In 1984, when I was a just a shorty with a banana seat bicycle, I cared about one thing and one thing only: the Detroit Tigers. Growing up when I did, when the Bengals were on top, when Jack Morris was twirlin’ and Alan Trammell was raking, there was no other game in town. They got out the gates faster that year than Haagen-Daz hording housewives at Wal-Mart on Black Friday (35 wins, 5 losses–can’t fuck!) and didn’t so much as squint over their shoulders. And then shit got silly. Crappy musicians wrote hilarious songs about them, Morris threw a no-no, Dave Bergman preceded a walkoff jack in Toronto with a 13-pitch at-bat that lasted longer than a meth high. This noise went on all summerlong, right into October and the World Series where San Diego made like Joe McNeil and just sat down for the Detroit crew.
And I wasn’t missing it for a bag of burgers. Every night at seven I had my mom call my spindly ass in from playing pickle at the neighbors’ before the lineups were called so I wouldn’t miss a sliver of the broadcast. Then I’d lay down on the carpet in front of the big stereo speakers in the living room and listen to Ernie Harwell call the game. No shit, I probably listened to 90 percent of the games that season. (Emphasis on listen here, as there wasn’t a TV in the house. I was basically a Norman Rockwell illustration that summer.) It was, and I understand that I was a mere 7-year-old, an incredible time to live in Detroit.
Make no mistake about it, though, the Motor City was still going in the shit tank in 1984. Especially on TV. When the Tigers won, mu’fuckers flipped over a squad car and burned it to the ground. Devil’s Night was at it’s apex–the night before Halloween hundreds of vacant buildings were set ablaze. The Mayor, Coleman Young, who by the way was a thousand times more of a badass than Richard Daley, was publicly talking shit with the good reverand, Jesse Jackson. The Tigers had me high as mom pants, but outside of Michigan people were starting to treat Detroit like the grubby little fifth-grader who needs a shower.
Like a lot of people, I eventually broke. My family left for Chicago in 1995 to follow a job. They’ve since moved back, but I’ve stayed, possibly forever, cuz as much as I love Detroit, it ain’t no Chicago. But then again, not much is.
My ears still perk up when I hear someone say ‘Detroit’. And when you’re from the D, you get used to people shittin’ on your city. I’d have to grow digits like Antonio Alfonseca to count the number of times I’ve overheard douchebags on the other side of the bar I tend woofin’ straight up ignorant horseshit about my hometown. But you grow rhino skin and eventually get used to it, almost revel in it, cuz that means the retard factor in Detroit is reduced exponentially. As long as the khaki class thinks “Detroit” is a punchline to their sub-Leno-level jokes, no one in the city has to cater to their Jaeger-induced whims. Thus, dinner at Noodle Planet followed by a Blue Moon at Blandy O’Humdrums isn’t a Friday night option on every block like it is in other cities. Nor do packs of shrill Trixies and bellowing fartbags stumble down the streets like tequila-soaked tumbleweeds in a dust storm. And you’d have to sniff really deeply to catch even the faintest whiff of the sickening mixture of Axe Body Spray and Red Bull that permeates the air in way too many bars in other, less-marginalized cities. And thank god for that.
Sadly, if the shit talk gets fists up, it also arouses regret. Leaving a hurting hometown for a new one entails a certain amount of guilt. Not Oscar Schindler-level guilt. Not Tiger Woods-level guilt. Not Kramer-level guilt. Not even Mustard Man-level guilt. But a beer cap of remorse that you broke too quickly, that if everyone like you stuck around, maybe things would be better. Couple this with the way hometowns get you like herpes–once they’re in you, they’re staying–and you start longing for the ephemera that you grew up with. I’m a Chicagoan through and through now, but damn if even writing that feels a bit like betrayal.
So what’s a motherfucker to do? I still root for the Tigers, of course, but sports don’t hold the same magic as they did for me when my boy Sweet Lou Whitaker refused to stand up for the National Anthem (because of his Jehovah’s Witness religion) and I instantly thought he was the baddest motherfucker around. I still read the Detroit newspapers online, but these days they have less content then the brokest blog on the internet. And I can scream about the Detroit hip hop scene being the best thing going for more than a decade, but something tells me most people don’t care.
So here’s what I do: I eat Detroit food. I visit my family and eat at Red Coat and the Chicken Shack on Woodward. I hit up Slows’s on Michigan Ave. I fuck up Zingerman’s and Blimpy Burger in Ann Arbor every chance I get. I go to drive-in A&W’s. I drink Vernor’s, Boston Coolers, and Faygo Rock ‘n’ Rye. I eat grilled skirt steak and skin-on vinegar fries cooked in my Grandpa’s garage. I crush pasties. And, yes, I gorge myself on Coney Dogs.
