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.


  1. Before Grapevine and Toshi's, Tom's was also Biff's and Jeff's.

  2. Biff's? What a great name: Biff's Coney Island. It's got a Flint style ruggedness to it.

  3. And don't forget its name when I first discovered it: Kate's. That was in between Jeff's and the Grapevine. I spent many a night there over coffee and fries & gravy.