Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Motorcycle Mamma

With Halloween fast approaching, my stress level is on the rise and my attitude is already beginning to turn sour. It’s not that I don’t like Halloween. I do. As a poor kid, with too much time on my hands and a nonfunctioning moral compass (does any twelve year-old even know they have one?), I used the occasion to embrace my budding capitalist tendencies and apply them in the spirit of this give-and-take holiday. I pilfered money from UNICEF.

Before you go judging me as some common thief and writing me off as a bad seed from the other side of the tracks, I have two things to say in my defense. My sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson, was really vague on the rules of Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF. Unlike the cub scout popcorn scam, where we knew upfront that we’d only get to keep a few pennies of every dollar we made and pretty sure that our dad’s would pocket the rest for beer and cigarettes, the only rule of Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF that I understood was that I’d go knocking on doors like a beggar and the money would be outsourced to some foreign country. I didn’t think my dad, who was the vice-president of the USA (not of the country, but more importantly of the local union aligned with the United Steelworkers of America) would approve of sending money overseas when the struggle to make ends meet in our own Polish, working class community was so great

Also in my defense, I had no idea what the acronym UNICEF actually stood for or what the donations were actually being used for. I don’t know if I understood guilt and repentance at age twelve any more than I understood the concept of a moral compass, but somewhere on my path to junior high, I stopped Trick-or-Treating for UNICEF. Partly because something didn’t feel right about what I was doing, and partly because it was just too much work.

But it’s not the memory of my criminal adolescent years during Halloween that’s gotten me so worked up. It’s that Halloween, in my family anyway, marks the kickoff of a two-month holiday season. One that we celebrate in a single event I’ve come to refer to as Hallowthanksmas.

My parents bought a second house in Florida and became snowbirds, so they leave Michigan in early November and don’t come back until May. Because of their early departure, we no longer enjoy the holidays one at a time but “celebrate” them all in one awkward weekend. No candy, no whatever you get at Thanksgiving, and no presents. The new tradition in our family is to remove any trace of tradition from the event and avoid all the headache and hassle of the holiday season. For the adults, this is a joy-sucking event. For the kids, it’s just plain weird. For Philip, well for Philip, he just brings enough vino and Vicodin to get him through the weekend.

Back when he and I first met, and when my family celebrated Thanksgiving as its own holiday, I tried to start a new tradition. I’ve always been a sucker for both ritual and practical jokes, so I thought this would be as good a time as any to bring my two passions together. I knew my family was on board with at least one of those, so I let them in on my plan. Just as all sixteen of us sat down to eat, I announced that before we eat, our family tradition is that each person stands up and says what they’re thankful for. And the newest member of the family always goes first.

The car ride home was incredibly quiet that year, but my little tradition, which only lasted that one time, endeared Philip to my family and in some odd way became his rite of passage. He really should have thanked me.

Without tradition, a holiday, even Hallowthanksmas, just isn’t as fun. If you don’t believe me, ask Frank Costganza, who created a holiday called Festivus.

For those of you who aren’t aware of the absolute truth that NBC Thursday’s were “Must See TV” in the 90’s, let me explain. Festivus was a holiday we were introduced to on Seinfeld. George’s dad, Frank, created Festivus as another way to celebrate the holiday season without participating in its pressures and commercialism. The holiday is marked by erecting an aluminum pole and engaging in such activities as the “Airing of Grievances,” and “Feats of Strength.” The airing of grievances takes place as soon as the meal is served when each person tells everyone else all the ways in which they have disappointed them in the past year. Immediately after the meal, feats of strength are performed, where one person is chosen to wrestle the head of the household. The holiday doesn’t end until the head of the household is pinned to the floor. (Wikipedia has a complete summary of that episode).

If Hallowthanksmas is ever going to take hold as a Barnett family holiday the way Festivus did in the Costanza house, then it, too, needs some purposeful tradition attached to it. Since Philip and I are heading to the great up-north this weekend to spend Hallowthanksmas with my family, there’s no time like the present to bring a few ideas to the table. I like the idea of “the airing of grievances” as we sit down to dinner, but my family avoids confrontation like the Amish avoid electricity. The only one who would dare stand up and air his grievances is Philip, and after the Thanksgiving stunt I pulled on him, I’m not ready to take that chance.

