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.

9 comments:

  1. This might be one of my versions of heaven!

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  2. I can't wait until October 2, 2010....coming home for a visit and this is the first place I'm going..goodbye diet!

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  3. Neil is a great guy and quite a character of his own making.

    I'm not sure how true this is but I've heard that there is a large component of kidney meat in the sauce giving it that very fine texture, finer than ground beef.

    Who really knows....it could be made of ground up woodchucks....but if you can get that kind of flavor....God bless you.

    The Flint coney sauce is far and away the best in my opinion which along with $2 will get you a good cup of coffee

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  4. One secret, which isn't so secret since I know it, is ground up hot dog meat.

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  5. I don't know if they put ground hot dogs in their sauce at Angelo's, but I'm pretty sure they don't put organ meat in it. I think I know, though, were the organ meat theory comes from. Marty Embry, a professional basketball player turned restaurateur, created a coney sauce with organ meat in it and then challenged Angelo's to a Coney Matchup to see which sauce was better. You can find that whole story by copying and pasting the following link:

    http://micuisine.com/lunapiercook/?p=2313

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  6. My brother and I had lunch at Angelo's not long ago. It seemed like the Angelo's we grew up with -- except for the large-screen flat TVs. The coneys and fries were perfect!

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  7. THE SECRET INGREDIENT OF ABBOTT'S MEAT CONEY TOPPING IS BEEF HEARTS.

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  8. Anonymous, that's what I keep hearing. maybe I should try to get a photo interview and put the matter to rest?

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  9. Hey Bob,
    I never created a coney sauce with organ meat. I created a coney spice that you can use any ground meat to make authentic coney sauce. However, authentic coney sauce does have ground up organ meat. It's a blend of scraps called "rough ground." Also, I never challenged Angelo's to a coney match up. My coney spice was compared to Angelo's (not by me, but by an independent group) and my spice ranked better. Just a little FYI, I was taught how to make the coney spice by Angelo and Tom Z! I had great teachers! I simply wanted to make my spice different and better! It worked! :)

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