Friday, November 5, 2010

A Taste of Michigan in the Triangle: Cloos Coney Island

So I started the blog about two weeks ago. It took me a little while to get things set up on the site, and then write, edit, and tweak that first entry.  In the time since, I've been to several places, and I've got a backlog of entries to make.  But I was thinking about which place to make the first entry.  I wanted a certain symbolism to it.  I said that I tended to get in patterns of familiar eateries when I settle an area, and I thought about using those familiar places and foods a sort of transition in to the blog.

When I started this project, I wasn't quite sure where to eat, aside from the familiar franchises and chains.  Technically, my first meal in Cary was a McDonalds that I stopped at on my way in to what would be my new home.  The problem about being new in an area is that one needs to know the locals usually to find the local spots.  Then, as I was playing in the Apple App Store last week, I made a find: the Urbanspoon app.  Putting the website’s content in the hands of the user, the app looks like a slot machine. There's a column for the area of the city, one for the style/region of food, and one for the price range of a restaurant—one to five dollar signs.  Each column also has a lock, so if I was looking for, say, two dollar sign Chinese food, or an Indian place in Cary, I could lock those columns in.  Otherwise, the app's like a culinary version of Joker's Wild...without Jack Barry, and ghastly late 70's/early 80's hair and fashion: hit the spin button and let the random number gods direct you where they may.  So I was at my day job last week, killing time with the Urbanspoon app, spinning through cheap eats in the NCSU area, and the random number gods brought Cloo's Coney Island to my attention.

I'm a Michigan boy at heart.  I mentioned that in the opening entry.  Coney Islands are a part of my cultural heritage, ranking up there with Dawn Donuts, Slim Chipley, and a love/hate relationship with Michael Moore.  If I can get home to Flint once a year, I'm lucky.  If I can make at least one pilgrimage to Angelo's Coney Island during my one trip a year home to Flint, I'm luckier.  So now, here I was, babysitting an undegraduate study study hall at NC State, seven hundred and fifty miles away from the alter of Angelo's Coney Island (the Mecca of the Flint coney scene), staring at an iPad that advised me to the presence of a coney island restaurant no more than a mile away.

Of course it had to be the first place I officially reviewed. 

Coney Islands first spread through Detroit in the early 1900s, usually run by Greek and Albanian immigrants.  Soon the restaurant concept migrated to nearby Flint, where Coney Islands became a common eatery for the workers in the auto factories.  The thing that non-Michiganders need to understand about the history of the Coney Island is the regional rivalry between Flint and Detroit—a Crips-and-Bloods clash about what makes a “true” coney.

Technically, there are two variants on the coney be really technical, two and a half variants.  Both consist of a hot dog and bun, topped with meat sauce, diced onion, and mustard.  The Detroit coney's meat sauce is a wetter sauce, with almost a chili-like consistency. Some Detroit coneys will even have beans included in the meat sauce.  The Flint coney is a drier sauce.  Imagine the consistency of drained and pressed ground beef. This is the single tragic reason why Flint coneys can't travel well.  Years ago, I brought a gallon of sauce from Angelo's, packed in smaller-serving freezer bags, back to Orlando after a visit home.  As I made coneys in the months following, the sauce never quite had the same taste as it did while fresh.  Reheating it drove too much of the moisture out of what was already a rather dry sauce to begin with.  The actual meat used in the Flint coney sauce has also been the subject of a decades-long debate.  Some Flintoids believe that the sauce is made of ground beef heart.  Others believe that it's a blend of ground beef and a second mystery meat—either beef heart or ground up hot dog meat, depending on the source.  Some maintain that it's just finely ground-up ground beef.  My mother swears that she has an old Flint Journal clipping with the Angelo's recipe.  It's in a box somewhere with the clipping of the Italia Gardens sauce recipe that she also swears she has.  She's moved at least ten times since we left Flint in 1984, and as she consolidates before each move, neither clipping has yet to materialize in a box of keepsakes, so I'm not holding my breath that she's got the long-lost answer to the mystery of Flint's coney sauce.

The other variation on the coney, the second-and-a-half, is strictly a Flint thing—the hot dog meat itself.  There are two schools of thought on the meat of a Flint coney.  One school is that any hot dog can be a coney dog—spiced pork in a casing.  The second school of thought is that only a Kogel (a local meat packer with a limited distribution range out of the city) hot dog/vienna an make a true coney.  When I was living in Flint, Kogel made about fifty different meat products (god, it was a fatboy's wet dream, especially the pickled and garlic bologna), including multiple types of hot dogs—a more traditional hot dog, and the vienna.  The casing on the viennas gives the dog a signature snapping sensation when chewed, giving a different feel in the mouth when eaten—a bit tougher and chewier than a standard dog.  Regretfully, viennas travel about as well as the Coney sauce, as evidenced by the eight packs of sealed, desiccated Kogels in my freezer.  Still, when Angelo's is an eleven hour drive away, a fix is a fix.  I was hoping that Cloos could become my surrogate pusher in the Triangle.

