Monday, September 27, 2010

Out Of The Ashes

“OH MY GOD, THE OLYMPIC IS ON FIRE! What? Of course I’m sure. I’m sitting in the parking lot across the street watching it burn. Well, my truck windows are pretty hot, so I’m sure it’s not just a rumor. No, the glitzy sign hasn’t burned. Not yet, anyway. How would I know if it’s an insurance job? The paintings probably weren’t originals and the wall colors were ugly anyway. Yes, I know they had a two dollar breakfast special, but there are other places. The weather’s getting colder here too. No, I didn’t know they found a dead person down the road from your house.”

That phone conversation with my mother took place several years ago, but it’s still clear in my mind. Not because I found it more than a little bizarre that I was consoling my mother, who was in Florida for the winter, over the destruction of our favorite Coney Island diner in Flint—we ate breakfast there every time my parents came to visit. The memory is so vivid because I had grown to love that old run-down, dingy place on Court Street and considered it my own go-to space.

I had a soft spot for the beaten down wait staff who were more focused on simply surviving than they were on getting your order right—or getting your order at all, in some cases. I loved the cracked red vinyl booths that shifted every which way when you sat down. I tolerated the skanky tasting coffee, even though I was too stubborn to get off my purist high horse and put a little cream or sugar in it.

And who didn’t love the food? It was quintessential Coney food. Everything frozen and pre-made. Everything deep fried or grilled in something called lo-melt, a combination of cheap margarine and even cheaper vegetable oil. It saturated the already unhealthy food in alarming amounts, but a) it made the hash browns crispier and the eggs a little shinier and b) it gave the food that signature comfort food taste.

All of that changed, however, when the Olympic Coney Island Diner made way for the construction and opening a couple of years later of The Olympic Grill. Yup. The Olympic Grill. The owner made a strategic decision to abandon the historic Coney Island Diner identity. Instead, he designed an upscale Coney Island restaurant. Calling it a grill instead of a diner is only one change that characterized the new digs.

The new place was designed with large windows all around to create a brighter, dare I say cheerier, atmosphere. Gone were the tired old booths and tables. In their place, a dining room with all booth seating. Shiny booths. No tables. Just booths. And the old linoleum floor—it reminded me of walking on my grandmother’s farmhouse kitchen floor—was upgraded to tasteful tile flooring.

This was all well and good, but every time I went into the new Olympic, I felt like I was stepping into a place that was caught between two kinds of restaurant, but not really succeeding at either. Instead of moving completely away from the Flint Coney Island concept, The Olympic Grill tried to elevate itself to a high-end version of what it once was, almost to a family restaurant. But it never fully embraced the family restaurant idea and, for me, this created a conflicting identity for the restaurant. The food was good. The atmosphere was nice. The wait staff were pleasant. But the place lacked a personality.

On my recent visit for lunch with Stephanie, we both noticed something different. A yellow banner had been tied to the posts just below the main sign that read something like ‘New daily breakfast and lunch specials.” The Olympic Grill sign had changed as well. In smaller letters, just underneath, was a new line that read “Family Restaurant.”


We arrived shortly after 11:00 am and the place was about a third full already. By the time we left, a steady stream of customers flowed in and out. This increase in traffic was also a new sight. The menu was new too. It had far more choices than the previous version (way too many, in my opinion), and it came with a laminated list of daily specials, about a dozen, claiming all of them to be “home made.”

Ok. At this point, Stephanie and I were both sure that the place must have changed ownership.

Not long after we sat down, the manager, who was constantly patrolling the dining room, stopped by our table. He introduced himself as Noah, the new owner of The Olympic Grill Family Restaurant.

AHA!!! We were right!

According to Noah, who’s been in the business in excess of twenty years and who owns another family diner in Royal Oak, “the Coney Island is just not my style.” The changes he’s made to Olympic in the six months that he’s owned it are intended to move it’s identity away from the typical Coney Island and to make it a more traditional family diner.

So what’s the difference?

I’m especially interested in this question because there seems to be no consistency whatsoever in making the distinction. In fact, a lot of the Coney Islands in the area that I would consider quintessential Coney joints include a tag line on their signs that says “Family Restaurant”. Some don’t but seem to me closer to family diners than Coney Islands.

