What Makes Coney Island Hot Dogs A Step Above The Rest?

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There is perhaps no other food more quintessentially American than hot dogs. Associated with fast food, summertime cookouts, baseball, and even Joey Chestnut's hot dog eating record, they are firmly rooted in America's cuisine and culture. Although hot dogs have been popular in Coney Island since the 19th century, what's known across the country as a Coney Island hot dog does not come from New York at all.

Charles Feltman first started slinging hot dogs from his cart in Coney Island back in 1867. A man named Nathan Handwerker, who had once worked for Feltman, opened his own hot dog stand at the intersection of Surf and Stillwell in 1916. Still in that same location over a century later, the restaurant that came to be known as Nathan's Famous is widely credited for having made hot dogs the ubiquitous favorite that they are today. While you might think that's where you'd go to get a Coney Island hot dog, if you want to try a true Coney, you'll need to head about 630 miles northwest to Michigan instead.

Despite the name, Coney Island hot dogs are a distinctly Detroit creation. What distinguishes a real Coney from other regional hot dog styles are its toppings and preparation. You start with a beef dog that's grilled in its natural casing. That gets sandwiched into a spongy bun, preferably a Coney Island Steamer from Michigan's Metropolitan Baking Company. Then, you top it with all-beef chili (no beans), chopped onions, and yellow mustard.

How Coney Island hot dogs became a Detroit staple

The history of how the Motor City came to be the home of Coney Island hot dogs also explains what makes them a step above the rest. As told in the book "Coney Detroit" by Joe Grimm and Katherine Yung, we have Greek immigrants who came to Ellis Island in the early 1900s to thank for this culinary naming curiosity. Some of them likely first tasted hot dogs when visiting Coney Island before migrating and settling in Detroit, which, to this day, still has a thriving Greek community. They're credited with adding their version of chili to the dogs, as well as naming them after where they had first encountered them.

The chili differs from midwestern-style chili in that it contains no beans, taking after a Greek meat sauce called saltsa kima. The tomato-based sauce is traditionally made with ground beef along with spices like paprika, cumin, celery seed, and brown sugar.

Today, these Coney dogs, or simply Coneys as they are often referred to, can be had at any of the hundreds of Coney Islands — the name by which diners and restaurants that serve them are known — located throughout Detroit. Two of the most iconic are American Coney Island (established in 1917) and Lafayette Coney Island (1924). Opened by Greek brothers William "Bill" Keros and Constantine "Gust" Keros, the restaurants stand together but apart, next-door neighbors separated by a sibling rivalry that has lasted for decades.

Variations on Coney Island Hot Dogs

You'll find variations on the Coney outside of Detroit. In Flint, Michigan, the chili is less saucy and made with beef hearts. At the now-defunct restaurant Angelo's, which helped define the Flint style, the chili was made with the addition of beef kidneys.

There are numerous stand-alone restaurants as well as chains that serve Coneys throughout Michigan and other parts of the country. The Texas-based chain James Coney Island has seven locations in the Houston area. First opened in 1923, James serves classic Coney dogs, or its Cheesy Coney embellished with Kraft Cheese Whiz.

Coney Island Station has three locations in Wisconsin, with its first opened in 1922. The business even ships its Coney kits, complete with special sauce, to anyone outside of the area. The Famous Coney Island Wiener Stand in Fort Wayne, Indiana opened in 1914, making it not only one of the oldest (possibly the first) but also the longest continuously operating Coney Island in existence.

In Vermont, you can order a Coney by calling it a Michigan – whereas in Rhode Island they're known as New York system wieners. They are made of beef along with pork and veal, and in addition to the chili, onions, and mustard, are also topped with a sprinkle of celery salt. Ironically, the toppings you need for a traditional New York-style hot dog are pretty different from a Coney. N.Y. dogs come with brown mustard, onion-tomato relish, and sauerkraut.