Most every city seems to have its own token snack food. In my home city of Grand Rapids, that tends to be chili dogs. There are enough Coney dog places around the city to rival even Detroit, with it’s distinguished Coney scene. Within the last decade or so, the Coney scene around Grand Rapids has revitalized itself as old ones have faded out.
(RIP Red Lion).
A Brief History of “Coney” Dogs
Despite what the name may lead you to think, the Coney Island style dog did not really originate on Coney Island in Brooklyn. I found this out to my dismay when I recently visited New York City, expecting the city’s beach resort to be hopping with chili dog stands. Instead the only one is the landmark Nathan’s Famous dogs, which began as a hot dog stand rather than a “coney” stand, adopting the concept of a chili dog later on.
I purchased a chili cheese dog here and was surprised to find beans in the sauce. The idea is not uncommon for chili itself, but for the sauce on a hot dog, it’s something I didn’t come across while eating at 23 different joints in Grand Rapids.
I asked around about more dog stands in the area, only to find out that there weren’t any. The Coney Island dog was not a Coney Island, New York invention, but one from Michigan. Invented in Jackson, Michigan and heavily influenced in its history by Detroit’s Greek immigrant population, the chili dog has an inextricable link to Coney Island, New York, but is a Michigan dish.
The Michigan Coney Dog has since developed into two different styles of chili sauce: Detroit-style and Flint-style. The Detroit sauce is usually a sort of red, meat sauce with varying degrees of consistency and thickness. The Flint sauce is more of a thicker ground beef topping than a sauce and it is extremely well seasoned.
Coneys in Grand Rapids
In recent years, Grand Rapids has witnessed a plethora of new hot dog joints opening all around the city, many with there own twist on the coney dog. Inspired by the lackluster reviews done on the topic by Josh Leo (WanderWestMichigan) who only went to 4 places and John Serba’s best burgers of Grand Rapids which for some reason includes the nationally uniform Red Robin burgers, I set out track down every single one to create a singular reference.
I ate a chili cheese dog at each of these restaurants, something simple enough that all of them would have. Given the large number of chili dog restaurants I came across (23 of them) and the subtle, sometimes non-existent difference between them, I didn’t feel that I could rank them like I originally wanted. My top 5, in no particular order, are:
1.) Filling Station
2.) One Stop Coney Shop
3.) Jonny B’z Dogs & More
4.) Papa’s Dogs and More
5.) Mad Dogz
However, the most famous of these restaurants in Grand Rapids is undoubtedly Yesterdog, a sliver of a restaurant wedged between Wealthy St and Lake Dr and staple of the Eastown neighborhood. A nod was given to it in American Pie as the characters’ hangout Dog Years.
According to their own website, Yesterdog “has won Grand Rapids Magazine’s
Best Hotdog category every year since 1991, the year hotdogs were included in the poll. It has also been awarded the Gold Townie Award for Best Hotdog so many times we’ve lost count!” I cannot help but feel this is a result of the long-standing nostalgia this establishment holds rather than the product that it sells.
The atmosphere is hard to beat at times. However, that isn’t what I was looking for.
In all actuality, and in many reviews ranging from Urbanspoon to Trip Advisor, the hot dogs here are under par when it comes to being compared to others around town. The size is normal for a chili dog, however, it falls short on almost every other aspect. The dogs are so-so. Small, nothing special, but they do have a somewhat unique taste/texture to them (whether that’s a good or a bad thing, I still haven’t decided). The buns are pulled right out of the bag in front of you, no special preparation, unlike other places around town who may steam or grill their buns.
The chili sauce is where they really can’t measure up though. It has got to be the runniest, wateriest sauce that I have ever come across at a Coney restaurant. If it is near the edge, it’s going to run out of the bun. If it’s tilted toward your mouth, it’s going to run out of the bun. And in the process, it soaks the bun (not moistens it, which adds a more delectable element to a dog) and turns it into a soggy, floppy mess in your hand.
I hate to open by being so hard on what has become a Grand Rapids staple, but when their reputation is what every other hot dog joint in the city is competing against, Yesterdog needs to compete as well, which they don’t seem to be willingly doing.
Opened up on the south end of the city opposite of M-6 from the Celebration Cinema South, this joint has been getting nothing but rave reviews on sites like Urbanspoon. Like the Corner Bar in Rockford, they also have a hall of fame, though nothing quite as extravagant or extensive.
All American’s chili is a thick, saucy chili with a bit of a different texture to it. My best guess to that texture is that there are crushed beans in the sauce. I’ve never been a fan of beans in chili, but here, they only serve to thicken the sauce and add an interesting taste element to its consistency, without overwhelming it.
