. A Troy native now living in Chicago, Shillair had American cater his wedding reception 10 years ago and still buys do-it-yourself “coney kits” from the company. During a visit to the Venetian for a convention, Shillair made the trip from the Strip to grab a hug from Keros and a dog or two from the counter. “Everybody loves coneys, man,” he says.
Which is great news for Joe Sobocinski. A native of Taylor, Sobocinski started as a waiter at the original location a few years back and so impressed Keros with his work ethic and ambition that he was tabbed to move to Vegas last February and become the store’s general manager while still in his 20s. “It’s been really awesome; really good so far, says Sobocinski, more affectionately known as “Joey Cupcakes” by his bosses. (Long story.) “It keeps me out of trouble in this town; that’s for sure.” Many of the other Vegas employees have Detroit connections, as well.
With this gamble paying off, American has fielded inquiries about spreading its coney caravan to other states. “It’s got to be something special,” Keros says. “We’ve been approached by — I don’t want to put anybody down, but ‘regular cities’ — and that’s not us. If you want our coneys, we have a way: go online and order coney kits. We ship all across the country. We’re a specialty hot dog, and that’s how we’re going to stay.”
Almost too special, perhaps, for that last segment of American in Vegas consumer: the coney virgin. “Customers come in and say, ‘Oh, we saw you on the Travel Channel, on the Food Network, and we’ve always wanted to try one,” Sotiropoulos says. “Then they go, ‘Oh. You don’t use a good-quality hot dog.’
“I say, ‘Excuse me. Why would you say that?’ ‘Because the skin is so tough.’ You laugh sometimes and try to explain that it’s a natural casing; it’s supposed to be like that. But they don’t know. Some people think [the hot dogs are] old because they’re hard to bite into.”