The Detroit Coney Island Rivalry Has Nothing to do with Taste

In a city that’s still trying to shed its image as the symbol of American economic plight, a $2.50 chili dog is the food of the people, and its Mecca is on an otherwise desolate area block.

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Sep 10 2016, 4:00pm

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All photos by Maxine Nienow

Before publications from everywhere else deemed it "the next Berlin," Detroit was the Motor City. As everyone tries to define the city where guns, bankruptcy, and corruption have made up as much of the cultural fabric as Motown and the Big 3, Detroit is just trying to find its way. Gentrification and history, hope and adversity collide on the triangular corner of Lafayette and Michigan Ave—the birthplace of the Coney Island. A Coney Island is a hot dog doused with chili and topped with a handful of raw onions and a varying amount of yellow mustard. It's also more than that: In a place that's still trying to shed its image as the symbol of American economic plight, a chili dog for roughly $2.50 is the food of the people, and its Mecca is on a corner in an otherwise desolate area.

Gust Keros is credited with creating the first Coney. Keros moved to America in 1903, and unable to find work, started shining shoes and selling hot dogs from a street cart on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Lafayette. In 1917, four years after Ford installed the assembly line that revolutionized cars and American industry, Keros transformed his cart into a brick-and-mortar establishment called American Coney Island. A few years later, he brought his brother to America, who opened Lafayette Coney Island next door.

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Growing up, Lafayette served as my glimpse into the cultural mishmash that delicious cost-inclusive food tends to attract. I am not from Detroit. I was born there, but I grew up in the suburbs 15 minutes and a world away. The only times I usually traveled to the city growing up were for an occasional baseball game, a concert, or for a late-night trip to Lafayette. In a way, sitting at those communal tables was a right of passage, a feeling that I had some sort of roots here, which was amplified by the fact that I actually knew how to order in the proper slang due to my years serving up Coneys in the burbs.

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Contrary to its name, which is used for both the dog itself and the places that serve it, a Coney Island is a uniquely Detroit creation. It's pretty much the apex of the city's contribution to the culinary world. Yet, while Detroit Cool is being imported by cities all over the country, not many places have imported Coneys beyond Canada, upstate New York, and various spots in the midwest where most people call them "Michigans."

Photo by Maxine Nienow

The sprawling Detroit metro area is now littered with spots serving up this variety of chili dog, usually along with other specialties like gyros, Greek salads, and—local favorite—chicken finger pitas. Over the years the city blossomed to almost 2 million people thanks to a booming U.S. auto industry, and as it expanded so did the reach of the Coney.

The auto industry has since peaked and crashed, the city's population has shrunk to less than 700,000, and many businesses have come and gone. But American and Lafayette have soldiered on for almost a century. Both businesses remained in the family until about 30 years ago when Lafayette sold out to some of the employees.

"If there's a rivalry, it's them against us, because we're killing them," Keros said. "Maybe they should mop the floor and clean the bathroom every once in awhile."

The made-for-TV 'family' rivalry story has led everyone from the Food Network to the Travel Channel to do side-by-side tastes tests. More often than not, American has come out the winner. In the last few years, American has opened locations throughout the area, including at Ford Field (Detroit's football stadium) and the Detroit Zoo, as well as The D Hotel in Las Vegas.

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"Is someone gonna say who's better? Sure. I'm better. I know I'm better," third-generation American owner Grace Keros said. "And not just because of the hot dog. It's an all-around experience. My grandfather invented this."

Photo by Maxine Nienow

Growing up, I honestly had no idea a rivalry even existed, because nobody I knew had ever given a thought to that spot next door to Lafayette. It just seemed to be the place people went if they really didn't feel like waiting in line at Lafayette. The last time I had made the trip, I wound up standing in line outside on a cold November night next to former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer. I asked him about whether he thought the rivalry was real or invented by the media. "Oh, I don't know about any of that," he said. "But this is definitely my spot." I peaked in the window next door. American was pretty much empty, but as always, I stayed in line at Lafayette.

"If there's a rivalry, it's them against us, because we're killing them," Keros said. "Maybe they should mop the floor and clean the bathroom every once in awhile."