Well, Noah certainly had a clear idea and clear distinction that he’s applied to the new Olympic Grill. Everything that can be made from scratch is made from scratch. The typical “everything is frozen and goes into the deep fryer” concept has been thrown out the window—even though my French fries, good as they were, went from the freezer to the fryer. Daily lunch and dinner specials create what Noah calls a true dining experience. The distinction isn’t so helpful to me because other places do similar things and yet consider themselves Coney Islands.

The real test, I suppose, comes in the quality of the food. As usual, Stephanie and I started out with a Coney Island hot dog. As it arrived, slathered in sauce and onion—we were invited to put our own mustard on—we wondered together how we would tell this dog apart from the one’s we ate in previous weeks. We aren’t, after all, trained Coney Island hot dog testers. It only took a bite or two, however, for us to know that something was indeed different.

First off, the bun was not fresh and fluffy and light. It was hot, probably too hot because it had already begun to deflate the way a bun does when it’s been heated too long. The hot dog, while it had a good, clean flavor to it, was definitely different than those of the first two weeks. While Olympic serves Koegel’s dogs, this was not the Vienna frank but most likely the stock Coney dog of lesser but still good quality. The sauce was noticeably wetter, the meat a bit grainy, and the grease factor a bit on the lean side. The onions were pretty good and the mustard added a nice pop to the end of each bite. All in all it was an ok dog but definitely not as good as Angelo’s or Tom Z’s.

If Noah is shooting for an upscale dining experience for his customers, then he’s on the right track--at least with the entrees that Stephanie and I enjoyed. I ordered off the menu, she ordered off the Specials list. Her Chicken Potpie was gargantuan! I added a pickle slice to her plate for the photograph to give a little perspective on the “holy crap” size of this thing. The top crust was flaky and well browned with a small pond of “homemade” chicken gravy puddled on the crust’s surface. The inside was laced with great chunks of potato, carrots, some peas and onions, and a generous amount of chicken chunks. The gravy on the inside was thick enough to bind everything together and distinguish it, in looks as well as in taste, as made from scratch.

I took a more traditional route with one of my favorite Diner menu items: The Club Sandwich. When I was a cook at a Big Boy restaurant in 1980 (it’s been torn down and replaced with a Walgreens—good grief!), making this sandwich was a nightmare. It’s tall and it’s thick, and when you cut it into quarters after assembling it, you have to get a long, frilly toothpick into each section while holding the other three sections in place so they don’t fall apart. It’s a little like sewing bars of wet soap together. It takes great skill to pull this off. Every time I order one I think about the poor slob who has to suffer through the stress of making it. On this day, mine was well assembled—ham, turkey, bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato, mayo on whole wheat. It’s like a BLT on crack! The melding of flavors and textures is addicting.

While neither of us ventured into the breakfast portion of the menu this time, we’ve both eaten here before and think pretty highly of their offerings. My parents will be happy to know that while Olympic has changed in many ways, they have kept the cheap breakfast special, probably as a way to draw new customers and to keep the loyals coming back. It’s not as cheap as the pre-fire Olympic, but it’s still reasonable.

Family Diner or Coney Island? Walking back to our car after a really good lunch at Olympic, I’m not sure it mattered to me at that point. If Noah remains the owner of Olympic for any appreciable amount of time, his restaurant will probably gain the reputation of a Classy Coney Island Diner, which may be the same as a Family Restaurant, a difference with a muddy distinction at best.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Great Coney Conflict

As The World Turns, the longest running soap opera on daytime television, is closing up shop after a 54 year run. It outlasted shows like Guiding Light, Ryan’s Hope, and Dark Shadows (that was a great show). It was the first soap to introduce a gay character. Granted, it could never hold a candle to the scandalous drama of Luke and Laura during the 80’s on General Hospital, but AsThe World Turns had its share of scandals and dramas and villains and heros.

Now that yet another soap opera has gone out of business what on earth will we do to satisfy our insatiable need to get caught up in the drama of people we don’t even know?

