While its name conjures images of the boardwalk in Brooklyn, New York, the Coney dog is as much a part of southeast Michigan as are Model Ts and Motown. I’d known about this wiener style (also called the Coney Island) from the time I was a kid, visiting my grandparents in Grayling, Michigan, in the north-central part of the state, where neighbors who’d migrated from Detroit spoke longingly of their hometown hot dog. Hearing about the fat pork-and-beef frank packed inside a steamed split-top bun and topped with a chili of ground beef, beef hearts, paprika, and cumin; diced raw onions; and bright yellow mustard, I yearned to try one. But these dogs were a rare find that far north of the Rust Belt.
I got by instead with a history lesson. I learned that the regional wiener style was likely invented by Gust Keros, who’d come to Detroit in the early 1900s from Greece by way of New York, where hot dogs were the snack of choice amid Coney Island’s beachside amusements. When Keros opened American Coney Island downtown in 1917, he sold his franks dressed in a beanless chili that recalled the meat sauces of his native Peloponnese, in southern Greece. Though there are conflicting stories about the dog’s genesis, Keros’s descendants (members of the third generation run the eatery today) say he got the idea while preparing dinner for his family one night; he topped a hot dog with some meat sauce he was cooking. Seven years later, Keros’s brother Bill opened a competing venture, Lafayette Coney Island, right next door.
It was there that I sampled my first, long-anticipated Coney on a trip to Detroit a few years back. I took a seat at the counter and placed my order with a cook who tended a griddle crowded with franks. It’s for a good reason it came with a fork. Well worth waiting years for, this well-grilled dog, with its spicy, savory, tangy toppings, was a delicious mess.