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:
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.
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.