“Feats of strength” is out, too, because my dad is six foot four and almost two hundred and fifty pounds.” The only thing that would bring him down is a tranquilizer dart, and even though he has more than sixty guns in his collection, he doesn’t own a tranquilizer gun. Well, not that I know of anyway.

The kickoff activity for Hallowthanksmas is called “Nuclear Family Fusion” where we pull something from each holiday and bring it together in a combined ritual. Half the family will dress in Native American garb, (my dad can make a few loin cloths from one of his dear skins) and half the family will dress as pilgrims. Aside from the uncomfortable shoes and the lack of fabulous color, I’m pretty sure Philip will choose to be a Pilgrim and forgo the embarrassment of wearing my dad’s homemade loin cloth. The Native Americans will present the pilgrims with hand-made gifts, like afghans or doilies or tissue boxes with hand-stitched turkeys on each of the four sides. In return, the pilgrims will ask for candy.

To avoid permanent damage to the children, they will be sent off, shabbily dressed and with good walking shoes—my parents live in the country—to Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF. This will give the adults just enough time to complete the final Hallowthanksmus ritual. It’s called “Motorcycle Mamma.”

The toughest person in the family, without a doubt, is my mother, even though she’s five foot four and barely a hundred and twenty pounds. She will defend the family honor by challenging the rest of her clan to a Run-In. Wearing motorcycle helmets and standing fifteen paces apart, challenged and challenger will charge toward each other, meeting at the center of the living room in a ferocious head-butt. The event will continue until one of the challengers brings Motorcycle Mamma to her knees. As their reward, the winner will receive the total amount of UNICEF money collected by the children. What they do with the money will be determined solely by their own moral compass.

I don’t expect my ideas to take hold in one year, or at all for that matter. But if nothing else it might convince my parents to bring sanity back to the holidays by staying home until New Years and returning to a more traditional celebration of the holidays. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Crab Soccer

I tried out for the tennis team when I was in tenth grade in high school so I wouldn’t have to join the football team. Under no circumstances was I going to dress up in some padded, colorful outfit just so some can’t-pass-the-ninth-grade hairy thug with out-of-control anger issues from Traverse City could throw me around like a rag doll, bury me in the muddy-grassy ground and get my pretty outfit all dirty. An angst-ridden, sexually confused teenager has his limits, and mine was playing football. They’d just have to get along without me.

Not that tennis went any better, mind you. I’m just not an athletic person. Sure I played crab soccer in sixth grade, but I had no expectations of eventually playing for the minor league Cadillac Crustaceans or eventually making it to the majors and scooting my ass around on a wheeled piece of plywood for the Louisville Lobsters. I wouldn’t realize it until years later, but there’s a big difference between grade school sports and high school sports: the onset of puberty and that powder keg known as testosterone. And while nobody ever bothered to tell me at the time, playing high school sports demands, in addition to superhuman levels of testosterone, that you understand three basic concepts.

#1: Know what the hell you’re doing. Had I listened to my tennis coach instead of making fun of his bald head adorned with a colorful sweatband that made him look like Saturn, I would have known that he was talking about mechanics. But because I didn’t, I never mastered the most important part of the game, the serve. Instead of gracefully tossing the ball in the air and turning my body and racket into one giant flyswatter—an act that would have made the ball land at the feet of my cowering opponent—I did something quite different. It was embarrassing enough that the ball sailed over my opponents head, and usually over the fence behind him, but I flailed around like a drunken octopus whenever I tried to make contact with the ball.

