Chicago has enough hang-ups about hot dogs. The last thing our homegrown dog Nazis need to do is get into Detroit's business. But that's precisely what Humboldt Park's Lola's Coney Island confronts Chicago with: Detroit-style hot dogs, which were established neither in Detroit nor New York, but more likely in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the home of the oldest operating coney purveyor anywhere. Fort Wayne's Famous Coney Island Wiener Stand was opened 106 years ago by Macedonian immigrants who, like many of their kind, trafficked in a hot dog delivery system that featured a mildly spiced natural casing wiener blanketed in a beanless but hearty chili sauce.
It's literally hearty—made with ground beef hearts—but a sprinkle of raw chopped onion and a spurt of yellow mustard brings the whole package into a balance quite unlike the over-policed riot of the Chicago dog dragged through the garden.
Northern Indiana and Michigan are the natural habitats for Coney Islands, but Detroit is usually thought of as their spiritual home, thanks in part to the century-old dogfight between the city's two iconic players: American Coney Island and its upstart neighbor, Lafayette Coney Island.
I'm not sure why Detroiters fight over that—it's a lot clearer than hot dog water that Lafayette is the better all-around establishment. Jesse Fakhoury agrees, but he is neither a Lafayette guy, nor an American guy. He grew up a block from Duly's Place in southwest Detroit, and that's his ride-or-die.
Fakhoury is the force behind Lola's, named for his two-year-old daughter. He has a keen appreciation for the ridiculousness of the regional hot dog wars. Don't ask him what body fluid he's heard some dickheads compare coney sauce to. He's called Chicago home for 19 years—selling cars mostly—but for the last 15 or so he's dreamed of opening a Coney Island stand. He has two goals. One is to please the population of Michigan transplants that yearns for the coneys of home, and two: "I don't want to give anyone from Chicago a reason to make fun of me."
He loves them all, which is why he offers well-executed Chicago-style dogs as well as New York-style dogs (sauerkraut, onions, brown mustard), both supplied by Vienna Beef. But it's the coneys you'll be coming for: natural casing beef and pork franks from National Coney Island, a Michigan chain that also supplies his chili. In the last two months Fakhoury's made a half dozen trips to Detroit to keep himself supplied through his late R&D phase and the three weeks he's been open. The dogs are salty and bouncy, and though not as firm and snappy as a natural casing Vienna, they're still perfectly compatible with the chili. Together with its acidic and pungent flourishes it's an admirable, even craveable, expression of the style.
Lola's is a far more modest operation than Lakeview's late Leo's Coney Island, the Detroit diner chain that was only able to comfort homesick Michigan expats for less than two years before closing. Fakhoury mourned when that happened, and in a small tribute, he's included a coney taco on his menu—loose ground beef on a steamed hot dog bun, with lettuce, tomato, onion, and shredded cheese. That's an analogue to the loose burger, that same ground beef topped with the usual coney condiments (an improvement over Iowa's infamous Maid-Rite loose meat sandwich).
There are just a few other nods to the Michigan Greek diner tradition, such as an astonishing avgolemeno soup that Fakhoury refuses to say anything about, other than to not disagree with my description of it as a kind of Greek congee, an intensely lemony-chickeny rice porridge. Or, to reach across another body of water, it's the best $5 risotto in the city.
Vernors ginger soda, and seven flavors of Juggalo blood—er, Faygo—complete a simple but satisfying tribute to Fakhoury's hometown. But he isn't an orthodox. He offers a rib eye sandwich on Wednesdays, and a lobster roll on Fridays. Those are just off-script things he likes to eat, and he promises he isn't going to expand his menu beyond that. Well, he might start bringing in Sanders Bumpy Cakes and making a Portillo's-style chocolate cake shake with them, which would be a conspicuous companion to the Rock and Rye float, a scoop of vanilla ice cream suspended in Faygo's pinkish cherry cream cola.
Yes, OK, in a city that celebrates bitter wormwood liquor and sausage intolerance that might sound ridiculous. But sometimes a hot dog is just a hot dog and there's nothing to make fun of at Lola's Coney Island. v