Moving around the country for a job is a fact of life now in the U.S. workforce. But we all love to keep just a little part of our hometown with us no matter where we move to.
I remember that when my wife, Gay, and I lived on the East Coast, we used to miss our Kansas City barbecue. We pleaded with our family to send us Gates Bar-B-Q sauce on a monthly basis. Ahhh … the power of comfort food.
Whenever we would see a new barbecue place open, we’d get so hopeful. Once, while we were living in Baltimore, one opened called Doc Watson’s Kansas City BBQ.
“This is it! Finally, someone gets it!” we thought. But unfortunately, our hopes were crushed like a little girl realizing she’s still not getting a pony for her birthday. The barbecue was dry and tasteless. In fact, is was more like just ketchup on meat. I’m not kidding. Yuck!
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We’ve all had this happen, right? Living away from home … pining for the taste of our hometown comfort food.
Enter Ronnie McGowan. He’s experienced those same hometown comfort food pangs. He moved to Kansas City from Tulsa for his job back in 1991. He loved his job. But, he also missed a particular taste from back home.
“Every year, I kept thinking, ‘Someone has got to open a place like this.’ I kept trying different places, but it wasn’t the same. It just wasn’t right. The ingredients were all wrong and the recipe just didn’t cut it,” he said.
From my experience in Baltimore, I can completely relate to Ronnie.
Finally, he was tired of waiting. McGowan, with no experience in the restaurant business, made the leap and became an entrepreneur/restaurateur.
“I ran the numbers, and figured if I can just get a steady clientele, keep my overhead low, I can make this happen,” he said.
Apparently he knew what he was talking about: He turned a profit in only his second month of business. His plan was in motion.
So what is it that drives McGowan’s passion? It’s the Coney Island Hot Dog.
Now, I thought I knew what a Coney Dog was. After all, I used to live in New York City. I’d spent a weekend or two on Coney Island. To me, a Coney Dog was just a standard chili dog. Oh, boy was I wrong. At least by McGowan’s standards.
“That’s not the same thing at all,” McGowan insists. “The Coney Dog has to be the perfect balance of the right sized hot dog, the right chili, the right amount of mustard, with fresh grated cheese on a perfectly steamed bun.”
After a little research, I found out that there are about 10 different regional varieties of the New York Coney Dog. Most of these varieties were spread throughout the United States by Greek or Macedonian immigrants. However, according to McGowan, there are two main camps in the Coney Dog world: The Cincinnati style and the Detroit style. McGowan is reproducing the Coney Dog from Tulsa, which is a variation of the Cincinnati style, influenced by a migrating Greek population.
“The hot dog has to be smaller, so you get the perfect balance in every bite,” McGowan said. “The chili has to be beanless chili, with a little heat and a little sweet and other unique spices … very similar to Kansas City barbecue. You have to use just the right amount of yellow mustard. I grate the cheese to order to ensure freshness and the bun has to be steamed just so. My goal is to give my customers the best of the authentic Tulsa Coney Dog.”
Hearing McGowan talk about how he gets the Coney Dog balance right reminds me of some of the conversations that I have with a few local chefs. They talk almost in abstracts, discussing how to fine-tune a dish, adjusting the balance … the sweet, sour, salty, acid, fat and umami. McGowan has that same kind of passion — the kind that I love to see in the restaurant business. It’s infectious and sincere.
While we were visiting on a recent Saturday, there was another couple in the shop enjoying a few dogs. McGowan shouts out to them, “OK, 24 more to go, and I’ll be done with your ‘to go’ order.” What?!?! Yep, you guessed it: Those two were ex-Tulsans that wanted to share some of this hometown comfort food with their friends.
I continue to ask McGowan what makes this hot dog so special. I get a litany of reasons, ranging from sourcing of specific ingredients, to recipes, and then to prep. Wow, and I thought this was just a chili dog.
So, finally, our order is up. Two Coney Dogs each, with everything. As mentioned earlier, they are smaller in size, so you want to order at least two.
One bite, and I’m sold. The sweetness of the chili, the savory dog, the cutting and slightly vinegary flavor of the yellow mustard, counterbalancing the smoothness of the cheese … and then the tang of the onions.
“OMG, he’s right,” Gay says, “The balance really does make a difference.” I would have to agree.
Now at this point, I’m thinking to myself, “I can’t believe that Gay and I are discussing the balance of flavor in a hot dog shop. I never expected that to happen when I woke up this morning.”
Back to the counter we go and I order a couple of more Coney Dogs — for research purposes, of course. Okay, the truth is that they were so good, we each wanted another one.
So why isn’t anybody else doing this? “It’s a lot of work just to find the right ingredients,” McGowan said, “You can’t use a skinless dog. It has to be the right size with a natural casing, along with the matching bun. And the chili has to be just so. I make my own recipe that has over 24 different ingredients. Basically, it’s a labor of love.”
And it shows.
For me, this was an interesting experience to try someone else’s hometown comfort food. I really appreciated not only the food, but observing the passion that went into it. I could completely see why Tulsans go crazy over their version of the Coney Dog.
The good news is, if you’re a Tulsan ex-pat, you can now get your fill of your hometown Coney Dog. Stop by Coney Island Dog at 7753 Quivira Road in Lenexa and fill up to your heart’s desire. Even if you aren’t from Tulsa, you should stop by and taste it for yourself. This Coney Dog just might become one of my new hometown favorites. And remember, there’s no shame in going back for more.
Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS BBQ judge, a student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.