#2: Be good at everything, not just one thing. If only I could stand at the back of the court and hit forehand shots all day, I’d be playing with Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. My aim was good. I could actually put the ball in play and keep it from sailing into the back fence. Until someone hit me a soft shot and I had to charge the net. Oh sweet mother of pearl, that was ugly. I never quite mastered the finesse with which this move was executed, moving quickly into position, standing there with your racket still, and waiting for the ball to come to you. Instead, I looked more like, as Robin Williams said in The Birdcage, a psychotic horse running toward a burning stable. And because I’m not very good at quick stops, I’d usually find myself tangled in the net like a dopey moth in a spider web.

#3: It’s not a performance until you put it all together. Like a one-person symphony, really. It’s not enough to understand the backhand, the forehand, the serve, the charge, the, the lob, the overhead smash, or how to keep score for that matter (what self-respecting person would even play a game where to keep score you have to use words like love and deuce; before anyone scores, the game stands at love/love. Really?). To be a good tennis player, to win the game, you have to know when to lay back and volley, when to charge the net and put one away, and when to use the one-handed backhand or the two-handed backhand. It’s when you learn to put these elements together in the right order and with the right timing that you’re actually giving a performance.

My guess is that the current owner of Rio’s Coney Island, on Davison Road between Franklin and Dort, did not play tennis in high school. Stephanie and I didn’t intend to eat there last Thursday. We were on our way to another place on Center Road when I caught Rio’s out of the corner of my eye. We actually drove past it, waffling as to whether to turn back or keep going. I’m not sure why we decided to go back, but we did.

From the minute we walked in, I had an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. We both did. We knew we had been here before, and as we waited for our server to arrive, we figured it out. This used to be a family restaurant, though we still can’t remember the name. The dining room was split down the middle by a half-wall with booths on each side, and a doorway led to an add-on room, facing Davison Road. There were no customers on that side. And there were only two other tables with customers on our side. In the middle of lunch hour.

I’m guessing the owner of Rio’s never played tennis because the three golden rules that apply to that game are easily applicable to running a restaurant, and to my disappointment, the overall performance that we paid for wasn’t very impressive. Here’s why. The food was good enough, the place was clean enough, and the service…well the service was like one of the tennis moves I never mastered. And that’s my point; Rio’s gets the basic mechanics of running a restaurant. The food, the atmosphere, the service. It was all there. Some of it was done well, some not, and that’s why I felt more like I was at a practice than at a performance.

The competition for customers among Coney Island diners in the area is fierce, and those not on the top of their game are going to get eaten alive. If I were a restaurant coach, the first thing I’d help Rio’s with is their service. The waitress had the mechanics down. She brought us menus, took our order, brought our food, and delivered the check. But she was only marginally attentive, unengaged, and she acted like it was a bother to wait on us. I’m usually forgiving of wait staff sins because I’ve been there and know that it’s thankless work. (If you’ve never read the book Waiter Rant, I highly recommend it). But with only two other tables of customers in the whole restaurant, our waitress could have at least made an effort.

The food was a combination of good forehands, ok volleys, and a touch of my old serve. The Flint Coney Dog that Stephanie and I shared, for example, was quite good. The bun was as warm and soft as any we’ve had so far; in fact it was one of the better ones. The sauce was appropriately greasy and pretty flavorful. I was even able to identify a few ingredients, like cumin and chili powder. My palate is becoming more finely tuned because I was able to distinguish this Koegel Coney hot dog from the Koegel Vienna dog from previous weeks. This one is sweeter and less tightly packed in the casing than the more refined Vienna. (Good grief, I sound the Frazier Crane of Coney Dogs).

The Navy Bean with Ham soup was also pretty good. From the first bite we knew it was made from scratch. The celery and carrots were fresh and al dente, and the beans were cooked long enough to release the starches and contribute to a perfectly thick broth. The one element that was missing and could have put this soup over the top was the ham. Instead of using a smoked chunk of pork, which would have infused the soup with that unmistakable smoke-cooked flavor, this soup contained precooked pieces of sliced ham. They added little flavor to the soup, which seemed like a bit of a waste.