Located at a little seasonal drive-in stand on 44th street just east of US 131, C’s also doubles as a Christmas tree vendor in the winter. I visited here a few years ago to check it out and hadn’t been back since. My experience there this time around seems to have reminded me why.
The chili cheese dog that I bought here was exceptionally underwhelming. The dog was an average boiled dog. The bun was normal, perhaps a little stale. The chili was a ground meat sauce, but there was a familiar texture to it that I couldn’t initially place.
Then, about halfway through the dog, it hit me. The coney sauce tasted like blandly seasoned taco meat, a la Taco Bell. The thinly shredded cheddar cheese sitting atop this meat did nothing to help the taco analogy either.
Opened a little over a year ago in an old drive-in style building on South Division, Coney Island is a friendly operation which has a loyal set of customers who appreciate its combination of chili dogs with some small Chinese dishes for take out, such as egg rolls.
Their chili cheese dog is another that is unique among ones in Grand Rapids. It’s a small/average dog and bun. However, this dog is wrapped in a slice of American cheese before the chili is poured over it. This melts the cheese into the bun and all around the dog.
The Coney sauce is a thicker, saucy chili with a little touch of nice seasoning in it. These dogs have to quality and taste of a hot dog concoction one might have come up in his or her own kitchen, albeit, a very tasty one.
The Corner Bar
31 North Main St
Rockford, MI 49341
The Corner Bar almost has the reputation of Yesterdog around Grand Rapids. Its well-established spot on Main St. in Rockford is most famous for its Hot Dog Hall of Fame, a list of names which now covers well over four walls in the restaurant. To receive your name on the wall requires that you eat 12 or more dogs in one sitting, though there are some names that have upwards of 40 dogs. It’s a challenge I’ve attempted twice in memory, but never made it past 9 chili dogs.
To start with, their chili is not saucy at all, but almost entirely a finely ground meat sauce (Flint-style). This gets into the bun surrounding the dog and creates a nice layer of seasoned flavor around the dog, similar to at Johnny B’s. The cheddar cheese that the use to top off their chili cheese dogs is so finely grated that it stays solid on the dog, but will melt on your tongue the second they meet.
Cranker’s Coney Island
454 68th St SW
Grand Rapids, MI 49548-7115
Just south of the M-6/US 131 interchange in Cutlerville is Cranker’s Coney, a full sit-down restaurant with wait staff. The chili cheese dog that was brought to me here appeared a long, thin dog sticking out of a small bun. It was topped off with a thicker-cut cheddar cheese poured over with their chili sauce.
The first bite into the dog gave the signature snap of a grilled or seared dog. The chili here is also, for a saucy chili, very thick. It also has a hint of that same texture that All-American Chili Dogs’ sauce does that tasted like crushed beans.
There was nothing special to say about the bun other than it housed the toppings adequately. However, the cheese melting nicely underneath the chili and the grilling make for an overall pleasant dog.
This small East Grand Rapids location is easy to miss as you drive through Gaslight Village. The window decals don’t attract as much attention as they should, though this place has a fantastic corner location in the center of downtown EGR.
The first thing about their dog you notice as you pick it up and bit in is that they warm their buns, giving them a very soft, warm taste. It also helps to melt the cheese quicker.
The dog is relatively small and seems to get lost in the bun as you are eating it. However the chili is spectacular in its flavor, but they just didn’t put enough of it on as they are putting together the dog.
The Dam Dogs
25 S Squires Sq #B
Rockford, MI 49341
These are thicker dogs in a large, semi-warmed bun. It’s then poured over with a chili sauce that takes up the rest of the bun. The cheese, which comes well over the top of the bun, is a layer thinly sliced Monterrey jack and cheddar.
The seasoning of the chili sauce is the best part of these dogs. It has a nice flavor and a very thick texture, though thick in a saucy sense. There are not a lot of large meaty chunks in it in this chili.
The Dog Pit
132 Monroe Center St NW
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
Dog Pit was the first of the current hot dog joints to dot the immediate downtown area. It’s location at the head of Monroe Center makes it a popular late-night destination for those leaving bars like Flannigan’s and Raggs to Riches who don’t feel like braving the wandering hot dog carts.
Their dogs are also on the small to average size, kept in a hot pan until served on a standard bun. Their chili is also a saucy Detroit-style chili, only a little thicker than the consistency of Yesterdog’s. However, it has a significantly different flavor, including some visible pepper, and a noticeable tanginess to it.
One touch in constructing their dogs, which I appreciate, is that they pour their Coney sauce over top the cheese, rather than topping the dog off with cheese. This allows the chili to melt the thin cheddar down, where it soaks into the bun around the dog.
