One of the things I love most about America is our regional food. Based on where you live, your city may be known for a certain kind of burrito (San Diego/the California Burrito; San Francisco/the Mission Burrito), a certain kind of sandwich (Philadelphia/cheesesteaks; Chicago/hot dogs), or a certain kind of dessert (Oahu/shave ice; Key West (FL)/key lime pie; Los Angeles/kale). I love seeking out those regional specialties and I especially love finding the best in town when there’s divided opinion about who’s the top dog (it’s pun foreshadowing…).
Last week, I found myself in Detroit, MI and the Motor City not only has their own regional specialty (the Coney Dog), the two front-runners for best dog around are literally right next to each other. Now that‘s what I call competition. So what are they competing over? The Coney Dog is a comfort food throwback to the days before spongy buns were considered “carbs” and hot dogs topped with chili, mustard, and chopped raw onions were objects of lust not nutritional scorn. While our eating habits may have changed, Coney Dogs have not. These puppies won’t make Gwyneth Paltrow’s healthy eating favorites on GOOP, but they are quite goopy.
To make matters even more complicated, Coney Dogs are named after Coney Island in Brooklyn where the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest invades your TV every Fourth of July. Are the Coney Dogs served in Coney Island the same as the ones served in Detroit? Um… kind of. You can get a chili dog at Nathan’s and top it with mustard and chopped raw onions, but in Detroit that’s the standard way a Coney is served, which makes it an entity all its own.
Without dropping a full history lesson on you, just know that the legend says these two side-by-side pooch sellers started back in 1917 as family but after a major dispute they went their separate ways — roughly 12 inches apart. Now, American Coney Island has developed into a huge space with tons of seating and bright, garish patriotic signage while Lafayette Coney Island plays it cool with an understated avocado/yellow color scheme and a small galley of tables. Basically, it feels like one brother said he was going to make it big and the other said he was going to stay true to himself and they now exist next to each serving almost identical menus. This is how the Coney Challenge was born.
The Coney Challenge involves going from American to Lafayette (or vice versa) and sampling the Coney Dogs back-to-back. I had the good fortune of going with a bevy of my girlfriend’s family, Coney connoisseurs and longtime Detroiters who know what’s up when it comes to Detroit’s favorite tubesteak. The Tigers game had just let out as we walked into American, which meant there was the requisite amount of drunken fans around to truly enjoy the experience. A late night meal like this needs some liquored-up patrons to make it truly authentic.
The hot dogs at American are Dearborn Brand, which come from Michigan sausage supplier Dearborn Sausage Co. and come topped with a thin housemade chili, mustard, and chopped onions. While the natural casing dog was griddled nicely to get the snap that I love on my hot dogs, the rest of the equation was a little disappointing. The chili took a backseat to the dog in terms of flavor and the onions/mustard no longer had much of a function to fulfill, considering they’re there mostly to combat the richness of a chili. Weak chili means that every other part of the sandwich becomes more prominent and that’s not necessarily a good thing. As a Chicago dog lover, I was fairly disappointed in this Michigan majesty.
There’s something about Lafayette that just feels more authentic. While American feels like it was calibrated to say “we’re classic Detroit!,” Lafayette just feels like classic Detroit. That wouldn’t matter at all if the Coney Dogs were completely equal at both restaurants, but they’re not. Spoiler alert: Lafayette won the Coney Challenge hand’s down.
Word on the street is that Lafayette used to serve a completely different dog from a company called Winter’s. A few years back, though, they parted ways with Winter’s and now serve a sausage from… Dearborn. Yep. The same company that supplies American is now serving Lafayette and whatever competitive advantage that American had is now gone. Since the hot dogs are pretty much identical (the company claims they make different recipes for both places, but I couldn’t detect much difference), the real separator is the chili. While American’s felt watery and toned down, Lafayette’s chili was rich and hearty. The dog itself had a great crunch to it and the condiments felt useful and completely balanced. With each bite, I knew that I was tasting the dog of victory.
Every Detroiter has their own opinion about which restaurant serves the best Coney Dog, so this story isn’t to say that one is really better than the other. It’s just to say that I preferred Lafayette. That doesn’t make me un-American, does it?
To see how truly similar these sausage siblings are, click through the menus below to compare and contrast:
Have you ever been to Detroit for a Coney Dog? What was your favorite? Defend yourself in the comments!