I think it’s even more important in the local Coney Island diner game than in tennis that you do everything well, or at least a majority of the things. And this is where Rio’s really has to step up its game or sooner rather than later it’s going to be watching from the sidelines. The entrées, to be more specific, were uneven and average with not much to distinguish them from any other diner in the city. Stephanie ordered one of my diner favorites, the fish sandwich and fries. The fries were actually thick cut steak fries, which I wish more places would serve. They’re meaty and they hold the heat better than the thinner cuts, which means you’re not eating cold potatoes half way through your meal. The fish sandwich, which Stephanie liked well enough, was two not-too-skimpy pieces of cod in a not-too-thick batter, deep fried on a burger bun. By making one simple change, Rio’s could easily turn this sandwich into a fan favorite: put it on a more attractive bun and let the colorful lettuce and tomato accent the fish instead of being hidden by it, a piece of advice one of my many cooking coaches once gave me.

I ordered the cheeseburger (with grilled onions and olives) and a side of onion rings, partly because I saw one being delivered as we arrived, and partly out of pity that the burger tends to play second fiddle to the darling of the diner, the Coney dog. My burger was just ok. A bit on the dry side and sloppily presented. The cheese, however, was melted on top of the burger and on top of the grilled onions and olives, sort of like a well placed backhand. The onion rings drew mixed reviews. Stephanie thought the ones she ate were ok. Mine tasted mushy. The grease, the soft batter, the limp onions. Not good dawg. Not good.

We lingered a bit after our meal and caught up on the week’s events, but I was distracted and bothered the whole time by our experience here. On the surface, it met most of the minimum criteria for a passable dining experience. But the individual parts never came together to make anything more than a lackluster performance. And that’s what troubles me about Rio’s. It’s already facing an uphill battle because of its location and the nondescript building that it’s housed in. Beyond that, there’s little to distinguish it from the dozens of other Coney diners around Flint. Rio’s has been on Davison Road for three years, but I’m afraid if it doesn’t step up its performance, it’s going be game, set, and match for this contender.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Hot Lunch: A foodie fable

Patty Melt and Hot Meatloaf Sandwich met for lunch at Paul’s Coney Island and Family Diner. The place was packed with locals who apparently considered Paul’s the darling of Burton, the saving grace of the lower east side.

Catty Patty, as everyone called her behind her back, wasted no time, as was her custom, making sharp-tongued remarks to her lunch companion. “Well, is it a Coney Island or is it a Family Diner?”

“Maybe it’s both,” said Meatloaf, a little defensively. “Either way, it’s still a diner, and that’s what really matters. It has booth seating. The dining room’s rectangular, like the original one’s in the shape of train cars. And you don’t see those high-end entrees showing themselves off the way they do at Red Rooster. It’s a diner. Let it go.”

“Well!” snapped Patty. “Does a diner plant a garden around itself to make it look like Applewood Estates?” Paul’s did have a beautiful display of plants and flowers framing the entrance to the building and a row of tropical plants along the windows shielding the view of Center Road, a little out of character for a diner, but Patty had a habit of over-exaggerating to make a point, something Meatloaf knew all too well, and he quickly dropped the subject.

They looked at the specials board on the way in, and Patty turned to Meatloaf, chuckling. “Cabbage Rolls, indeed. What’s so special about cabbage?” she quipped. “Who does he think he is, stuffing himself like a swine with crumbled up God-knows-what, slopping around in tomato sauce, and trying to pass himself off as something ‘special’?” Appearance, after all, were all that mattered to Patty.

What must she think of my brown gravy? Meatloaf wondered to himself. Does she even know how offensive she is? Probably not. Again, he said nothing, and they found their way to one of the few vacant booths in the diner.

As they sat in their booth, chatting away about how clean the place was and how lively the atmosphere had become, along came the soup sisters and sat down next to the sandwiches. They had all known each other for a long time, and they all went well together at lunch. Chicken noodle was glowing with good color and inviting aroma, qualities that all agreed were quite tasteful. Chicken lemon rice was equally tasteful and beautiful, and together they made quite a nice pair.

Meatloaf was quick to complement the sisters, noting that they were the most popular of all the soups and that their status among menu items was generally agreed to be reliable and consistently good.