Located on the far northern stretch of commercial Alpine Avenue, the Filling Station now inhabits the shell of an old Red Lion restaurant. It has since been remodeled into a classic car motif, complete with the vintage signs and gas pumps one might expect along with it.
The dogs here were actually better than I expected though. They are seared, so it has a slight snap to it, though not the definitive one that One Stop has. And one strip of my dog did have a slight blackening, almost a burn, to it.
The chili was the best part here though. For anyone who has had Indian curry chicken before (and for those who haven’t I would strongly recommend it) that is what this chili sauce reminded me of immediately. It was a thick, well-seasoned sauce with a fantastic portion of meat in it. And it was generously added to the top of the hot dog.
The bun wasn’t anything special and was a little stale on the bottom. However, the very thinly cut cheddar cheese, which was under the chili, was already melted by the time I took my first bite.
Grand Coney used to be among my favorite places in town, and certainly for late night junk food and chili dogs. They are a 24 hour joint and fill up between the hours of 1 and 4 am as the city bars are winding down.
The last few years, however, with its expansion and menu rewritings, the quality and variety of their dog selection has drastically decreased. While they still use Koegel all-beef dogs and have a great chili sauce, they just don’t measure up to what they used to be in every aspect.
Jonny B’z Dogs & More
638 Wealthy St SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
And indeed they have a fantastic new take on the bun for the dog. Rather than a small roll cut down the center, they butter up a piece of thick white bread and then toast it, wrapping the dog and the toppings to make the final product. This makes for a sensational taste and texture when the warm chili begins working its way into the crispy bread, while still leaving the outside with a nice, soft crunch.
The dogs they use, and you can choose all-beef or all-turkey, have a nice flavorful texture to them as well. They nestle into the bun as the chili soaks down around them in the toast-bun.
The only small detail I didn’t quite like about this dog was that the chili sauce was nothing spectacular. It’s of a medium consistency, not too meaty or too runny. There is no exceptional spice or seasoning to it though. However, the taste of it combined with the bun almost excuses this.
The Mad Dogz
3916 West River Dr
Comstock Park, MI 49321
Open for a year and a half in Comstock Park, their hometown school spirit is evidenced as soon as the door is opened and the Comstock Park apparel is everywhere. However, I did find it curious how similar their logo-mascot appears to the Grandville and Byron Center Bulldogs’ logos.
They have a very large list of specialty dog toppings, including a special section for spicy dogs. Their chili cheese dog is based on a much thicker bun and dog than most places in town serve. It’s then topped off with a generous helping of their chili sauce and a very large portion of Monterrey jack and cheddar. The cheese was flowing so far over the bun when I got it, that most of it fell off when I first tilted the dog to eat it.
The chili here is extremely good. It’s much meatier than most places in town, with noticeable large chunks in it. The sauce in between also has a much deeper flavor to it than most of the sauces I’ve encountered, whether Detroit or Flint style.
This hidden location in a strip mall on the stretch of Fulton from the highway to Ada fashions itself after a Happy Days-esque soda fountain shop. Outside of the iced cream products, they also serve chili dogs, not so much as a feature menu item, but as one of the primary non-breakfast items available.
Marilyn’s dogs are large for the buns that they are put into. And then are poured over with their chili and covered with a layer of very thickly-cut cheddar cheese. It comes wrapped in an envelope of tin foil, which helps to melt the cheese more quickly.
Unfortunately, this cheese overwhelms the dog. The chili on it has a decent texture but almost no independent flavor of its own. When the thick shreds of cheddar melt into this, the chili taste almost disappears entirely.
Another Coney spot popping up where an old Red Lion used to be, Moe’s keeps very early and limited hours and was closed on my first 3 attempts to go here. They are open early for breakfast and close at 3pm most nights of the week.
Like One Stop, they also grill their dogs here, giving it a small wait for the hot dogs. The dog I got here was grilled to the point where the skin was actually starting to shrivel, but there was no sign of burning. This provided for a nice, crisp snap with each bite. The dog was also a little longer than the bun, giving that first bite solely of the dog itself.
The chili sauce here consists of a finely-ground meat, but still a thick sauce rather than a Flint-style topping. It was served on a pretty average bun and topped off with a thin, shredded cheddar that melted in the thick sauce, but didn’t oversaturate it.
646 Stocking Ave NW
Grand Rapids, MI 49504
Though they advertise beer and dog specials in Recoil, Monarch’s Club is not really known as a chili dog venue. Nevertheless, they do possess the chili recipe from Red Lion, one of the classic, last-generation hot dog joints.