Not to worry. As it turns out, we have plenty of drama right here in our own back yard. As Stephanie and I learned, a saucy little saga has been brewing that pits the owner of Angelo’s against the owner of Tom Z’s.

Here’s the scoop in a nutshell: Tom Z., owner of Tom Z’s on Court and Grand Traverse, and Neil Helmkay were business partners. Neil the president and Tom the vice-president. They bought Angelo’s from the original owners in 1998. And then something went bad. This is also the point in the story where the two versions don’t exactly match up.

Neil and Tom opened several additional Angelo’s restaurants in a relatively short period of time. Whether it was the stress of the expansion, creative differences, or a power struggle, Neil’s story is that he sold the place in 2003, though he didn’t say he sold the place to his business partner. According to Tom, Neil didn’t sell him the place. He fired him. They parted ways, paving the way for the opening of Tom Z’s (which is where Italia Gardens operated before it moved to Miller Road). How Neil bought Angelo’s back from Tom a few years later is a big mystery, especially if, as Tom says, Neil fired him.

Oh but there’s more!

The Angelo’s Coney sauce recipe: Neil claims to have it under lock and key and is the only one in possession of it. Tom, however, claims that he, in fact, has the recipe and is its rightful owner. He even went so far as to share the recipe with Stephanie and me. Sort of. He willingly listed all of the ingredients but one, and without the portions of each ingredient. According to Tom, the sauce is made with:

Chopped onion


Chili powder


Ground beef

Top secret ingredient

Neil wasn’t as forthcoming about sharing the ingredients list with me, so it’s impossible to resolve the issue in any definitive way—unless, of course, Neil were to share his version of the recipe with me so we could compare notes. Until then, this saucy scandal continues to bubble along on the back burner.

Perhaps the most shocking part of this culinary drama is the Angelo’s name. Neil claims ownership of it. Tom, however, sees it quite differently. According to him, he possesses the written documents that prove beyond doubt that he owns the Angelo’s name. If this is true, it could blow the lid off the this Coney confrontation and change history forever. The case is apparently before a judge right now, so stay tuned for future episodes in this ongoing nail biter.

Meanwhile, Stephanie and I had a thrilling lunch visit to Tom Z’s last week. Tom was a gracious host, welcomed us with open arms, and opened his entire restaurant to us by giving us a guided tour after we finished our meal.

The first thing that surprised me about this Coney diner is that Tom has revised the menu, minimized the choices to a manageable number (this is a common problem with Coney Island menus—they’re far too populated), and kept the prices reasonable--the signature menu item, The Coney dog, is a buck fifty-nine.

The menu is augmented by a list of daily specials, hand written on the white board that hangs over the waitress station. One of the specials, two dinners for $13.99, caught our attention. I chose the Meatloaf and Stephanie picked the fish and chips—well the fish and baked potato to be exact. With butter and sour cream. The fish was batter dipped and deep fried; it had a light brown, almost golden color to it. The pieces of fish—cod I think—were meaty and flaky with a bit of juice running out as you cut it with your fork. I didn’t try a piece, but Stephanie was impressed with it.

The meatloaf was sliced about a half inch thick and had the surface area of a nice sized slice of bread (a good slice of bread came with our entrees, by the way, which was made on site that day. Tom gave us each a fresh, hot loaf to take home with us). The meatloaf was plenty moist and meaty, but it was laced with a good number of extra ingredients—onion, tomato, several herbs, celery, and other stuff I couldn’t identify—that made for a very busy version of this classic comfort food. The dish of canned corn on the side was ok, but the salad made us sit up and take notice. The lettuce was crispy, cold, and fresh, as were the tomatoes on top of it. Come to find out, Tom shops at the Flint Farmer’s Market and deserves high praise for supporting local businesses as he grows his local business. I like that sense of loyalty in a local business.

And then there was the Coney dog. We ordered it as an appetizer, and without asking her to do so, the waitress served it already cut in half, and presented on two small plates. What a nice touch. On the surface, like last week, I thought this was pretty good. But then I started thinking about how I could describe the Coney dog in a little more detail. If I don’t find a way, it’s gonna be a pretty long and boring year of reading about the dog that makes Flint famous, so I came up with a more detailed way to share it with you.

