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Wine with Chili Dogs: A Match Made In Detroit

Like the Swami says, 'Make me one with everything'
Like the Swami says, 'Make me one with everything'
Chris Kassel

Before we delve into the painfully pedantic and mind-numbingly dull world of grape juice, I vote that we take a moment to consider something that is really close to all of our fat-clogged, oxygen-starved tickers: The Coney Island Hot Dog.

Detroit is rarely mentioned in the fogs of frankfurter folklore, so most people don’t realize that the Granddaddy of all Heart-Stupid Junk Foods has little connection to that filthy, eponymous Brooklyn peninsula, but instead is a Michigan original. It was invented four generations ago by George Todoroff in a small restaurant opposite the train station in downtown Jackson, MI—a podunk town listed on maps only because it’s home to Jackson State Prison. Characterized by its beanless chili sauce, the classic—and to purists, the only—incarnation is smothered in diced onion and yellow mustard. The addition of anything else may be considered a form of Michigan blasphemy on par with buying a Toyota.

As may be expected, when Motown enters the story, there evolves an aggressive angle. First-time visitors to Downtown Detroit often scratch their heads when they encounter a pair of massive, splashy, joined-at-the-hip coney island restaurants, Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island. They’re even more surprised to find out that the same extended family owns each and that patron loyalties are so intense that it wouldn’t occur to regulars of one to set foot in the other. The rivalry has roots in the 1920’s when Greek immigrant brothers Gust and William Keros opened American Coney, and almost immediately were at each other’s throats. When the storefront next door opened up, William installed his own restaurant, Lafayette Coney, and for ninety years, each eatery has been vying for fidelity among Detroiters.

To a novice, the difference is negligible, but true frank freaks will argue minuscule points ad nauseum (sometimes literally)—Lafayette has a meatier chili, American’s is spicier; American’s hot dogs are more flavorful, but Lafayette’s dining room has a more authentic, yesteryear feel. Regardless of personal pledges of allegiance, both landmark joints have ensured that Detroit is arguably the destination spot for certifiedconey-sseurs.

The story’s final irony? In Coney Island, New York, the sandwich is not called a coney island, but a ‘Michigan’.

You Can Lead A Horse To Water, But You Can’t Make It Into a Hot Dog… Legally, Anyway.

The traditional accompaniment to the coney dog is flat Diet Coke in cheap plastic tumblers, hose/hydrant water served curbside, or massive quantities of 3.2% ballpark beer. But to a chemical engineer using instrumental flavor analysis techniques, none of these beverages are particularly appropriate. The complex interaction of volatile compounds found within a) the bun, b) the chili, c) the condiments and d) the frankfurter itself will inevitably overpower the savory partition coefficient of the Coke (especially as the aspartame begins to liquefy the tumbler’s polyolefin), the Ca2+ and Mg2+ ions contained in themultivalent cations of the street water, and as for the Miller Lite, forget it: Real men sneak Jack Daniels into the stadium.

Wine Not?

In point of fact, the following experiential approach brings this column around ‘full circle’ and indicates that the single most synergistic compliment to a ‘Detroit Coney With The Works’ is wine.

And not only that, but choosing the correct wine to wash your wiener down will raise the experience from hedonistically enjoyable to life-alteringly memorable.

What follows is both the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ behind the conceptual methodology used to prepare these tasting notes. It’s a technical but reliable overview of the human sensory process, including the mechanisms of flavor perception specifically geared toward the eno-gastronomic identities of several of the 350 local breeds of chili dog.

American Coney Island, Michigan Avenue:An exuberant and haunting menu rounds out the coneys with tuna salad and chicken wings, both of which are hard to eat beat. Having edged out rival Lafayette in both Food Network and Travel Channel tastings, American celebrated its victory by mopping the bathroom almost six months in advance of schedule.

To Accompany:Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac, 2006, about $840: Textbook representation of Pauillac’s feminine side, the ’06 Mouton offers beautiful black and blue fruits integrated with mocha and soft vanilla. Additional notesof crushed rock, white blossoms, black currant, pain grille compliment the vintage’s outstanding ripeness.

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Lafayette Coney Island, Michigan Avenue: The quality may be a bit mercurial, and food is occasionally served directly from unrefrigerated tubs beneath the counter, but in terms of ‘old-fashioned ambience’, this place has it all, including hot dogs which taste as though they were made in some previous century. Likewise, the chili is said to be left over from Pancho Villa’s chuck wagon.

