As I briefly mentioned a few years ago in my review of George’s Coney Island, the phrase “Coney Island” means different things to different people. To someone in New York, it’s a neighborhood, best known for its amusement parks, beach, and boardwalk. In many places, it means a variant of the chili dog, usually one served up with a beanless and slightly sweet chili, diced onions, and mustard. To someone living in Southeast Michigan, however, it actually means a particular type of restaurant, one which is generally (a) Greek-owned, (b) serves the above-mentioned hot dogs and gyros, and (c) typically serves breakfast all day as well. Really, it’s quite a common theme, a auick check in Google Places indicates that there are over 400 different restaurants in the Detroit Metro area with “Coney Island” in the title. The best known are the pair downtown (the famous rivals of Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island), but it’s difficult to go someplace in Southeast Michigan where there aren’t at least two or three Cones Island joints within a short drive. (Note to self, Lafayette Coney Island is one of those places that I’ve been several times, and am shocked that I didn’t review here. Maybe next time I’ll correct that oversight).
Howell, MI, a smaller city Northwest of Detroit where I was attending a wedding, is no exception. Between my hotel and the wedding venue, I counted off more than four different Coney Island restaurants on the drive, showing that the trend extends at least that far (heck, from my college years in East Lansing, I know they extend that far as well, but are starting to thin, with the entire Lansing area only having about a half dozen Coney Island joints). Closest to the hotel was Leo’s Coney Island, which is actually one of the larger coney island chains in Michigan, with over 40 locations. So I decided at one point when I needed a light lunch that I’d head over there with Carol and her niece.
While I was very, very tempted by the gyros coming out of the kitchen, both Carol and I decided that coney dogs were exactly what was called for at the moment, so I ordered up a pair (the niece, however, took advantage of the “breakfast all day” philosophy, and got pancakes). One of the better things about most Michigan coney islands is that they often use a slightly better grade of hot dog than the generic “fast food hot dog”. The ones at Leo’s are no exception, being Koegel natural casing hot dogs (this reminds me, one of these days I should make a rough map of the US by prevailing hot dog brands….) with a good snap, served up with a decent sweet-but-not-too-sweet chili (of the type I’d hate in a bowl, but works well as a topping), fresh onions, and mustard on a fresh-steamed bun. There’s just enough stuff on the bun that you’re generally not going to be eating one of these with your hands, a knife and fork is generally called for. All in all, these weren’t all that much different from any of the other thousand or so coney island dogs I could have found within a 50 mile radius, but they were decently executed with a better-than-average chili, cheap ($2 each), and served up by a friendly staff in a clean restaurant. I was certainly pleased.