Let’s start with the bun. The bun has to be warm and soft, but the taste can’t hog all the attention. Tom has his buns custom made at the Balkan Bread Company in Detroit and shipped to Flint two or three times a week. Ours was slightly sweet, warm but not hot, and delicately soft. The hotdog goes directly from the refrigerator to the griddle, so there’s no boiling involved, just a slow cooking and browning process. The result is a juicy dog with an outer texture that also adds another layer of flavor. The sauce is dry as you’d expect, but the texture of the meat is slightly soft (not at all grainy), and there’s a slight greasiness to it, which I think too many sauces lack. The chopped white onions were fresh and bold, but not overpowering. The mustard added just enough zip to complete the chorus of contrasting flavors, which is what makes Tom Z’s Coney dog so bloody good.

After lunch, Tom came over and sat with us for a bit and shared a good chunk of his very long history in Flint. He began his career thirty-five years ago at US Coney Island on Dort and Bristol (which we will visit in coming weeks) and then moved on to Scotti’s Coney Island on Belsay, where he started realizing his passion for the restaurant business. In one of many interesting twists in Tom’s professional career, he recently purchased the building that housed Scotti’s and is preparing to re-open it in the near future under that same name.

Most of Tom’s career, though, was spent at Angelo’s where he worked for nearly twenty years. He obviously developed a loyal following because several of his current employees have been with him for most of that time: Betty and Cindy wait tables and have worked with Tom for twenty years; Ivan, one of the cooks, has worked with him for thirty-five years. That kind of longevity and loyalty is rare, but it’s a precious commodity that shows in how the restaurant is run, from the front and behind the scenes.

Tom gladly showed us every corner of the restaurant, eager to share all aspects of the business with us. The waitress station is loaded with equipment that, According to him, is all original from the Angelo’s location. The station is roomy and clean, which servers appreciate when the dining room starts to fill up and the station is heavily used.

The stock room, dishwashing room, and large walk-in cooler were impressive, but my favorite part of the tour was the kitchen. It’s layout is designed so that whether one cook or three are using the space, everything is easily accessible and well organized. The Coney Sauce simmers away on a big gas stove off in the corner, next to a pretty large griddle where a good deal of the cooking takes place.

The Coney station is something special because it’s really its own self-contained kitchen within a kitchen. The Coney dogs are kept in a refrigerator near the station, which consists of a mini griddle, where all the hot dogs are cooked. Next to that is a small amount of counter space for the buns and the assembly process. Put a small pot of sauce next to a bowl of freshly chopped onion and a squeeze bottle of mustard and you can pump Coney’s out in a matter of seconds.

While Tom’s colorful past is loaded with unexpected developments, surprises, and a boat load of drama, his restaurant on the corner of Court and Grand Traverse stands as a Pillar of the Coney Island experience in Flint. The one constant, through all the change he’s seen, is that the food that Tom Z serves brings a deep level of gastronomical comfort to those who eat it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mistaken Identity

He thought I was a tourist. I thought he was a vendor. Stephanie was disoriented because she had only been here before in the wee hours of the night. We were seated by the big wall that’s been turned into a billboard. Below it, just about eye-level, was a picture of a Coney dog in a taco shell with a caption that read “Hard Shell Coney: $1.89.” The back of the yellow printer-paper menu announced “Cheap Bags of Ice, 24/7.” As I looked up from my menu, the vendor disappeared into a back room behind the cash register.

Our waitress, a middle aged woman, whose voice was a couple of octaves below James Earl Jones, no doubt from a lifetime of smoking, went off to get our drinks (they serve Vernor’s ginger ale here). The mysterious vendor reappeared and sat down at a booth across from us. He kept sneaking glances at us, trying to be inconspicuous but not doing a very good job of it.

Stephanie knew exactly what she wanted when the waitress returned to take our order. I know her so well, I could have guessed it myself: Two eggs, hash browns, and toast, the quintessential three a.m. breakfast. I went for the cheeseburger and fries, but I was so distracted by the voyeur vendor that I forgot to order it with grilled onion and green olives, a flavor combination known by every true Coney patron in town. I didn’t forget, however to order One Up; that’s a Coney Island hot dog with onions and mustard, Flint style. In this case, Angelo’s style.

