Most of my restaurant reviews are for pretty high-end restaurants. There is a reason for that. I love to cook and am quite happy making dinner at home most every night. When I go out, I want something that will “wow” me, not something that will make be think “I could have easily done this (better) at home.”
Having said that, you will still find me stopping from time-to-time at a hot dog stand or a food cart or a greasy spoon diner. Why? Because I like them. They are part of the culture I grew up in and, as much as I have traveled the world, eaten in the best restaurants, and learned about food, things like A&W Root Beer, Kraft Mac & Cheese and salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and gravy are the tastes and aromas I grew up with. It’s not that I seek these things out and eat them often, but, on occasion, the opportunity arises to take a short trip down a culinary memory lane and I enjoy every second (and bite) of it. I am definitely a foodie, but I am by no stretch a food snob.
One of my childhood memory foods can be found in various incarnations across the USA, but Michigan has a version that is all its own: The Coney Island Hot Dog. The best Coneys in the area around where I grew up are at Pete’s Coney II in Lake Orion (there is a second location in Clarkston, MI). Truth be told, people all over the state insist that their local Coney Island is the best. I’m not going to argue with them because everyone has his or her own taste and favorites. Still, Pete’s Coneys are without question a classic example of what makes a Michigan Coney Dog a favorite to so many.
Pete’s is a classic Midwest diner that serves hearty, stick-to-your ribs breakfast, lunch and dinner plates—and breakfast is available all day, as it should be. If you are an all-organic, gluten-free Vegan, this is probably not the best place for you, but if you crave eggs, breakfast meats and pancakes, or classic sandwiches like triple-decker clubs and Reubens, or meatloaf, smothered chicken or pan fried perch (another Michigan classic) for dinner, Pete’s is for you. Oh, sure, there are soups and salads and a low-cal platter available and they are all just fine, but this is a place to give your diet a break and just tuck in.
No matter what you order, there is a good chance it will be prepared and served by the owner, Andy, or his wife. Why is the owner of Pete’s named Andy? Well, Pete is Andy’s great-grandfather who started the business back in 1929. Andy is the 4th generation “Pete” to be in the business. Andy’s father, Ed, runs the Clarkston, MI location. I think that qualifies this as a genuine family business.
If Pete’s is a full-service, mid-western style diner, why the emphasis on the Coney? Because people in Michigan love their Coneys—a German-style hot dog (vienna sausage) made of beef, or beef and pork, in a natural casing, topped with yellow mustard, Coney sauce (basically a beanless beef chili—more on that in a minute) and chopped onions.
But how did the name Coney Island get associated with a Michigan hot dog? Well, at the turn of the century, there were lots of immigrants coming through Ellis Island and landing in New York. Many were just learning English and the folks in the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce were afraid that people would see the term “hot dog” and think that the sausage on a bun had actually been made with dog meat. I don’t know if this was really a problem, but the term “hot dog” was banned and the sausage on a bun became a Coney Island. That was the name that Greek and Macedonian immigrants learned at the time, so they carried it to the states, primarily in the midwest, where they settled. The first known Coney Island Hot dogs were served in Ft. Wayne Indiana and Jackson, Michigan in 1914. The records are not clear enough to declare which place served one first, so the debate goes on.
The Ft. Wayne Coney Dog was a Macedonian-style peppered pork sausage that was grilled on a flat top then served on a soft bun with some yellow mustard, a ground beef chili and diced onion. The Jackson version was very similar, but the sausage was a German-style beef or beef and pork product and the chili was made with finely chopped beef heart. Michigan became the capital of Coney Islands and several styles were developed across the state with variations in the type of sausage used and in the chili recipe, which can be dry or fairly liquid, use ground beef or ground beef heart (or mixtures) and have somewhat different spices in the sauce (though it is not typically a spicy-hot sauce). The idea spread to many states as far North as North Dakota and as far west as Texas and Oklahoma, but it was and is primarily a midwest phenomenon.
Some of you might be thinking “Beef heart? Did he say beef heart? Ewwww!” Yes, but trust me on this, chopped up and in a seasoned sauce, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between ground beef heart and any other kind of ground beef. You don’t want to know all the bits and pieces of the cow and pig that can go into the hot dog, but I can tell you beef heart is delicious.
If you have traveled in South America, you may already know that is true. Anticuchos, or grilled beef heart skewers, are very popular appetizers in Latin America, especially in Bolivia and Peru. The original dish was developed by the Incas using llama hearts before the Spaniards brought cows to South America. They are usually marinated in a spicy sauce overnight, then quickly grilled. I was a bit hesitant to try them on my first trip to Chile a long time ago, but now regularly order them as an appetizer.
I really don’t know if the chili at Pete’s is made with ground beef or ground beef heart (I suspect ground beef), but I really don’t care. It’s good stuff.
As you can see in the picture above, chili-cheese fries are also on the menu, and why not? As long as you have all of that tasty chili sauce on hand you might as well use it. Cheese is not a normal part of a Michigan Coney, but it is common in Ohio, especially around Cincinnati, where the same chili and grated cheddar cheese that is used to top spaghetti is used to top the local version of Coneys. In Michigan, the cheese usually goes on the fries.
Oh, you prefer onion rings to fries? No problem!
While I generally prefer onion strings in a light tempura batter to the more heavily breaded onion rings, I have to say these were very good, clearly made fresh on the spot with a relatively light beer batter and not dumped frozen from a bag into the fryer.
And yes, you can just get a salad if you are so inclined.
I have included the whole menu in the photo gallery so you can see the range of options here. If you have not had a chance to try a Michigan Coney Island and you are the kind of person who likes to explore local specialties, do stop into one the next time you are in Michigan. At least now you won’t be quite so surprised when you see a sign for “Coney Island” 600 miles or more from the New York seashore!
If you don’t plan to visit Michigan any time soon, it’s easy to make Coney Dogs at home. The basic ingredients of the sauce are ground beef (you don’t see ground beef heart in too many grocery stores!), onion, some kind of tomato sauce, mustard, and some additional flavorings like celery seed, cumin, chili sauce or Worcestershire sauce used in varying amounts and combinations. Here is a link to a Detroit Style Coney Sauce recipe, and here is one to a variation. Or you can just Google “Coney Island Sauce Recipes” and choose from dozens of variations.
I read this fun little book several years ago. If you’d like to learn more about the history of the many regional hot dogs across the US, grab this one in either the paperback or Kindle version.
Address: 4083 S Baldwin Rd, Lake Orion, MI 48359
Dress Code: Casual
Price Range: Less than $10
Hours: Monday-Saturday: 7:00am-9:00pm; Sunday: 7:00am-8:00pm
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All images were taken with a Sony A6000 camera and a Sony-Zeiss SEL1670Z Vario-Tessar T E 16-70mm (24-105mm full frame equivalent) F4 ZA OSS lens using ambient light. Post-processing in Adobe Lightroom® and Adobe Photoshop with Nik/Google plugins.