Patty, however, dispensed with the pleasantries and got right to her beef about one of the other soups. “Honestly, I don’t know how that lowly pea soup made the specials board and you two did not. It’s just not right. Green and runny cannot compare to your golden sheen.”

The soups, knowing Patty’s long history of criticizing the looks of other food, took her pettiness in stride. They knew, even if she did not, that everyone got their turn at the specials board eventually, and though the menu was a whopping five, dense pages long, everyone eventually had a turn. Even gruff, inelegant Patty Melt.

Meatloaf, however, had become fed up with Patty’s Negative-Nancy critique of the others, many of whom Meatloaf know well and often paired up with on previous lunches. “Well who on God’s green earth died and made you the Simon Cowell of food critique? You go off on everyone else, but have you ever taken a good hard look at yourself, sister? Your greasy bottom makes you look like you spent the night under a car. Your stringy onions are hanging out like wild hairs, and your cheese is drooling down your buns. Honestly Patty. You’re just too much.”

Just then, with a Cool Hands Luke swagger and the confidence of the guy on the horse in the recent Old Spice commercials, Flint Coney Dog approached the table. Patty was in such a state of shock from being dragged through the gravy by Meatloaf that she couldn’t speak. Meatloaf was steaming but composed himself enough to ask Coney to join them.

First impressions aside, Coney was generally viewed by his peers as a well assembled, good dog. He said little, but when he spoke his words were considered wise and useful. “Take a good look at how attractive he is,” said Meatloaf to Patty. The sauce is mounded neatly along his back with a real sense of purpose and the onions and mustard shine like well placed earrings. Not even you could find fault with him.”

“What’s all the fuss?” Coney asked, puzzled by the tension at the table.

“Oh, he’s just busy dressing me down because he thinks I’m plain and ugly,” Patty snapped. “The way he tells it, I’m as dull as a plate of fries.”

Coney didn’t think fries were dull at all. In fact he shared a plate with them more often than anyone else on the menu. They weren’t the most flashy partner in the place, but that wasn’t really the point anyway. “Look, man.” He said to Patty. We’re diner food. Nobody’s gonna win a beauty pageant here. It’s what’s inside that counts. Taste is more important than looks. You might not be the most colorful crayon in the box, but you got taste and people like you.”

Coney’s words penetrated Patty like a knife, cutting away her sandwiched misconceptions, making way for pickle slices of understanding and acceptance. Coney was right, she thought, and from that day on, Patty accepted herself for who she was: a hot lunch with average looks and enough taste to eventually make the specials board. The other sandwiches rejoiced at her Coney-induced epiphany, and Meatloaf was proud again to join his old friend at the table whenever he was called to order.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Guest Blogger: ShaunAnne Tangney (Coney and Wings)

I've decide that there is way too much Coney culture, too many interpretations of history, and too many personal Coney stories for one person to write about. So, I've decided, after much thought, to call on you to help me tell the broadest, most inclusive, most complete story of how the Flint Coney Island has influenced our individual and collective lives.

I'm starting out this new feature with a tale from a dear friend of mine, ShaunAnne Tangney, who actually doesn't live in Flint but whose poignant insights, astute observations, and sophisticated narrative, perfectly situate her to muse on the phenomenon that she, too, has been sucked into.

Coney and Wings

Bob and I went to graduate school together. Most people who have gone to graduate school will attest to the copious amounts of alcohol it takes to simply survive it; succeeding takes even more. Anyway, that was our formula, and it must have worked because everyone Bob and I were friends with in grad school got a job. Bob finished before I did and he took a job at UMFlint, which was some 2,000 miles away from where I was, still slogging through grad school, and I was able to visit Bob only once a year.

In those early years of Bob's Flint existence, our social pattern was much the same as it was in graduate school. We'd start with cocktails somewhere atmospheric and trendy, then move on to dinner somewhere authentic and loud; we'd follow that up with heavy drinking until closing time somewhere crowded and smoky, and we'd follow that up with what was by that time an absolutely necessary stop-and-scarf at a Coney.