Like so many of its competitors, the kitchen crew at Angelo’s is lightning fast at getting orders from the grill to the table. I’ve waited longer for a meal in fast-food lines than Stephanie and I did at Angelo’s. Granted, we came in ahead of the lunch crowd by half an hour, but still it was a comfort to have our food served so fast--and hot.

We cut the Coney in half, toasted the opening of our 2010 tour, and devoured our Angelo’s hot dog in less time than it took to make it. The bun was warm, the hot dog a Koegel original, and the sauce was of the same recipe that topped the Angelo’s hot dog 61 years ago.

Dryer than it’s Detroit counterpart, the Flint Coney sauce is more like a combination of finely ground beef and seasonings whose taste falls somewhere between taco seasoning and sloppy joe mix. Little moisture contributes to its consistency, which is just fine because the juices from the hotdog and mustard create the perfect balance.

After a bit of ooohing and ahhhhing from Stephanie and me, I looked to the booth across from us and noticed the vendor gawking at us with a sheepish smile. Just then, the waitress brought him a bowl of tomato soup and a One Up with about a pound and a half of onions piled on top of it—not that I was gawking at him.

After finishing the rest of our food, I grabbed my camera to get a few shots of the dining room of this now historic restaurant. As I crouched to get a good view of the bar and kitchen, the vendor spoke up: “Are you visiting from out of town?”

Once I told him who I was, who Stephanie was, and what I was up to, he came clean with me as well. “I’m Neal Helmkay. I’m the owner.”

What began as an awkward, accidental run-in involving grossly mistaken identities ended with a pleasant conversation between Stephanie, me, and Neil, who once again owns Angelo’s. Apparently he’s the one who bought the place from the original owners in 1998. (He also purchased the original Coney sauce recipe, which he keeps under lock and key).

With the decline of the local auto industry, and thus a big share of his customer base, Neil sold Angelo’s in 2003, but quickly regretted the decision. According to him, the person he sold it to didn’t know how to run a business and made changes to Angelo’s that had a negative and lasting impact on the restaurant.

Neil regained ownership in 2008 and has been working nonstop to rebuild Angelo’s customer base and reputation. The first thing Stephanie and I noticed on our way into the restaurant was the big tag line under the Angelo’s sign in the front window that read “The old owner is back.” It’s also printed in a couple of spots on the menu. Neil isn’t worried if customers interpret the sign to mean that the original owners are back, he just wants people to come back and give his restaurant another try.

As a short order cook in restaurants like Angelo’s, I’ve always wanted to get behind the scenes to see how the whole process is organized. Neil was glad to accommodate my request and gave me a complete tour. I was amazed at how small yet efficient the place is. The kitchen consists of two grills and two fryers. That’s it. One grill is loaded with Coneys, which are par boiled and then laid on the grill to give them a bit of color. Hot pots of Coney sauce sit next to it, along with the typical condiments that customers might order.

The other grill, twice as big as the first, is where the burgers and all the breakfast components are cooked. A grill of this size has multiple settings, which helps explain why Stephanie’s breakfast was made in five minutes. You can cook the eggs, potatoes, and meat on different parts of the grill so that by the time the toast pops up, the whole meal is ready for plating.

In the back kitchen—which is separated from the front kitchen by a partial wall—two small fryers sit next to a six burner gas stove. I’m in luck because on this day, on the front burner of the stove, is a simmering pot of Angelo’s Coney sauce. The mixture spits and gurgles in its juices, which is an indicator, I’m only guessing, that the sauce is drained after cooking to attain its trademark not-so-wet texture.

On the way back to the dining room, Neil explained to me that Angelo’s while it has undergone several changes and owners over the years, is the only Coney Island in Flint still operating in its original spot. Situated on the corner of Davison Road and Franklin Street, Angelo’s has been a neighborhood fixture since 1949. Now that the “new” “old” owner is back, it’s well worth a trip over to the East side to see what he’s done with the place. Neither Stephanie nor I tried the Hard Shell Coney, so let us know if we should come back and give it a go.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Food Paparazzi (Text)

I was listening to Marketplace on NPR Monday and was surprised to hear them report a story on food paparazzi. (It was, after all, Labor Day and thus a slow day for the show). I had never actually heard the term food paparazzi before, so I was especially interested in the reporters take on this new idea.

