United States of Hot Dogs is a recurring feature exploring the historic origins and modern appeal of America’s regional hot dogs.
Some would say a United States of Hot Dogs series should begin in New York City with Nathan’s, the first famous hot dog in America. Or maybe it should begin in Chicago with the Vienna, the first hot dog I, personally, ever ate. But I’m going to start with the hot dog that I grew up believing was the greatest: the Detroit Coney Island.
The reason I believed the Detroit Coney Island hot dog was the greatest was the same reason I believed the Chicago Cubs were the greatest team in the National League and the Detroit Tigers were the greatest in the American League: My father told me so. The Tigers won the World Series the first year I was old enough to be aware of such things, and the Cubs made the playoffs, so who was I to argue with him? It didn’t really matter that I didn’t like onions, chili, or mustard, the three main components of the Coney dog. That was grown-up food I would like someday, because my father liked it. He’d grown up in Detroit, and everything and everybody that came from Detroit was good. He’d eaten so many Coneys (and my grandparents had eaten so many Coneys, and my great-grandparents, too) that some of the chili had probably migrated into my DNA.
When my dad lived in Detroit, he was a Lafayette man. This is an important distinction. The Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island outposts are both downtown, literally next door to each other, and each claims to be the first to pour beanless chili over a hot dog in a natural casing on a steamed bun, top it with chopped onions and mustard, and call it a Coney. And of course the companies were founded by brothers, Bill and Gust Keros, and of course the rivalry tore the family asunder. Gust’s descendants, who still own American, claim he immigrated from Greece first (from a small town in the south called Dara, where he and his brother herded sheep), opened American, and then brought Bill to Detroit—and Bill repaid him by opening Lafayette. The current owners of Lafayette, who are from another biological family altogether, claim it didn’t happen that way at all and that Lafayette opened in 1914, while American didn’t come along until 1917.
Katherine Yung and Joe Grimm, the authors of Coney Detroit, maybe the definitive book on the subject, actually did research like responsible historians and concluded, with the help of old Detroit city directories, that Gust and Bill opened Lafayette together in 1923. At that point, Coneys were already a thing, not just in Michigan, but also in Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Texas. They had been invented by Greek and Macedonian immigrants who had possibly tasted hot dogs for the first time at New York’s Coney Island shortly after coming through Ellis Island and decided they were pretty good, but could be improved with the addition of Greek meat sauce. (This is the same sauce that’s also the origin of Cincinnati chili.) And that’s the problem with history. It ruins family stories.
Anyway, Gust and Bill were in business together for about eight years before they split. Bill kept Lafayette but moved to a new space next door. Gust got out of the hot dog game altogether and opened a hat-cleaning business, but then he returned with American in 1936. The main difference between Lafayette and American is in the chili: Lafayette’s comes from the National Chili Company, while American uses the Detroit Chili Company. (There has also been a rivalry between the chili companies. In 1969 National Chili sued Detroit Chili for $100,000 for stealing its secret recipe; the case was settled out of court, but the animosity spread to the restaurants.)
I’ve have never tasted an American Coney, so I can’t tell you how it differs from a Lafayette; you may have guessed by now that my father had strong opinions and held to them, so he never would have taken us to American, even out of curiosity. According to Yung and Grimm, American’s chili is spicier and Lafayette’s is beefier. Unless you’ve made a point of going to American, or unless you live in Flint, which has its own species of chili made with beef heart, it’s likely that the Coney sauce you know is similar to Lafayette’s. That’s because National Chili supplies almost every other Coney joint in Detroit and across the country, though they all say they mix in different spices to make it their own.
Dave Najor, who owns the Detroit Coney Grill, which has two (soon to be three) locations in the Phoenix metro area, approximately 2,000 miles from Detroit, says it’s the chili that sets Coneys apart from other chili dogs. That and the mustard and onions, and the way the natural casing on the hot dogs snap.
It was a glorious day for my father when he discovered that he could buy frozen Coney Island chili and have it shipped to him. The chili came in an enormous brick, and my mother took it to the butcher to be sliced into manageable portions.
It was an even more glorious day when Leo’s Coney Island opened in Chicago, about an hour from my parents’ house. They rarely went to the city, but during the period Leo’s was open, they made frequent visits; I believe my father had the number saved on his phone. (This wasn’t unusual. My father always made friends at the businesses he frequented: Spiros at the dry cleaner, Dominic at the bank, Ralph at the deli.) It was a sad day when Leo’s closed. My father, like a lot of older men, had been advised to watch his diet; he only ate Coneys when he visited Detroit or Phoenix, where he liked to go every winter and where, naturally, he discovered the Detroit Coney Grill because he had radar for things like that.
Last winter, though, a new Coney Island opened in Chicago: Lola’s. As any Detroiter could tell you, Lola’s is not an established Coney brand, and that is because the owner, Jesse Fakhoury, named it after his daughter. My father and I texted back and forth about it for weeks. He was skeptical at first. He’d seen a lot of inferior Coney’s (Kerby’s Coney Island at the Woodfield Mall in the mid-80s was a particular disappointment) and outright frauds and didn’t trust me to know the difference. Then, what with one thing and another—travel, colds, bad weather—it took us a few months to get down there. Finally we managed to visit in April, for his birthday.
Lola’s is small, more of a hot dog stand than a diner. We sat by the window. He ordered two Coney dogs and a diet Faygo Redpop. Normally his standard order was two Coneys and a Vernor’s ginger ale, but Vernor’s has been available nationwide for a while now, so it’s not as rare and special as Faygo. He made small talk with Fakhoury, and they compared their favorite Coneys (Fakhoury’s is Duly’s Place in southwest Detroit) and Fakhoury talked about how he made a pilgrimage to the motherland every few weeks for hot dogs, pop, and, of course, chili (National).
My dad had been sick most of the winter and his appetite wasn’t what it normally was. But he finished those Coneys, maybe a bit slower than usual, but still. Right before he left, he told Fakhoury, “This is a real Coney dog!” Which, from a Detroiter, especially a Detroiter like him, is a benediction: Keep your place open, and I will keep coming back.
He never did, though, because he died less than a month later. So those were his last Coney dogs. I think we talked about that at the funeral. I don’t really remember. I think about it now, and maybe there’s some symmetry in how he fed me Coney dogs when I was a kid, and then I bought him his last Coney as a birthday gift. But also, that’s a normal part of growing up and watching your parents grow older: caring for them the way they used to care for you.
So I’d rather think of it like this: Whenever I’m missing him, I can go down to Lola’s and get a hot dog. I don’t get the regular Coney though. Fakhoury serves something called Chicago Meats Detroit. It’s a char-grilled Vienna covered with chili and onions. It’s my entire heritage in the form of a hot dog.