American Coney Island, Detroit
Truth be told, food in Detroit being a misnomer is as much a Motor City tradition as cars, the NHL playoffs and lousy football. The city’s signature drink, made with vanilla ice cream and Vernor’s ginger soda, is known as a Boston Cooler. It has no connection to the Massachusetts city, and it predates the street it was supposedly named after (Boston Boulevard) by at least a decade. Yet the name persists to this day, for reasons completely unknown to anyone.
Meanwhile, Detroit’s signature food is the Coney Island hot dog, which gets its name from the location of what used to be the site of the nation’s premier eating contest (yes, I’ll say it, Major League Eating has ruined the Nathan’s contest and Takeru Kobayashi is the record holder with 69, no matter what George Shea or Joey Chestnut say), Coney Island in New York. This time, the name actually makes a little bit of sense, as the hot dogs did come from New York’s Coney Island, which is where brothers Gus and Bill Keros arrived from Greece before making their way to Michigan. Ironically, in New York, you can get a hot dog that is called a Michigan, which you can’t get in Michigan. Don’t even ask, I don’t know anymore.
Upon arriving in Michigan a little before World War I, Gus Keros went to work. He quickly established the concept of taking the hot dogs he’d seen on Coney Island and topping them with a Greek-seasoned chili. Mustard and onions were added, and Detroit soon had a food to call its own. In 1917, Gus went from the street carts to a building on Lafayette Street, and American Coney Island was born, complete with Greek offerings on the menu and a 24-hour business model.
Of course, this being Detroit, being somewhere after dark isn’t the best idea anymore, but American remains open 24 hours to this day. It is kind of nice to know that you do have the option to get a Coney Island dog at any time of the day, and some locals believe that going to American at night is simply part of the experience.
I’m not going to get into that debate, but there is another one that I will enter into over the course of two posts. That’s the question of which one is actually better, because American isn’t the only Coney Island place on Lafayette Boulevard. Right next door, literally, sits Lafayette Coney Island, which was started by none other than Gus Keros’ brother, Bill. As you might expect, since they split into different restaurants, the brothers and the restaurants don’t do things quite the same way. But unlike the mistake I made in the Juicy Lucy war between the 5-8 Club and Matt’s Bar, I’m going to wait to get into that one.
For now, let’s talk about American Coney Island only. It’s not a big place by any means, but as far as small restaurants that predate my grandparents go, it’s not that small either. You have the option of having a waiter or placing your order at the counter, a choice I didn’t even realize until after Amy and I had already ordered. Of course, given the way I am, I probably would have ordered at the counter anyway. It’s just the way I do things. Even at the counter, these guys are pretty professional.
Of course, I had to try the staple, an American Coney Island hot dog. The hot dog comes with a standard yellow mustard, Greek-spiced chili and white onions, providing a pretty satisfying taste with a bit of a kick. The tastes do work together pretty well, and it’s easy to see why they’ve been in business for about a century. The hot dog is a very high-quality, with a solid amount of snap and juices, and the chili is pretty solid as well. The Greek spices make for a bit of a different taste, and the kick is definitely noticeable. It’s not Prince’s Hot Chicken by any means, but like Red Robin’s chili, enough heat to know you ate it.
Overall, I found this a very good hot dog, definitely worthy of making a trip to get, although given the city, I would definitely choose to make the trip in broad daylight if I was going to return here. But was it the best Coney Island dog on its own street? Well, you’ll have to come back for Lafayette’s review to find out…
Time to go: Anytime, but go during the day unless you want to take the risk. Detroit is not a great place to be after dark, and this part is pretty dark at night. We ended up taking a taxi back to our car, and that’s something I like to avoid at all costs unless I have no other option.
Wait during my visit: Minimal. They get the hot dogs out pretty quick.
Location: American Coney Island is at 114 West Lafayette Boulevard, in downtown Detroit.
Cost: It’s a hot dog, even if it is covered in specialty toppings. It’ll be no more than $5 a person unless you’re eating a few. However, one thing to remember: American is cash only. Your plastic won’t do you an ounce of good here.
Parking: There really isn’t any. Really, your best bet is to take the People Mover (which stupidly only moves one direction) and go to one of the stops near Lafayette Boulevard. It’s not ideal.
Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs.
Website: American Coney Island
Specialty items: Coney Island hot dogs