Leo’s Coney Island gets Windy

0 Posted by - March 2, 2010 - Things We've Eaten

boat
Leo’s begins the long voyage across Lake Michigan to Chicago

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.

dog1
A Coney wearing it’s Sunday best.

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.

dogs
Twins!

fries
Chili fries w/ cheese. Eat too many and you’ll be gassier than Auschwitz.

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.

globe
No matter what color our skin, we all have the same yellow mustard.

18 Comments

  • avatar
    roy March 3, 2010 - 8:27 am Reply

    That was beautiful john.

  • avatar
    Andrew N March 3, 2010 - 9:50 am Reply

    Awesome post; anybody who says the Gluttons are a 1-trick pony would do well to read this.

  • avatar
    Jeremy March 3, 2010 - 10:17 am Reply

    This is hysterical…thanks for the post and these pictures are absolutely awesome!!
    Thanks for the shout out!
    -Jeremy
    Owner
    Leo’s Coney Island Chicago

  • avatar
    Dan Metivier March 3, 2010 - 1:03 pm Reply

    Now I’m hungry, I no longer hate Detroit, and totally have a new found respect for Ron Jeremy’s a-hole and opposite day!

    Much appreciated John!

  • avatar
    Rob March 3, 2010 - 1:29 pm Reply

    Great read, except for the Auschwitz line…

  • avatar
    d March 3, 2010 - 2:01 pm Reply

    The heat, John. Classic blast on the dickbreath, Chicago Glutton krew.

  • avatar
    Ashley March 4, 2010 - 9:30 am Reply

    Amazing. makes me proud to be a detroiter. However, you left out one of the best dishes, the chicken finger pita. Proud to be from Detroit and have a Leo’s in the Chi now!

  • avatar
    thedust March 5, 2010 - 4:07 pm Reply

    Awesome Bless You Boys video. Next task, should you choose to accept…Detroit Lions’ Another One Bites the Dust!

  • avatar
    Jen March 5, 2010 - 5:58 pm Reply

    I’m a current chicagoan who used to waitress at Leo’s throughout high school in their Dearborn heights restaurant (Hi John!). Chicken Finger Pita. Hands down my favorite thing on the menu. And I can’t get enough of their chicken lemon rice soup either :)

  • avatar
    Nancy March 5, 2010 - 9:49 pm Reply

    this article says it all. A day is not complete without a Leo’s coney and Greek Salad in Chicago!

  • avatar
    jordan March 5, 2010 - 11:32 pm Reply

    I would like to also show my support for the Chicken Finger Pita. Best item on the menu. Pita and chili fries mmmm mmm mm

  • avatar
    Robin March 11, 2010 - 1:20 pm Reply

    I’m heading to Chicago in a month to visit family and found your website linked up with another food blog I read. Thank you for the Leo’s shout out :) My parents were in Chicago 10 days ago and they said at least half of my (and my brother’s) old high school was eating there. It’s nice to know that everyone can get a coney dog or a greek salad when there’s a craving. I was just at the Leo’s in royal oak over the weekend, so I think my craving has passed. But it’s always nice to know there’s a Leo’s in Chicago.

  • avatar
    Bronto March 11, 2010 - 2:59 pm Reply

    Coneys are a metaphor for Detroit – they look like total shit but taste great and are best enjoyed while drunk.

  • avatar
    Kelly March 24, 2010 - 11:18 am Reply

    Well said. I’m a Detroiter who now lives in Florida, and the first thing I do when I come home is go to Leo’s! There’s no place like it outside of Michigan!

  • avatar
    Bubba March 28, 2010 - 10:40 pm Reply

    Why is it called a ‘coney’ when it comes from Detroit? Answer: It was invented by a Detroiter who was a transplanted New Yorker and used the name to add some ‘zip’ to his creation. Now you know.

  • avatar
    J-DuB April 16, 2010 - 6:14 pm Reply

    This was one of the most God AWFUL hotdogs I’ve ever had.

    This was an indigestible mess.

    Ordered the Coney Dog… the seemingly Detroit Classic with Chili, Onions and Mustard… all things I enjoy on a dog, except that this chili was honestly the most disgusting “meat goop” I’ve ever had.

    The Chili:
    Color: sort of mauve… not quite pink, not quite gray… but that weird color of elephant skin.

    Texture: Like really mediocre refried beans

    Flavor: Except for a whole can of cumin, not much other flavor, though fairly salty.

    The dog in itself was ok, good snap from the skin-on, properly spiced dog, but the chili really covered up any nuance of the dog itself.

    And… The Coney Dog is the gift that keeps on giving! I was tasting this damned thing from 2p till about 9p. Finally, a big dose of baking soda and water combo, followed by a rumbling belch FINALLY made that awful taste go away.

    Service… meh. Got no refill on my coffee. Painfully s l o w and the servers seem quite disorganized.

    I know that people do embrace different styles of Chili and I am also NOT a fan of Cincinnati Style Chili either, but I’d rather down a gallon of Cincy Style than eat this crap ever again!

  • avatar
    Alex August 3, 2010 - 6:36 pm Reply

    I work at Leo’s and this sir made me feel great about what I do. I do not count my job as one that inspires hope in the world or changes lives, but when I tie that apron around my waist at the beginning of every shift its like taking a trip home to Dixie Highway. This article really did the place justice and made me goddamn proud to serve people my hometown treat.

  • avatar
    Marty June 20, 2012 - 9:49 pm Reply

    Irresponsible & stupid Auschwitz comment. Very badly done.

  • Leave a reply

    Current ye@r *