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.


  1. Every time you describe a coney, I want one. I think I'm going to be eating a lot of coneys this year!

    Does Tom Z's still have the cool mural?

  2. Mr Z's owner is a true cousin of Angelo It seems strange the owner on Franklin and also Dort Highway can continue to use the Angelo name. Also, I'm sorry Mr Z's restaurant was not on the college students recent tour, as it gives a discount to students with ID and the food is great. Also, coneys are only $1.00 to anyone from 4:00PM till 8:00PM daily(eat in only),but you must bring to their attention otherwise you will pay price stated on menu...Hope to see you there...Helene Streich

  3. Having grown up in Flint. I lived on Coney Island hotdogs as well as Kewpee Hamburgers. I now live in Lima, Ohio, the headquarters for Kewpee Inc. There are three Kewpees here and only two in Michigan and one in another state. They NEVER heat their buns anymore and that was what added to their taste. I seldom buy them anymore because of that. But they do a good business because they use fresh meat and not pre-cooked or frozen meat like McDonalds and Burger King.

    In Flint, as a youngster, my favorite was at the Tasty Coney island downtown on Water and Saginaw street, next door to Playland. There were four coney islands at that location on Saginaw street. Tasty, Nick's, the Original and US Coney Island. A few sold beer and served breakfast too. Now ALL the coney Islands add too many spices to the Abbott's topping and they no longer have the original taste. Angelo's is close. I like the plain Abbott's topping and when I go to Flint I buy enough Koegel coneys and Abbott's sauce to bring back to Lima.

  4. I would like to add that I had three Coney Islands when I lived in Hollywood, California. Not at the same time but all were near the intersection of Hollywood & Vine. I had the Koegel hotdogs and Abbott's topping freighted there from Flint via Frozen Food Express. All three are now closed and a new W hotel has opened across from my last location. And you would be surprised at the Michigan people who have moved to California. A few got mine mixed up with Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit. Their topping is more like a chili topping and not like the ones from Flint. There is a big difference too.

  5. I have eaten at Tom Z's a couple times after reading your review. First time I had the fish and macaroni and cheese. The fish was good but the mac and cheese lacked flavor due to the bland cheese sauce. I went back a week or so later and had a coney, which was tasty, and a bowl of homemade bean soup that was made with both ham and bacon. The soup had a delicious smoky flavor and was some of the most flavorful soup I have ever eaten. This place is very clean, reasonably priced, and the wait staff was both friendly and efficient.

    Bill Dakota: glad to hear you are doing well in Lima.

  6. The original recipe was owned but since Tom Z worked there, he knew it. So yeah, Angelos and Tom Z both have it.