To Accompany:Antinori Solaia, Tuscany, 2007, about $270: A storied cabernet-based ‘Super Tuscan’, the wine’s acidic backbone gives it a uniquely Latin stylishness that settles in nicely with the spiciness of Lafayette’s signature chili. In addition, the judicious use of new oak by Antinori vintners is kept in check by the bracing crispness of the wine, although the tannins are a bit hard to assess due to the extraordinary lushness of the fruit.

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Oscar's Coney Island, W. Chicago:Amid the taste hierarchy in the food pyramid, Oscar’s coney island hot dog ranks between Sardinian casu marzu, which contains cheese fly larvae, and Libby’s Potted Meat Food Product. The chili, of course, is what it’s all about and what the 2:15 bar crowd comes to enjoy.

To Accompany:Chevalier-Montrachet, Bouchard et Fils, 2006, about $720: White wine with a chili dog??Fie on the rules, say I! This supremely focused chardonnay has the muscle and grit to stand up to any chili dog, even one that has been forgotten under the heat lamp for three or four weeks. Brimming with lime oil, stony green fruit and crushed rock, the wine shows what a truly talented winemaker can manage amid a challenging vintage, just as Oscar can take an amalgamation of castoreum (beaver anal glands), ammonium sulphite, coal tar, silicon dioxide (sand) and pig snouts and whip into a seductive coney island hot dog of exceptional quality.

Zef's Coney Island, Russell St.:The weenies are purchased directly from the wells of Dante’s Inferno, offering Zef’s a bit of literary credibility; the chili is sweet and sassy and the dogs are loaded with spices which may or may not be legal. Best of all is your ultimate distillation of the ‘Detroit experience’: Listening to the grill cooks scream at each other in some really angry-sounding language.

To Accompany:Château Pétrus, Pomerol, 1945, about $11,500: Yes, the wine is legendary and priced to prove it, but some of the sticker shock should fade when you realize that you can get two of Zef’s coneys for under five dollars. Pétrus’s inimitability is due in part to its exceptional terroir, which sits at the highest point in the appellation. The ’45 was a celebration not only of VE Day, but of VFFWBTAOC Day (Victory For Future Wine Brokers Taking Advantage of Collectors Day).

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Coney King Coney Island, West Fort St.:The sweet chili and savory intestine-stuffed pack of pig by-products appeals to our contrasting senses much like salt pork and hard tack—another magical culinary marriage. The Coney ‘King’ may in fact be a deposed Duke from Iowa—home to more than 19 million wiener-bound hogs—but his output is pure ‘Motor City’.

To Accompany:Château Margaux, Margaux, 2005, about $1400: The silkiest and most graceful of Bordeaux’s First Growths, this wine exhibits superb ripeness, texture and breeding shoring up a pedigreed personality containing explosive flavors of almond, plum, blackberry and spice box. An uncanny equilibrium coats the mouth and concludes with a saturated and potent minerality.

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Woodward Coney Island, Woodward Avenue: Detroit’s best expression of the non-kosher hot dog, the sausages fairly ooze with some viscous amber liquid that appears to be inorganic in origin. Equally, the toppings, chili to onions to mustard, contain unidentifiable flavonoids that prove, during mastication, a remarkably strong compliment to a Côte de Nuits Grand Cru Burgundy. Nonetheless, we’re going with Night Train Express.

To Accompany:Night Train Express, about $2: Axl Rose may not know how to play an instrument, but he does know shitty wine. Night Train Express is fortified to rigorous standards, resulting in a full-bodied and powerful plonk that balances street intensity with life threatening toxicity. Yet another stunning wine from E & J Gallo expressing classic, contrasting carcinogens when guzzled alongside an equally malignant Detroit ‘red hot’.

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Lou’s Coney Island, Mack Avenue:Despite the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine recent billboard campaign likening hot dogs to cigarettes and declaring that eating one hot dog per day would increase the eater's risk of cancer, Lou plugs forward, serving franks as plump and juicy as a pre-pubescent Mile Cyrus and chili as spicy as Chastity Bono before the sex change.

To Accompany: Dominus Napa Proprietary Red, Napa, 2008, about $219: A wine of great purity and richness; a Meritage-blend that percolates with smoke and coffee bean intermixed with black currant notes, blueberry and cedar and lingers on the palate through an extraordinarily long and voluptuous finish.

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