Do you know the difference between a Texas Hot Dog and a Chili Cheese Coney? What about an Empire Dog and a New York Dog? What culture did coneys come from?
The answers may surprise you. It’s the business of JCI Grill’s president, Darrin Straughan, to know such things. A native Houstonian, he’s been running the company since 1993. He has literally traveled the United States studying the different kinds of hot dogs, a fiercely regional food.
“I have people ask me sometimes, ‘Are you going to take James Coney Island nationwide?’ Well, you can’t. In Chicago, you’ve got to be the Chicago hot dog guy. In Detroit, you’ve got to do their types of coneys. In Michigan, you’ve got to do the Michigan dog.”
Straughan says that hot dogs evolved from German immigrants in the late 19th century. “They had frankfurters and ‘weiner’ is a German term for ‘Vienna.’ The Germans, Polish and Italians had been making sausages for much of their history, but it was a relatively new thing for Americans. They sold them on street corners. Eventually, there was a bun then the variety of wieners and toppings.”
Let’s take a look at some of the hot dogs that JCI sells and their differences.
Believe it or not, James Coney Island’s namesake dog, the coney, is a Greek-style hot dog. The part that is specific to its Greek heritage is the chili sauce. “It’s not chili,” says Straughan, “It’s a meat sauce.” So, don’t be expecting thick, Texas-style chili. (For that, take a look at the next hot dog in our list.)
Here’s a bit of confusing culinary history. Coneys weren’t invented on Coney Island in New York, although that is where German immigrant Charles Feltman began selling sausages in rolls. (There’s a great deal of argument about who actually was the first to sell wieners inside of rolls.)
Coneys got their start in Michigan. In 1917, Gus and Bill Keros opened American Coney Island in Detroit. After a dispute, Bill opened his own coney shop, Lafayette Coney Island, right next door. Both claim to have invented coneys, as did a third contender called Todoroff’s Original Coney Island in Jackson (which closed in 2008 under a pall of accusations against the owner of odd, vindictive behavior).
In 1923, a different pair of Greek brothers, James and Tom Papadakis, would open their own coney shop—the first James Coney Island—at 110 Walker in Houston, Texas.
To this day, JCI’s Original Coneys are finished off simply, with mustard and onions while the Cheese Coneys get their salty finish from a big dose of Cheez Whiz.
If thick, Texas-style chili is what you’re craving, this is the dog for you. It’s finished off with a thin ribbon of mustard, shredded cheddar cheese and chopped raw onions. (Of course, those can be left off if desired.)
Possibly the most complex yet traditional hot dog comes from Chicago, which Straughan says is the No. 1 hot dog city in America, with more than 4,000 hot dog stands, carts and stores. (Comparatively, he says Houston has fewer than 200.)
Even individually considered, the toppings on a Chicago dog aren’t timid and all together it’s called “running it through the garden.”
First of all, there are the “sport peppers”—small, green picked peppers that do pack a little heat. Then there’s the obnoxious neon green, slightly sweet relish. “The difference between it and the brown relish we like here in Houston is the pickles are cut coarser, they’re a little sweeter and it’s got food coloring. In Chicago, it’s all they put on their hot dogs. When we rolled it out here in Houston, people thought we’d gone crazy.”
Rounding out the big, bold dog is a poppy seed bun, mustard, chopped raw onions, a fresh slice of tomato, a dill pickle spear and a generous dash of celery salt.
New York Dog
When JCI rolled out an all-beef dog, they added a New York-style dog to the menu as well. “I went to New York City and studied Nathan’s Famous,” says Straughan, so we put a dog with sauerkraut and spicy brown mustard on the menu, too.” It’s become a top seller for JCI.
The Empire Dog is like the New York Dog with an upgrade. Both have sauerkraut and spicy brown mustard, but the Empire is fancied up with a Hebrew National brand beef wiener and the addition of caramelized onions, all on a toasted bun.
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Cream cheese on a hot dog? The Seattle Dog is probably the one that will seem most alien to native Texans, but Straughan promises that it’s really good. A toasted bun is filled with a Hebrew National Beef Hot Dog that’s then topped with spicy mustard, caramelized onions, jalapeño relish and, yes, cream cheese infused with garlic.
Believe it or not, this isn’t even an all-inclusive list of the regional hot dogs that JCI Grill makes. It is, however, a good start.
One final note: if a brand of wiener is not specified on the menu for a particular kind of hot dog, don’t fret about the quality. Those use JCI Grill’s own recipe, made to custom specifications with specific cuts of meat.