Also known as food bloggers or restaurant reviewers, food paparazzi are creating quite a stir in restaruants around the country with their intrusive tripods and flashbulbs.

In some places, like trendy New York City, high end eateries have banned food photogs altogether, citing disruption of the ambiance and complaints by customers paying a lot of dough to eat their food. Other restaurants have taken a more moderate stance by allowing food photography but prohibiting the use of flashbulbs. Seems like a sensible compromise.

The report was so interesting to me because I've never fancied myself a food paparazzi. In fact, it's kind of a screwball notion. I can't imagine, for example, a gang of camera toting food bloggers chasing a plate of lasagna around Italia Gardens while the waitress tries to protect the entree from prying eyes as she races to the corner table and out of site of the crazed media.

I am sensitive to the criticism of restaurateurs, though. Even as discretely I try to get good quality photos of the food I write about, I'm aware that my activity might not always sit well with the staff or other customers. That's why I try to be as inconspicuous as possible, and I never call attention to myself by using flash. Getting good photographs for my posts is important to me and as long as I don't get Stephanie and me kicked out of the places we visit, I'll continue my guerrilla tactics.

The food paparazzi phenomenon wasn't really an issue on my latest adventure: A tour of the Koegel Meat Company. In fact, as President and CEO John Koegel guided me through the Bristol Road factory (next to Bishop International Airport), he encouraged me to stop and document the experience. [The photos are in a separate post because Blogger is having technical problems of Biblical proportions]. John is the grandson of company founder Albert Koegel, a German immigrant who started the business in 1916 on Kearsley Street in downtown Flint.

For those of you scratching your heads and wondering why I'm writing about a meat factory for a restaurant tour, let me explain. Before Angelos and Colonial. Before Flint and Detroit began arguing over where the first Coney Island Diner opened. Before the explosion of the Coney Island phenomenon. Before all of this there was Koegel Meats.

This company has become synonymous with the Flint Coney Island experience because Koegel makes its hot dogs locally, and it distributes to restaurants all over the county. According to John, 25% of their total business is devoted to the local restaurant industry.

Not all local diners "Serve the Curve," but those that do usually display a little neon Koegel sign in their windows to let their faithful followers know. I was amazed to learn that almost seventy thousand pounds of meat is produced daily by a team of about 100 workers. And 90% of all the hot dogs produced for the local food industry are delivered direct from the factory to the restaurants. In total, Koegel produces nearly 40 types of meat, including Vienna franks, bologna, sausages, salamis, and a whole host of gourmet products.

Because the company has extremely high standards and takes extraordinary steps to ensure a safe and sanitary environment in its processing facility, tours are rarely given. John made an exception, though, for which I am extremely grateful.

The process of making a hot dog at Koegel's starts with the freshest quality beef and pork. The meat is run multiple times through giant grinders and combined with a mixture of spices (the same spice mixtures that founder Albert Koegel created himself).

The next step involves a finer mixing and grinding technique that creates what John called an emulsion. Translation: It takes on the consistency of a thick mousse (or a very pale pudding).
From there the tubs of goo are sent on to be packed into casings; skinless franks are stuffed into blue casings that are later stripped away, in case you were wondering.

After the stuffing process, strings of hot dogs are hung on metal racks and sent to the smoking rooms, and then on to a cooling facility where overhead sprinklers shower water over the meat until it cools to just the right temperature.

The packing room is where everything comes together and the hot dogs are separated, counted, and boxed for shipping. Then it's on to the final destination, the warehouse, where delivery trucks load their cargo for the short trip to the various restaurants across the city.

This is admittedly an abbreviated version of the tour and of the whole hot dog making process, but the next time you order a Coney that's been made at Koegel Meats, you'll know you are eating a fresh, locally made hot dog that helped establish a unique Flint phenomenon.

Food Paparazzi Photos

[Note to Readers: Blogger is experiencing technical difficulties, so I for now I have to post images separate from text. Sorry]