Why necessary? Partly because we believed the drunkard's mythology--eating a carbo-protein load after massive quantities of alcohol staves off a hangover (it doesn't, really); partly because there isn't anything else open that late and we were never quite ready to go home, never quite ready to end the conversation, to stop the literal or figurative dancing, to finish the night. God, the energy we had back then; it exhausts me just to think about it!

We made 3:00 a.m. visits to too many Coneys to count, but the one I remember most was to Angelos. It had been a long night. I won't speak for Bob, but I know I could neither see nor walk straight. I probably couldn't think straight, either, but that never seems to stop the conversation, does it? My stomach felt something like a Tilt-a-Whirl at a county fair, and I was pretty sure a ham and cheese omelette was the one thing that could help. With hash-browns. Crispy hash-browns. And toast. Maybe extra toast--more carbs can't hurt. And a large glass of ice cold milk. Yeah, milk...that's like throwing bricks in the Grand Canyon...

(A food note: at 3:00 a.m., the quality of the food doesn't much matter. It's all about the quantity and the temperature. Lots and hot. Greasy doesn't hurt either.)

But this story isn't really about the food; it's about our fellow diners that early morning, and one in particular. It was a kid. A little girl, maybe six years old. What on earth a child of that age was doing in that grimy diner at that hour, I'll never know (and for years Bob and I actually wondered if we'd hallucinated it, but since we can both remember so many of exactly the same details, we've concluded that we did not), but there she was--and here comes the truly impossible part: she was wearing bright pink tights, a pale, sea-foam green tutu, a white shirt with a fake fur collar and cuffs, and on her back were a pair of iridescent silver wings. Not painted on the shirt or something: real wings. Well, not real-real, like she was a bird or an angel or something, but actual three-dimensional wings. They were no doubt left-over from a Halloween or Christmas pageant costume, and sure, little kids will wear any crazy thing they can put together if you let them--but that outfit, on a girl of that age, in a 3:00 a.m. Coney? It was crazy! It was impossible!

It was just plain wrong!

And it was just plain magic. It was as if she was a gift or a portent--a reminder and a caution to stay young and to hold fast to dreams and to ever indulge the imagination. She was a living, dancing (and she did--she danced all over that diner!), impossible dervish that brought our night of debauchery to some kind of poignancy, and hope.

And then she was gone.

And nothing remained but the wings. A sad, limp set of wings, that, without the girl, looked shabby and cheap and as if they could portend nothing but poverty and shame and desperation. Just lying there, underneath a counter stool, on a dirty floor.

And so we took them. It was wrong to do so, but impossible not to. Maybe they held some magic after all; maybe they were left by one person just so another person could find them, put them on, and... But, no. We did not fly home, but only weaved and skidded, like all drunks do. And in the morning, the wings were just a sad, lank relic of our bright and weird night.

As I write this, I am forced to acknowledge that even though I am about 1,000 miles closer to Flint now, I still only get to visit once a year. This makes me unhappy. What makes me unhappier still is that we almost never go to a Coney anymore, and if we do, our trip is of the Sunday morning variety, not the 3:00 a.m variety. I know, I know: we just don't party like that anymore, and while our livers and brains and waistlines are probably the better for it, I wonder if our sense of wonder and joy, our ability to let loose, to put the world down, our desire to live in a kind of magical realism are the worse for it. The memory of the little girl with the wings reminds me that we have to put ourselves in the position to experience wonder to receive joy, to put the world down. We have to create or make or actively seek that places and spaces where those things can happen to us.

And, OK, maybe it doesn't have to be at 3:00 a.m...but 3:00 a.m. is a seam-time: not night, not day, an in-between time when things can happen...and Coneys? Well, one credo of magical realism is "lo magico es lo real:" the magical is the real--and it doesn't get any more real than a Coney.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Kooky Coney Culture

I finally got my hands on the Genesee County Historical Society’s short publication of Two to Go: A Short History of the Flint Coney. The twenty-two page booklet traces the origins of our quirky little Flint phenomenon, provides a map of the earliest Coney Island diners along Saginaw Street, and pieces together the ownership chain of some of the earliest and most famous restaurants. But the publication meanders into some other, less known, historical facts that have elevated my interest in and love for the local Coney craze.