Keros is only mildly exaggerating. The counters at Lafayette are perpetually covered in chili, the filthy exterior sign has a vent in the middle of the letters, and going to the bathroom there means taking a harrowing trip to the basement. I'd rather wash my hands with a bar of prison soap than the one resting on their sink. But the fact that the restaurant gives exactly zero fucks is why so many people love it.

I guess which half of Mecca you go to make a pilgrimage depends at least as much on your style as it does on your tastebuds.

Photo by Maxine Nienow

On a recent trip home, I drove downtown with my girlfriend and my dad, who kept insisting that this was the stupidest idea he had ever heard, because American wasn't even edible let alone better than Lafayette. Like myself, and most people I knew, my father—who grew up in Detroit and spent the last 70 years in the area—had never stepped foot inside American.

Photo by Maxine Nienow

We pulled up just before 10, and went to American first. We hadn't eaten in hours, and figured the extra hunger would make up for the combined century of bias. The coney tasted more or less like the rest I had ever tasted. The specially sourced hot dog, which was 90% beef and 10% pork, was flavorful. The natural lamb casing—which Lafayette famously lacks—gave it more snap than its competitor. The onions were sweet and the mustard tangy. My only complaints, and they're a stretch, are that the creamy beef chili tasted too much of cumin, and the bun was a little too fluffy.

Photo by Maxine Nienow

But as Keros said, going for a Coney isn't just about the taste. It's about the experience.

American's black-and-white checkered floor, red-and-white-striped and-star-spangled walls, 50s-style light-up signs, and paper soda-jerk hats with a cartoon hot dog represent the kind of Americana nostalgia for Anywhere USA that could have been devised by a Coca-Cola ad exec. Keros calls it "delightfully tacky."

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We paid our bill and walked next door. A baseball game had gotten out, and Lafayette was so packed we couldn't get in the door. After a couple minutes, we found seats at the formica counter. The quiet atmosphere of American was replaced by a constant buzz—dishes clanging, waiters yelling orders, people at the community tables trying to talk over all the noise.

Photo by Maxine Nienow

It's true that the coney here had less of a snap, but the cooks made up for that with a dog that was more well done. The mustard was on the spicier side, the onions not as sweet. The chili had a bit more of a kick, and in my opinion was more well balanced. Or maybe I was just biased.

Photo by Maxine Nienow

"Lafayette is the hometown favorite and was my coney of choice until I talked to the family that originally owned both," said Nathan Skid, a former Detroit reporter who has written about the subject. "It is a better atmosphere, I admit. But American has the better dog and chili, hands down."

Photo by Maxine Nienow

Skid clearly was more successful than I (or my father, who still had heard nothing stupider between the time he made the claim and the time we finished eating) in his attempt to remain unbiased, but he's also kind of missing the point, because you can't really separate the atmosphere from the food. A glass of chianti tastes better in a villa overlooking the Tuscan hillside than it does in a characterless bar. And walls made of multi-shaded beige tiles and mint green linoleum, and a countertop that looks like it hasn't properly washed since 1924, is Detroit's version of the Tuscan countryside.

Photo by Maxine Nienow

In an area where you're never farther away than a mile or two from a perfectly tasty Coney, you go to Lafayette for the experience—for the grime, and the people watching, and to stare in awe at the men work. Servers will take an order at an 8-top without a pen or paper, shout it to the cooks in coney slang (yes, Coneys across the state have a universal slang, pictured above), deliver 12-15 plates stacked up their arms, then do the math in their heads in a matter of seconds and split the bill however you want it. They do everything analog, and they do it over and over at a restaurant with an extremely high turnover rate.

Photo by Maxine Nienow

"(There is a) desire to stick it out with the older (looking), less clean, grimey, kind of rude, definitely authentic option," Skid said. "Some Detroiters don't take kindly to progress, even if it means sticking by a lesser product."

As I ate my last Coney, I did feel a certain comfort in knowing that in my three decades of going to Lafayette, nothing had changed.

As we walked out, my girlfriend pointed in front of us, and asked "what's that?" A small urban garden was growing at the side of the building at the corner of Lafayette and Michigan Ave.