There is an “Art of the Coney” (or maybe a religion) that has been practiced by Richard Harlan for 40 years at Red Hots Coney Island in Highland Park. The place was opened in 1921 and holds the title as the oldest Coney Island in Highland Park, a little city that is almost completely surrounded by Detroit, and darn near close to the oldest in the city at large.
“It’s the best damn dog in the world, and it’s made right here,” said Harlan with a big smile. He took over the business on Victor Street from his family 20 years ago and runs it with his wife Carol.
The place is a relic from another time, but it’s as clean as a whistle and it just feels good to be there. It used to do a hell of a lot of business when the guys from the Highland Park Plant would come in for lunch. To put it in perspective, this place has been in Richard’s family since they were making Model T’s there.
One thing that makes these dogs different is the heavy emphasis on the chili as the star of the show. As Richard explained, “Most people put the mustard on top so it looks pretty, but we put the mustard underneath the chili because the mustard’s job is to enhance the flavor of the chili… otherwise all you taste is the mustard and the onion on your palate.”
Also, “Most Coney joints use hot dogs in eight to one packs. That’s eight dogs to one pound,” said Richard. “Here, we use a slightly smaller dog in ten to one packs because we want to leave more room for the chili.”
We were lucky enough to be there on the right day. The Chili is homemade from scratch each week, so he took us to the back and showed it to us cooking in the pot to prove it. “It starts with fresh ground chuck, onions, and garlic and the rest I can’t tell you,” said Richard.
The recipe is so old and secret that not even Richard knows how old it is or where it originated from. It really does have a special homemade taste. I think I became a believer in these dogs.
Another thing that sets it apart is that they serve beer, which certainly makes it unique compared to most coney joints.
Richard and Carol hope to keep it open for another seven years. Then they can celebrate it having been open for a full century. After that, it won’t be passed along to their kids, who are successful in their own careers.
Although business has declined with the auto industry, many customers have remained loyal. Richard and Carol have stayed at 12 Victor Street in Highland Park because of the people that they serve. It is part of the community and they have watched their customers’ kids grow up.
I sat there and ate two of the best dogs in the world, some fries, and a loose burger (also excellent) and conversed candidly with Richard, Carol, and the other patrons. Richard explained that though Highland Park gets a bad rap for crime, it has never touched his business as long as he can remember.
Ted, next to us at the counter, finished eating and then put in a to-go order for a dozen dogs. They were for his friends at a body shop where he once worked in Berkeley. They won’t let him visit the shop any more without bringing a sack of dogs.
We also had some laughs with Ron Crachiola “The Crackman,” a Lions Superfan. He showed us this picture of him doing a polar bear swim in New Baltimore with a perch in his mouth.
We paid our (very, very reasonable) bill, and said goodbye to Carol. Richard had already disappeared to the back to tend to his new batch, and to stay in the good graces of the chili gods.
“One thing about this place is that everybody talks to everybody,” said Carol, “there will be a guy who doesn’t have two dollars in his pocket, sitting next to a guy who is a millionaire, and you would never even know it.”
Put Red Hots on your Detroit to-do list for a dose of history, community, family, and chili.