History, to oversimplify, is a recording of the past as it happened, a way for us to see where we’ve come from. It’s also a far more complex concept that allows us to see how we’ve changed, how we’ve grown or regressed, and to see who we’ve become. Beyond that, history provides a useful platform for commentary and criticism of events that play a large role in shaping our culture.

I started Eating Flint more than a year ago because I wanted to explore local history and culture through the lens of food. Last year’s Mexican restaurant tour, for example, revealed some surprising and profound insights into Flint’s Hispanic culture and how the voice of the Hispanic community manifests itself so much through food. While relatively small in numbers, this community accounts for almost fifteen percent of the total number of restaurants in the Flint area. The low-key influence of Hispanic culture is a good example of how other cultures that make up who we are as the people of Flint also contribute to our collective identity.

That’s how I’ve come to see the kooky Coney culture of Flint. Its simple, upretentious identity has worked its way into our community and speaks volumes about who we are. Simion O. Brown, the Macedonian immigrant who opened Flint’s Original Coney Island Diner in 1919, is credited for starting the local Coney Culture. Legend has it that while traveling to New York, he stopped at a lunch counter in Rochester and ordered a Coney Island hot dog. He deemed the offering tasteless and unfit for his hearty European palate. Brown returned to Flint determined to make a Coney Island sauce that was worthy of his loyal customers.

Some diner owners have honored that history by sticking as close to it as possible (Tom Z’s is the best example, which is no surprise since he is a distant relative of Simion Brown. Others have made changes to the Coney culture that reflect the ever-changing identity of the city (Olympic Grill jumps to mind, though some of the changes, like using all fresh ingredients in preparing its dishes, actually reclaims the philosophy that started the Coney Island experience).

The reality, though, is that most of the owners of local Coney diners aren’t trying to shape or change history; like the rest of us, they’re just trying to make a living. Such is the case with this week’s restaurant, Tom’s Coney Island Café. Nestled between Court Street and Second Street on Dort Highway, Tom’s is somewhat of a hidden gem.

Its history doesn’t appear in the pages of Two To Go, but it has undergone some transformations , at least since the early nineties. At one point it operated under the name Grapevine, an unimpressive, scarcely populated place with extremely average food and prices that were higher than the food’s quality. Then it became Toshi, thought I don’t remember much about that era (or whether Toshi’s came before or after Grapevine).

As Tom’s, it’s a nice, clean place with a steady flow of customers—always a good sign—and a menu that offers far more choices than your average Coney place. I know I’ve harped on this idea before, but really? Do you need five full pages of menu items to pore over when lunch only lasts for an hour? I really like the concept that Tom Z. has adopted, which is your basic breakfast/sandwich/dinner menu. It’s uncomplicated, it’s more than enough to choose from, and for the poor cooks in the kitchen, it’s far more manageable.

The choices at Tom’s range from a whole page of Pitas and Wraps, twenty-three sandwiches, not including the burgers, croissant sandwiches, Coney Islands, Diet Plates, Hot Sandwiches, Greek Specialties, and a list of Senior Dinners.

Among the sea of choices, my attention was drawn to two items that jumped out from the rest. The first was the Ninchimos. Yes, I said Ninchimos. Never even heard of the word before. I expected to read a description of the dish that was classically Mexican. I couldn’t have been any more wrong if I tried. A Ninchimos, at Tom’s anyway, is a breast of chicken sandwich topped with roasted red pepper, fresh basil, and goat cheese. Sounds kinda good, but it just seemed odd next to the BLT and Reuben.

The other, more interesting discovery is that Tom’s serves both the Flint Coney Island hot dog and the Detroit version. For those readers unfamiliar with the difference, the Detroit style sauce is much more like a chili, very wet and loose. The Flint version, on the other hand, is much dryer and more compact. Steph and I didn’t discuss ordering the Detroit style, but I wouldn’t mind giving it a go at some point.