I made my way to Cloos Coney Island in the mid afternoon, after the lunch rush.  The restaurant itself has the cosmetic features of the Coney Islands from Flint—tables and chairs, a bar style counter, and an open grill area.  Napkin dispensers, salt and pepper shakers, and catsup bottles sit on each table.   The d├ęcor, however, seems to be trying too hard to replicate the Coney Island experience—almost looking more like a 50's themed novelty diner.  Checkerboard tiles cover the floor, black and white with red accents from the chairs and lighting fixtures.  University of Michigan, Michigan State, Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings signs hang on the walls.  Banksy-esque stencils of musical performers like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Michael Jackson are painted over the tables, and a lonely Elvis pinball machine sits in the back of the store.  I'm still not sure what Sinatra, Elvis, and James Dean have to do with Detroit.  The Chevys, I can see a case for.  But Chuck Berry?  Thriller-era Michael Jackson...after he jumped ship from Motown to Epic Records?  I suppose that if Detroit can get lost in an identity crisis these days, a Detroit Coney Island in west Raleigh can as well...

Then I looked at the menu, two pieces of paper taped to the counter.  The fare was the standard stuff for a Coney Island—a mix of Greek food and greasy-spoon burgers, hot dogs, and fries.  Then I saw the hot dogs heading, and anxiously scanned the offerings.

Detroit style coneys.  Damn.

I felt like Charlie Brown looking through his Halloween bag after a trick or treating.  “I got a Detroit coney.”   I scanned and scanned, hoping to see something that looked like a Flint coney on the menu.  After all, if the Beatles and Elvis peacefully coexisted on the wall behind me, couldn't Flint and Detroit coneys coexist on the same menu?  The closest I saw was a “hamburger-meat” coney—a coney dog with ground hamburger meat on it.  I asked if the meat was at all spiced, but the woman who rang me up said that it was just plain meat...though they could spice it.  Had I the time to research, and the time (and patience) to wait, I almost thought about bringing the Flint coney to the Triangle, but lack of both time and patience resulted in a compromise on the Detroit style coney.

I ordered my usual meal from Angelos: a coney, a cheeseburger, order of fries, and a drink.  Everything at Cloos is ala carte.  There are no lunch specials or combos.  This means that a meal gets expensive quickly. In this case, my total came out to $11.05 after tax.  When I make my pilgrimage to Angelos in December, I'll run a price comparison between the two.  For 2:30 in the afternoon, the service was also a bit slow.  It took about ten minutes for the food to come out—not bad for a regular restaurant, but slow by Coney Island standards.  At a good Coney Island, a waitress can make food appear with a speed that would make Samantha Stevens blush with shame.

I tried not to let my disappointment over the lack of Flint coneys cloud my judgment, but I also realize that I was born into the Flint coney tradition.  The Generals, WWCK (at least when they were an AOR station), and Flint style coneys at Angelos—all encoded in my genetic memory.  It's like the sketch from Eddie Murphy's “Raw,” where Eddie talks about his mother trying to recreate a McDonalds burger at home—there's no substitute.  So I suspended preconceived beliefs and picked up my prize.  The bun was warmed, but the edges along the split had started to get crusty.  The hot dog was grilled (coneys can either be boiled or grilled—a choice made by each restaurant) perfectly—not cold, but also not to the point where the casing was either burned or otherwise split.  For a Detroit style dog, the meat sauce was okay.  It was beanless chili, essentially—the same dominant spices and texture on the tongue.  When put together with the yellow mustard and onions, the flavors of the coney dog blended well. I guess that for seven hundred and fifty miles away from Detroit, it was a good effort—a well dressed chili dog that's trying to live up to its distinguished blue-collar pedigree.  Like I said, a fix is a fix.

I can't say a lot about the fries, really—frozen, mass produced fries.

The real irony of Cloos Coney Island is that the cheeseburger stole the show, not the signature hot dog.  The burger is greasy-spoon cooking at its best—easily one that can stand next to local favorite Cook Out (which I'll get to in another entry...eventually)...even if it's considerably more expensive.  The buns were served with no treatment—no toasting or steaming.  I had the standard condiments: catsup, mustard, pickle, onion, lettuce, tomato.  The patty was grilled to perfection, with just a hint of pink in the middle contrasting with the grey on the outside of the patty, and a single slice of cheese melted over it.  The burger saved the meal, but then what can't a good cheeseburger save, right...except maybe cardiovascular disease?

In the Coney Island tradition, the wait staff's approach is minimalistic.  Orders are placed at the counter, and someone brings the food out to the table.  I did have a few people offer to refresh my drink several times during the meal (a big plus when I eat out—keep the drinks full), and the staff were both friendly and attentive during my visit there.  It had a definite “local” feel to it. The staff seemed to be on very familiar terms with a few of the customers who were there, and the vibe was welcoming. It clearly wasn't one of those eateries where newcomers aren't made to feel unwelcome.

My visit to Cloos reminds me of the Simpsons episode “Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo,” where the family takes a trip to Japan and immerses in the local culture.  One of their first stops is a restaurant named “Americatown,” where we see life in the US viewed through Japanese eyes...or at least the American writers viewing American life through Japanese eyes.  Cloos feels the same way—a Detroit style Coney Island that's both familiar, but has that air of awkwardness that suggests that something didn't quite make an accurate translation from the source.  The coney is a passable substitute for authentic Michigan cuisine—a little taste of home, when home's hundreds of miles away—but the cheeseburger was the real star of the meal.  As I mentioned earlier, I did notice that in the Coney Island tradition, Cloos had a solid assortment of greek food on the menu, so I may go back for a pita sometime.  In the meantime, when I'm feeling homesick, and a spontaneous road trip to Angelos is out of the question, I know that I've at least got somewhere I can go for something like it here.

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