I’ve certainly had enough chances in this space to weigh in, rant and wave, ooh and ahh, over the fanciest food from our most famous chefs, and offered at the most intimidating prices. Still, in all my quarter-century as a food writer and almost that long as a radio host, I’ve never done any of those things about the hot dog. Then again, I tend to think that if you do anything successfully from 1923 onward, you’re probably doing a good deal of it right.
So it is with the Original Coney pictured above, a frank made with beef and pork, nestled in a hand-cut bun that doesn’t let the goodies escape out either end, with no small amount of chili sauce, cheese and minced onion. The Papadakis brothers started James Coney Island in downtown Houston in 1923, spent the first 40 years with only that one location, then saw their kids add a second one in the late 1960s. There are now 21.
For many of those years, during which the burger replaced the hot dog as America’s fast food of choice, the Papadakis family probably never thought they’d end up serving the dern things. But serve them they do, or at least that can be said of the local owners who bought the company from the kids some years back. Tasting the many new varieties of “better burger” at lunch today with company President Darrin Straughan, and attempting to do radio with my mouth full, was a pleasure not to be missed.
One of the earliest James Coney Island recipes was the Texas chili – now dated to the eatery’s year of opening, 1923. It’s different from the much more liquid sauce on the hot dogs, but perfect for this bowl-bound construction with Fritos, cheese and those wonderful minced onions. The chili is made with chopped rather than ground beef , which then cooks down till it’s tender.
Considerable effort has gone into the sides at James Coney, a list led off by this “stuffed baked potato” effect repurposed for what amount to tater tots. The tots are good on their own, of course, and their soft interiors do resemble a baked potato. But things really get delicious when the kitchen starts adding crumbled bacon, sour cream, green onion and, of course, more of that omnipresent cheese.
And if you think all this is a bit much, the new/old Original James Coney Island has a terrific option for you. Yes, in the spirit of the Papadakis brothers, the guys running the show now visited Greek restaurants near and far, and came up with one of the better Greek salads you’ll ever try – shown here with grilled chicken. Rumor has it there are 17 ingredients not counting the dressing, which would explain the wonderful crunch and snap in every bite. It’s enough to make a fella do the Zorba dance – or maybe even start a New York-style hot dog restaurant in Houston, Texas!