Tom’s version of the Flint Coney, while marginally better than Olympic’s, didn’t set either of us on fire. Apparently Abbot’s Meat Company makes the ground meat base for many of the local Coney restaurants, including Tom’s. I know this because there’s a sign posted near the front door announcing it, and announcing that they serve Koegel hot dogs. Each place adds its own spices to make it their own, which is why, I suspect, that many Coney’s will taste pretty much the same as we make our way through the tour.

(A brief history side bar: I was pretty sure all along that the rumor about Flint’s Coney sauce being made from beef heart was simply that, a rumor. Not so according to Two To Go: “According to Ed Abbott, who eighty plus years later is still making the ground meat base for Flint’s Coney island sauce, the only meat ingredient is beef heart regardless of the stories and rumors of other meat parts being used.” Frankly, I’m not sure what to believe, so for now it will have to remain an unsolved mystery.)

At any rate, the sauce was nicely held together, maybe a little dryer than I wanted it to be, and slightly grainy in texture. The bun, like last week’s installment, was left to warm too long, and it showed signs of collapsing under the weight of the contents piled on top of it. The dog was good, not a Vienna, but good nonetheless, if not a little over cooked, and the signature onion and mustard topping added a nice finish. While not the best Coney I’ve ever eaten, we did manage to choke it all down without much trouble.

After an inter-course of chicken noodle soup (me) and lemon chicken soup with rice (Stephanie), both of which looked and tasted like they were made from scratch, we got down to the serious business of tearing into our entrees. When I think of diner food, the hot beef sandwich comes to mind immediately as one of the core offerings. Maybe it’s because I worked at a little greasy spoon in 1979 called Anchor Inn, where the hot sandwich was as famous in Manistee as the Coney island hot dog is in Flint.

So that’s what I ordered. Well a version of it anyway. At Tom’s you can get your hot sandwich stuffed with beef, turkey, ham, broiled chicken breast (a healthy hot sandwich? Oh please!!!!), hamburger or Salisbury steak. My mind gravitated toward the hot hamburger, so that’s what I ordered. Instead of the traditional mashed potatoes and gravy, though, I ordered mine with French fries and gravy (a combination, by the way, that goes hand in hand with the Coney Dog). I was expecting the sandwich to be situated on the plate in two halves with the fries and gravy in the middle—the way it’s been done for centuries. But Tom’s threw me for a loop by presenting it as two slices of bread under the meat next to the fries alongside the frozen peas all drizzled with beef gravy. It was actually an attractive presentation and once I got off my high horse mindset of it-has-to-be-done-the-same-way-everywhere, I quite enjoyed it and would recommend it to any hot sandwich lover who comes to Tom’s Café.

Stephanie also threw me for a loop. She passed on breakfast. She said no to the burger. She scoffed at the Seafood Favorites (here’s a little Stephanie secret: she’s allergic to seafood). Instead, she went for the Pita section of the menu and ordered the Chicken Gyro (pronounced year-oh). This item could easily have gone under the Greek Specialties section along with the Gyro platter, but it appears, oddly out of place, with the dozen or so pita choices. [Another side bar: the choices of fillings under Pitas, Wraps, Sandwiches and Croissants are all the same. You can get a BLT, for example in any of the above forms. Why not just say that and put all the stuffing choices in one place under one heading. It would turn this five page novella into a manageable menu. There. I said it]. Anyway, Stephanie’s Gyro was made with grilled chicken that had a good moister level to it, served in a thick warm pita bread, surrounded by lettuce, tomato, and a freshly made cucumber sauce that pulled the whole sandwich together and made Stephanie proclaim, “This is pretty good.”

It seemed more and more apparent to me over the course of our lunch that Tom’s Coney Café has a loyal following of patrons, which creates an atmosphere of familiarity and comfort. The place feels very neighborhood friendly. And it feels like a place that’s both finding its own identity while hanging onto and honoring a chunk of the Coney Island past that paved the way for its very existence.