Which brings us to the subject of this post, the opening of Detroit’s own, Leo’s Coney Island, on Southport. Gluttons has been anticipating this opening for months now, salivating like a drunk David Hasslehoff everytime the owners updated their twitter feed with news about the opening. Every day that went by without Leo’s doors opening, the more we wanted it.
Apparently, we weren’t the only ones. When Leo’s finally opened, we showed up in the early afternoon to an absolute mob scene. WGN had a van parked out front, northbound traffic on Southport was thicker than Roberto Benigni’s accent, and the line spilled out the front door. We waded through the crush and left our name with the hostess, then walked down the street for a drink. An hour later we returned to find we still had at least another 45 minutes to wait. So we had another drink. The wait was so long I had to pre-eat. At the first bar, Justin’s, I had a surprisingly decent bowl of chicken dumpling soup. Just a little something to prime the maw.
Back at Leo’s after nearly two hours, I texted my brother in Michigan to tell him what I was doing. His response: “geez, not worth it for leos.” Which, of course, it’s not. But also it is. Let me explain.
Leo’s Coney Island does not serve the best Coney Dog in Detroit. Not even close. That honor is reserved for the OGs, American and Lafayette, the two originals, which sit side by side on Lafayette Ave in Detroit. Which one is better is the source of some of the bitterest beef this side of Kashmir. I line up with American, but I’d cheat with Lafayette without hesitation. Suffice to say, though, these two are monuments to the art of Coney Dogs. They are the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Leo’s is the AIDS Quilt.
So why were we jammed into Leo’s on opening day like wristwatches in Winona Ryder’s underwear? Cuz most of us in there were from Detroit. A solo dude on the street who asked me to snap a picture of him holding his Coney and fries in front of the Leo’s sign told me he needed to send it as evidence to his sister in Warren, MI. Everywhere you looked there were Spartan and Wolverine hats. Tigers gear was abundant. I hadn’t seen this much Old English D since I hit the sauna in a hotel in Edinburgh. This was a straight up rally. You live long enough without something you once had and eventually you start craving it. Hell, I doubt even half the people in there ever counted Leo’s as the best coney joint in their hometowns even, much less Metro Detroit. But when you got none and then you get one, well shit.
Imagine, lifelong Chicagoans, if you moved away and spent 10-15 years in a place where not only are there no Italian Beefs, no one’s even heard of them. And then one day rumors start that an Al’s is opening a few neighborhoods over. And then as the weeks pass, those rumors turn to fact. And then the owners start twittering about every little step of the opening process, so that when they finally pass their plumbing code inspection you fart a little in your pants you’re so excited. Now imagine you have other friends who are from Chicago and when you’re together you start talking about Italian Beefs, and you remember exactly how fucking good those things were. How if you got one properly dipped with hot giardiniera the thing was absolutely the culinary equivalent of Jesus himself returning to earth to baptize your firstborn. And then just when you can’t stand it anymore, when you’re ready to get all Vanilla Ice on something, you find out you have to wait a few more weeks for the Mayor’s office to extract every last fee possible from the building process. If you’re a glutton like us, you’d be there as soon as the joint opened, nevermind that you hadn’t hit one up the last three years you lived in Chicago. This is what Leo’s is for me.
Actually I should apologize. Leo’s isn’t like an AIDS Quilt. It’s actually good as hell. It’s just not as good as the originals. But no one should expect that. It’s a chain for chrissakes.
For the uninitiated, the Coney Dog, despite it’s moniker, is a Detroit original. It’s simply a steamed dog on a bun, topped with the slightly sweet beanless chili we call Coney sauce, mustard, and onion. And a good one tastes like Ron Jeremy’s butthole on Opposite Day. Which means it’s very, very delicious.
Leo’s menu is actually a large one. I’ve actually worked my way around it over the years, but mostly you should stick to the Coney and chili fries. The Greek salad is tasty in the same way BLTs made with iceberg lettuce are–it just is, despite its subpar ingredients. Everything else can already be had elsewhere, and just as good if not better. And this is the point, that another hole in Chicago’s culinary scene has been plugged. The Chicago Dog now has a sloppy cousin to hang out with. And those of us who grew up with the Coney, who say we’re going home when we visit Detroit and then say the exact same thing when we return to Chicago–those of us who are fucking proud to be from Detroit–we get to taste and smell a little bit of our past without leaving Chicago. Definitely worth waiting for.