In Michigan and a few other places, coney is a generic term for hot dogs topped with onions, mustard and chili. Brooklyn's Coney Island has its own hot dog culture thanks to Nathan's Famous, which has been selling dogs there since 1916. But chili is not a typical New York topping for a dog — we mostly stick to mustard and sauerkraut. Still, I try to sample local cuisine wherever I go, and in Detroit that means trying coneys sold by two long-time rivals: Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island.
The stores stand side by side on West Lafayette Boulevard in Detroit's downtown, which is in the very early stages of attempting a revival following finalization of the city's bankruptcy. Streets are clean, there's abundant private security, and cheap real estate is attracting investors and entrepreneurs. Lafayette and American are near many downtown attractions, including the famous sculpture of boxer Joe Louis' fist, the historic Westin Book Cadillac hotel, the Riverwalk and Campus Martius Park. It felt perfectly safe as I arrived for my taste-test, and yet, my visit was marked by a series of memorable moments that you wouldn't expect at, say, a suburban diner or trendy cafe.
For starters, in the foodie world, photographing your meal is so routine that it generally attracts no attention. But when I began photographing my coney at Lafayette, I got a long, bewildered look from the pair of somewhat scruffy gentlemen seated next to me. And when I asked our server for a receipt, he looked at me blankly, then tossed his notepad on the table, muttering, "Write it yourself." Believe it or not, this all added to the charm of the place.
The dog itself at Lafayette was a surprise to my palate. The flavours were stronger than I'd expected — quite a bite to the onions and chili. On the advice of my dining companion, a 20-something Michigan native who recently moved to Detroit, I also had a Vernors ginger ale, a brand that originated in Detroit in the 19th century. It was fantastic, better than big-name brands and artisanal sodas. We also shared some good french fries.
But boy, was I full when we went to American for the second dog. Our near-dread at another round must have been apparent from our expressions, because the woman who came to take our order took one look at us and said something like, "You're doing a comparison, aren't you?"
We nodded guiltily.
"You should have come here first!" she scolded, then added: "Actually it's good you came here second. You'll leave with a better taste in your mouth!"
Turns out this wasn't just a waitress — this was American's co-owner, the brassy and dynamic Grace Keros, whose grandfather, a Greek immigrant, began selling hot dogs from a pushcart on the site in 1917. His brother opened Lafayette next door in 1924, but Lafayette is no longer owned by the family, and Keros wants it known that the dogs and chili are completely different.
Everyone I met in Detroit seemed to agree, saying that by tradition, locals only ever go to one place or the other. But in the name of investigative journalism, I had to try both, even though I wasn't really psyched for the second round. But a funny thing happened on the way to my stomach: I liked it. To my palate, American's coney had a slightly milder flavour, a bit more like the dogs I'm used to, dare I say, at the REAL Coney Island in Brooklyn. Not that Lafayette was bad, mind you — and as a non-local, I'm not pledging lifelong allegiance to either place. I later learned that Anthony Bourdain visited Detroit in 2013 and declared the best coneys to be at a spot called Duly's, but there was no way I could handle a third.
When I later circled back to take exterior photos, a man was pacing back and forth outside both stores, raging incoherently at the skies. I dared not enrage him further by whipping out my camera, so I had to come back a third time for pictures. It seemed like a fitting coda to an only-in-Detroit adventure.
If You Go...
AMERICAN CONEY ISLAND: 114 W. Lafayette, Detroit; 313-961-7758, http://www.americanconeyisland.com/home.htm .
LAFAYETTE CONEY ISLAND: 118 W. Lafayette, Detroit, 313-964-8198.