Coney Island Lunch
I am thoroughly convinced that places like Coney Island Lunch exist in every town, except the ones I have lived in. It is some sort of bizarre Murphy’s Law hybrid that (mercifully) keeps me from eating like this every day of my life (which would no doubt be shortened by easier access to food like this). Stereotypically retro, with bustling counter service, a handful of booths, limited menu options and friendly staff, luncheonettes like Coney were a dime a dozen just a few decades ago but are sadly a dying breed in the continued “chaining” of our country.
One of my favorite artists and food bloggers, Hawk Krall, just posted a story about another Coney Island in PA, and a quick Google search reveals a “Coney Island Lunch” spot in just about every nook and cranny of the Keystone State, including the bustling hubs of Erie, Shamokin and Johnstown (where I have personally enjoyed their legendary “Sundowner” – a cheeseburger with chopped onions, “Coney Island” chili sauce, mustard and a fried egg). The Scranton version has been around since 1923 when Steve Karampalis, newly arrived from Greece, started serving hot dogs and burgers to the factory workers and railroad men in this bustling industrial hub.
Truth be told (and man it seems to get murky), this Coney Island Lunch isn’t the same one that Scrantonites would have visited back in the 20’s. The joint we popped into on a recent sunny Sunday opened in 1988. This location, across from the “Mall At Steamtown,” claims direct lineage to the original owner (their grandfather was Steve Karampalis) and the original location a few blocks away – where, coincidentally, you will find a similar restaurant named Coney Island Texas Lunch, which recently reopened after a devastating fire (arson suspected). There seems to be a bit of a turf war in the Electric City over the true “original” and at the risk of adding fuel to that fire, I’m gonna have to side with the folks at the new location (Lackawana Ave) as I’d consider the direct family link the lynchpin in making a decision on who can rightfully claim to be the original.
The first thing that arrived at our table was this heaping serving of gravy fries. They could not have been cooked any better, perfectly crisp on the outside and airy inside, these slightly smaller than steak-fry sized spuds were made all the more incredible by the addition of brown (beef) gravy. Toss on some cheese curds and we’d have poutine, but this is Scranton so none of that French stuff here. To me, gravy fries are the classic diner food staple. I can remember many a post little league game meal with my dad at the now dismantled Vale-Rio Diner in Phoenixville, PA where ordering a bowl of gravy fries was de riguer (there’s that French stuff again, note to self: limit the amount of Fancy Nancy books I read to our 3 year old daughter). Back to the program, the gravy fries were a great start and were quickly joined at the table by the above pictured Texas hot dog and Texas hamburger (left to right in your picture, though you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference before biting in).
When the place is called Coney Island Lunch you can expect an emphasis on “Coney Island Chili,” a traditional no-bean chili (not spicy hot either) made with ground beef, onions, tomato paste and the most popular items from your spice rack. A cauldron endlessly simmers in the storefront kitchen waiting to be heaped on top of a hot dog (Berks brand beef dogs sliced in half if you are keeping score at home) or burger (pretty good beefy patty, though to be honest it really is just a delivery vehicle for the toppings) along with a mound of diced onions and a slathering of Dusseldorf mustard (applied almost artistically, paint brush style during the lightning fast construction phase). Both dogs and burgers are served on the same fresh, pillowy rolls, made by Scranton’s own National Bakery. Slightly hard on the outside, these buns are sturdy enough to help avoid a complete toppings blowout disaster and ensure that you get every bite of the delicious chili.
As good as our sandwiches were, consensus at the table was that dessert stole the show. A last second gut decision (we were already late to meet some friends, what harm would a few more minutes do?) to ask whether the pie was made in-house (they are not, but keep reading for details on where their pies are made) started a discussion which introduced us to the first place on our must visit list the next time we are in NEPA, the Minooka Pastry Shop. We ordered a slice of Pecan Pie and were completely blown away (though we could have probably thrown a dart at the pie list and found another flavor that was just as good). Served ice cold with a healthy dollop of whipped cream, this slice never stood a chance as we tore into it repeatedly exclaiming “can you believe how good this is?” The molasses (and butter and sugar) had melted through the crust before being chilled back to solid creating an almost candy bar like texture to the bottom of the pie. Overarchingly sweet without tasting even mildly syrupy, this was hands down the best pecan pie any of us had eaten and was the perfect end to a great experience at Coney Island Lunch.
A couple of additional random thoughts…”Texas” hot dogs and hamburgers are so named because of the preparation style (grilled then topped with chili, onions and mustard), not because of where they are from…the restaurant is a baseball junkies dream with every available bit of wall space crammed with memorabilia from the local AAA team (formerly the more interestingly named Red Barons, now simply called the Yankees) and various major league teams (oddly no distinct allegiance to any one team as much as a clear love for the game and its icons over the past few decades)…they serve Mr. Pibb (Pibb Xtra), earlier noted in my review of Elevation Burger as a childhood favorite that is all-too-rarely found in restaurants these days…the Steamtown National Historic Site is a stone’s throw from here and is a great take…they have a facebook fan page…I don’t think they’ve been mentioned on “The Office” yet, but no trip to Scranton is complete without some Dunder-Mifflin related sightseeing…there is a Gene Schall model baseball bat in the front window (yes, I am a complete Phillies geek)…they make a really good tuna salad sandwich, too (seriously).
Maybe next time through town we’ll test out the other Coney-spot at the original location (and then come back over here for more pie).