I was at Monarch’s while they were cooking up a batch of the Red Lion chili, and the smell was fantastic. The Red Lion chili is a meaty one that has a bit of a tangy flavor to it. The meat is juicy enough that it moistens the bun around the dog, but doesn’t douse through all the bread.
The bun and dog are average, though the bun is warmed. The cheese here is very thin, but there was too much topping off the dog that I got. I had to peel off a layer to get to the taste of the chili.
The first thing in the taste that stands out in One O One’s chili dogs is the larger pieces of meat found in its chili. My first impression on tasting it was that it has a similar consistency to that of a Hormel chili.
One welcome difference in their chili-cheese dogs is that, rather than the shredded cheddar cheese, One O One Café uses a melted cheese sauce to top off their dogs. While it may be a bit more unhealthy (and if you’re eating chili dogs, much less reading a review of them, you may not be too concerned with that small difference) it mixes in with the chili sauce and the bun, creating a much better flavor than the shredded cheese which may not even be warm when you are eating it.
For the size of the finished product, the dogs themselves make up a nice portion of it, not getting lost in the bun or toppings. However, the bun has no special preparation and seems pulled straight from the bag.
One Stop Coney Shop
154 E. Fulton
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
Opened in 2009, One Stop takes a different approach to cooking their hot dogs than almost any other place in the city that I’ve come across; each dog ordered in seared on a flat top grill. Rather than boiling, grilling the dog this way gives it a clean, crisp “snap” when you bite into it. This means that the dogs take a couple minutes extra from the time you order them to the time they are set in front of you, but it’s worth the small wait.
One Stop also offers veggie dogs or “ripped” dogs for any item on their menu. A ripped dog is when a hot dog is put into a deep fryer and cooks until the skin begins to rip apart. This cooking method makes the entire dog’s skin very crispy.
Both types of chili sauces available at One Stop: Detroit-style and Flint-style. The Flint sauce is extremely well seasoned and flavored. The Detroit sauce is a thick saucy topping, which although good, just didn’t have the flavor that the Flint-style did.
One high praise I have to give them is that the buns were about the softest I’ve had. The cheese went all around the dog, and then the chili is put over top, melting it, creating very well-constructed and very filling dogs.
Papa’s Dogs & More
3012 28th St SW
Grandville, MI 49418
Papa’s Dogs that opened in September 2010 takes a different approach than the usual hot dog restaurant, which the owner was more than happy to take to time to explain to me as a new customer. Rather than putting the dog into a bun and then loading up the toppings, the dog is wrapped in one of a variety of homemade doughs and then baked around the dog.
Behind the ordering counter, there is a large counter filled with all the staple condiments, including chili and a nacho cheese sauce. While the varieties of the baked-on buns make a fantastic deviation from the regular dog, they are also prohibitive in applying additional toppings to the dog. There is no space between the bun and the dog for anything more than a line of cheese sauce or ketchup and mustard, which is the only mild complaint I can muster about this place.
Red Hot Inn
3175 Leonard St NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49525
Aside from Yesterdog, Red Hot Inn at Leonard and East Beltline is the last standing of the previous generation of hot dog joints in the city. The first thing I noticed about the dog was that it was a messy one. It was constructed with the cheese over the dog and poured over with a generous amount of their Coney sauce that overflowed from the two ends of the dog.
The chili had a similar flavor to the one at the Filling Station, a little peppery. However, it wasn’t as thick and was actually a tiny bit runny. The chili melted the cheddar beneath it into a large cheesy mass underneath it, but still on top of the dog. Unfortunately underneath the thick cheese later and chili, the actually taste of the dog became almost lost.
For having such a central location and a menu good any time of day, this place has one of the most difficult schedules to keep track of. It seems open half the time you wouldn’t expect it to be, and closed so many of the times you want to walk in.
The dogs themselves are average, maybe a little bit on the thinner side. The come served in a warmed bun, which is always an advantage, and the bun is filled to the top.
The cheese, unfortunately never seems to melt on these dogs, and they put such a small amount of chili on their dogs (and on their walking tacos, a favorite of mine that no longer exists on the regular menu) that it can’t help the process much.
This small pink ice cream shoppe has a great number of fantastic homemade ice cream dishes, however, like Marilyn’s in Ada, they also serve a number of hot dogs made right in front of you behind the counter.
The dogs are, overall, pretty basic. The bun comes straight from a bag, the hot dog is one of the softer dogs I’ve come across, and the Monterrey Jack and cheddar are longer shreds. The chili sauce has a good flavor to it, but there was very little meat in its consistency.