Coney Capital (or, Wedding Weenies)
A couple of weeks ago my friend Jess got married. This may not mean anything to you, but for those of us who know Jess this event had the same probability of happening as Jesus coming back on the same day that the Chicago Cubs win the World Series for the tenth year in a row. Since I had a lot of vacation time coming to me I decided to make a holiday out of it and found myself
back home again in Indiana
after making my way there via Chicago
It was a hot dog-fueled trip, with my parents and I making a stop at the famous Superdawg stand in Chicago which I’ll post about later, and all a part of that “god-dog I feel lucky” couple of weeks I wrote about in my last post.
So anyway, Jess had his wedding in the hometown of his soon-to-be-wife, Jenn. Yes, friends, I had the great pleasure of visiting Jackson, Michigan–home of a strip club named the Velvet Touch and the city that originated the Coney Dog, also known as the Michigan Dog.
I was planing on visiting the stand that is said to have started it all, Todoroff’s, but Jenn sent me a message saying that wasn’t the best place to go, that I should instead check out these two coney stands that are on the same block. This was just too good to be true, because since it was the day of the wedding I was pressed for time and two hot dog joints on the same block would optimize my hot dog consumption. I tried to wheedle out of some wedding events, like keeping Jess from drinking himself into oblivion before the actual wedding, and hit up these stands but nobody could be convinced to go with me–nor would they allow me to leave. Finally some of the groomsmen started to get hungry and I volunteered to go out and pick us up some food–but of course the only place I was willing to go was these two hot dog stands. And of course I didn’t admit that I was planning on going to two stands, because everyone was worried I wouldn’t make it back in time. I’m stubborn when I want to be, and when I need to be, but hot dogs needed to be consumed in mass quantities.
Luckily the stands were only a ten minute drive from the hotel we were at, so I drove like the Masshole I’ve become and burned rubber down the sleepy streets of Jackson. When I arrived at my destination, tears came to my eyes–only in a city that prides itself on being the cradle of the coney dog could two stands exist in harmony, just steps away from each other. Since I parked by the obvious coney stand–the one with the big-ass yellow sign with “The Coney Island” written on it–I started my coney journey with the Jackson Coney Island.
I’m well familiar with dive bars, but I’ve never been into a dive hot dog joint until I walked in here. It was a charming mix of equal parts menacing service and brooding, loudly cussing customers. I stared in wide-eyed wonder at the magic of it all, a hot dog joint where I don’t know if I’m going to be served a dog or get shivved (or worse) while waiting. I’m just kidding, of course, it wasn’t that bad–but it was far from welcoming. I ordered up five coneys with everything (coney sauce, raw white onions, and yellow mustard) and sat down to wait. When I asked the grill cook in the picture above what kind of hot dogs they use he looked at me like I told him the moon was made of barbecued spare ribs, disgustedly responded “regular hot dogs” and went back to work. Undeterred, I said, “no, I mean who makes the hot dogs” and he told me “Gordon’s.” I didn’t want to press the issue any more, so I sat there and made some small talk with a guy who dropped the f-bomb like it was celery salt on a Chicago Dog, and when my order was ready took the brown bag filled with hot dogs and made my way up the block to Virginia Coney Island.
The difference between the two stands was readily apparent when I stepped into Virginia Coney Island–where Jackson didn’t have any young families eating there, Virginia was full up with them. I actually had a conversation with the guy I took to be the owner, and it was pretty pleasant. I have to admit, I didn’t even tell the people at the Jackson stand that I write a blog about hot dogs–they probably would have thought I was coming on to them and kicked me out–but the owner at Virginia was pretty happy to hear that his stand would be getting some press. I talked to him a bit about the dogs and the sauce. The owner of Virginia told me they also used hot dogs from Gordon’s, which as he told it to me I understood wasn’t a hot dog manufacturer but rather a wholesaler–so I never did get the whole story about the dogs, but he was helpful to clarify that. Commenting on all the awards for “best coneys” that lined the entry wall, he told me that the sauce they use comes from an old Macedonian recipe which they’ve used all 97 years that the stand has been in business.
Just like the stand I grew up with, you could tell that Virginia was the place where people came back to when visiting family after moving away. The owner told me people come by and pick up a dozen coneys when driving through town, and that they sell on average 4,500 coney dogs a week. I’d be interested to know how much the Jackson Coney Island stand sells, since it looked like they were just as busy–if that assumption is correct, then almost a half a million hot dogs are sold on that block every year.
The stands were right by the train tracks, and that day everyone was celebrating National Train Day–maybe another reason why the stands were so busy. Between the two stands, it took me about half an hour to get five dogs from each place and a hamburger for Jess (since there’s no way a groom should have coney sauce and onion breath on his wedding day).
I brought the dogs back to the groomsmen and we began to devour the dogs. The wrapped dog above is from the Jackson Coney Island. I hate to admit it, but the dog wasn’t much. The onions were just right, but the sauce was pretty tame and didn’t do much to add to the overall flavor of the dog–I could taste the mustard more than the coney sauce, which isn’t right for a coney dog.
We moved on to the Virginia dogs, which were boxed up rather than wrapped in wax paper and brown-bagged; just looking at the two dogs is enough to distinguish between the places they came from. Unfortunately the Virginia dog’s onions had something going on wrong because they tasted like they had been bathed in chemicals, which leads me to believe they had shaved a bad onion. Everyone agreed on this point, and we all sloughed off the onions. Once we did that, however, the taste was wonderful. The sauce is certainly better than Jackson’s, with more spice coming out on top and a bit of sweetness underneath.
I wish I could have gotten more pictures but we were running behind schedule so we had to devour the dogs and then make a run to the ceremony space to set up. At some point in my life I might have to make my way to Todoroff’s, but I have to say that’s a long shot since my favorite spot in Michigan is Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo. Holla!