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The Cult of the Detroit Coney Dog, Explained

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The legend behind a beloved regional favorite

A meal at American Coney Island.
A meal at American Coney Island.
Michelle and Chris Gerard

Regional specialty foods are the source of endless, impassioned debate: Many an argument has erupted over Kansas City versus Central Texas barbecue, and loyal devotees of Chicago deep dish and New York-style pizza eye each other with deep suspicion. But arguably the biggest food rivalry of the Great Lakes region is focused on one brief stretch of street in downtown Detroit, and it involves a beloved foodstuff called the coney dog.

What is a coney dog?

The coney dog is a variation on the classic American hot dog; its distinguishing characteristic is a chili topping (generally referred to as coney sauce). Roadfood founders and culinary road trip warriors Jane and Michael Stern explained their affinity for the coney dog in their 2009 book 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late: "These are not aristocratic sausages like you find on the other side of Lake Michigan, in Chicago and Milwaukee. Far from it: they are cheap tasting. But we mean that with all respect; when the craving strikes for a brace of them, no prime filet mignon can satisfy it."

The term "coneys" is used to refer to the dogs themselves and also serves as shorthand for the type of restaurants in which they’re commonly served, which are ubiquitous in Detroit. So-called "coney islands" are typically Greek-American owned diners that in addition to coney dogs, also serve an eclectic menu with everything from gyros and Greek salad to burgers and breakfast plates.

Red Hots Coney Island

Red Hots Coney Island in Detroit. [Michele and Chris Gerard]

How is a coney dog prepared?

Its construction is simple: A beef hot dog is plopped on a steamed bun and topped with chili sauce, chopped raw onion, and a squiggle of yellow mustard.

Laymen may be tempted to dismiss the coney dog as simply a regular old chili dog, but the dish has a couple very important distinctions: The hot dog, which should preferably have a natural casing, is grilled and the chili is a loose, almost soupy concoction that traditionally gets an extra-meaty punch from ground beef heart and a variety of spices. (Depending on who you ask, the recipe might contain everything from celery seed to cumin, but definitely tomato and Worcestershire and probably brown sugar.)

Who invented the coney dog?

As with most any beloved, iconic food, the exact origins of the coney dog are hotly contested. But one thing is certain: While one might logically assume that the coney dog originated on New York’s Coney Island, it is widely considered to be a Michigan original. (Coney Island is, however, the birthplace of the American hot dog.) But one thing everyone seems to agree on is that credit for the coney dog goes to Greek immigrants. According to a 2012 book called Coney Detroit, the dish's history goes back to the 1900s, when Greek emigrants coming into the U.S. would have had to come through New York's Ellis Island — which was awfully close to hot dog epicenter Coney Island. Said immigrants are thought to have encountered the hot dog there, and then eventually made their way further west where the coney dog was born.

Three different restaurants attempt to lay claim to the original Detroit coney dog: American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island, both in Detroit, and Todoroff’s Original Coney Island in Jackson (about an hour west of Detroit).

The rivalry between American and Lafayette is the stuff of Detroit legends (The real story is only slightly more complicated). As the story goes, brothers Bill and Gust Keros opened American Coney Island on downtown Detroit's Michigan Avenue in 1919; years later, they had a falling out and in 1936 Bill decided to open his own diner, Lafayette Coney Island, right next door. Today, American remains a family-owned institution while Bill's employee's now operate the Lafayette restaurant. The pair have been battling for coney dog dominance ever since.

Lafayette Coney Island. [Michelle and Chris Gerard]

Are there other variations on the Detroit coney dog?

One popular variation is found in the city of Flint, about an hour outside Detroit. Flint-style coneys are defined by the "sauce" that tops them, which in this case isn’t really a sauce at all but a drier mixture of finely ground meat and spices; the base of said mixture is beef heart, which gives it an intensely meaty flavor punch. The most well-known place in Flint to get a coney is called Angelo’s; in fact, some assert that’s really the only place to get a true Flint coney, which should be prepared with a particular brand of locally made hot dog called Koegel’s.

For the bravest coney enthusiasts, Angelo’s also serves up a hard shell coney taco stuffed with a dog, chopped onions, coney sauce, and cheese slices (a la Jack in the Box tacos). Proceed at your own risk with this one.

Duly's Place. [Michelle and Chris Gerard]

Who makes the best coney dog in Detroit?

That depends entirely on who you ask. The rivalry between American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island may be one of the fiercest ongoing battles in the culinary world: Despite being located right next to one another, many locals have sworn allegiance to one or the other and refuse to ever step foot inside the neighboring competition. Others may also recommend the iconic flavors of Duly's Place in Southwest Detroit. Known for dogs that deliver a satisfying "snap," the 95-year-old diner counts Anthony Bourdain among its lengthy list of customers. Odds are that individual preferences will ultimately come down to two factors: atmosphere and relative proximity.

An epic rivalry. [Michelle and Chris Gerard]

Where can I find coney dogs outside Michigan?

Anywhere native Detroiters migrate, coneys are sure to follow. A number of chains and one-off restaurants have popped up across the U.S., and nearly all of them have similar-sounding names that make them damn near impossible to distinguish from one another — Houston, Texas, has a 21-location strong chain called James Coney Island, and Wisconsin has its own mini-chain called Coney Island (see?).

One of Downtown Detroit's OGs, American Coney Island, now has a spinoff located inside downtown Las Vegas casino The D, which makes perfect sense given the coney's nature as an excellent drunk food. Coney dogs have even invaded New York's trendy food hall scene, with Detroit-born chef brothers Max and Eli Sussman opening a coney dog stand at Berg'n in Crown Heights, Brooklyn last fall, right alongside vendors hawking Filipino food and shawarma.

A number of other states also have their own coney dog traditions, including Ohio (where the meat topping is flavored with cinnamon and allspice and known as Cincinnati chili), Oklahoma and oddly enough, North Dakota, where it's spelled "coney dogg." Much to the chagrin of Michiganders, some say a coney dog stand in Fort Wayne, Indiana, called the Famous Coney Island Wiener Stand may actually have been the first to serve coney dogs in America — but don't tell that to anyone in Detroit.

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