Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Coney Island Texas Lunch - Scranton, PA

For those of you keeping track at home, this is my 3rd straight posting featuring hot dogs, so I can't tell if I should be congratulated or accused of being in a rut. Anyway, my discovery of this particular dog came around in a roundabout way. While on our way to Ohio recently to celebrate Thanksgiving with family, we took a detour into the Catskills to visit a potential sleepaway camp for Hackknife Jr. and Hackknifette to attend next summer. Our route back towards I-80 took us through rural northeastern Pennsylvania and down into the Wyoming Valley, home to Scranton and, as luck would have it, the top hamburger in Pennsylvania according to burger expert George Motz (it was a lucky coincidence that I had noticed this article published by the website First We Feast just days prior to our trip) at a place called Coney Island Lunch.  Waving off the pleas of my progeny to find a pizza place for our midday meal, I directed the GPS into downtown Scranton in search of said burger.

Upon arriving and exiting the car, we walked up Lackawanna Avenue to find two very similar-sounding restaurants located mere steps from each other: Coney Island Texas Lunch (100 Cedar Ave., pictured above) and Coney Island Lunch (515 Lackawanna Avenue).  Huh?  What gives?  Well, after further investigation, I learned that CITL is operating a newly-owned diner business in the original restaurant location (open since 1923), while CIL features descendants of the original family operating in a new location (open since 1988) down the block.  Confused?  I'll try to explain.

Greek immigrant Steve Karampilas was the founder of Scranton's first CITL.  For many Greek immigrants of that era, opening a diner serving (among other items) chili dogs seemed like a good way to get established in the new country.  In fact, if I go back and review the histories of other chili dog palaces I've visited, nearly all of them have the same backstory - this includes Coney Island Sandwich Shop in St. Pete (open since 1926), Nu-Way Weiners in Macon, GA (open since 1916), American Coney Island in Detroit (open since 1917), and Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit (open since 1917).  I can even throw in nearby Hubba's in Port Chester, NY (formerly known as Texas Quick Lunch and open since 1920) - I'm sure there are many others waiting to be sampled (and sample them I shall).  This digression, however, tells you little about the issue at hand.  Let's return to our story.

Apparently, the original CITL was quite popular, sharing the virtues of chili dogs and chili burgers with multiple generations of Scrantonites.  After Steve passed on in 1972, his sons Ted and Jack took over and all was well until around 1987 when, in a dispute regarding the future direction of the business (Ted wanted to keep renting space in the old building, while Jack preferred ownership in a new location), the brothers went their separate ways and Jack opened a rival CIL (which is now run by his son, Pete).  Ted cashed out to his partner in 2004, who kept the CITL name on the building and in promotions (as did another set of owners in 2014).  This is a source of much consternation to the folks at CIL, who insist (rather defensively, I might add) on their website that they are the original family (which is true), use the original recipes, and even maintain remnants of the original business's phone number (showing a picture of the 1940 Scranton City Directory to support their case), so all parties everywhere should consider CIL to be the true CITL, not those poseurs down the street who used to pump gas for a living (I'm paraphrasing the website here, but you get the idea).

Of course, none of this was known to me at the exact moment I stood on the chilly corner of Cedar and Lackawanna in downtown Scranton, trying to make sense of the two unexpected options present in my field of vision while two hangry kids and an unsympathetic wife implored me to make a snap decision about lunch, so I chose CITL, which was, after all, closer to us and sported the sign out front that said "Since 1923" (not to mention that it just looked more legit to me than the other one).

CITL's interior was surprisingly up-to-date and spiffy for a place that had been in operation since the 1920s (as it turns out, extensive renovations were required after a fire gutted the space in 2008).  The kitchen is little more than a galley space, which means that the menu is pretty much limited to hot dogs, burgers, fries, soup, and a couple of desserts.  The wooden booths, wainscotting, coat racks, and tile floor are all faithful reproductions of the originals that were destroyed in the fire.

So what is it about these burgers that would make Mr. Motz take notice?  According to him, they're "deep fried, refrigerated, then marinated in a sauce, and reheated on the flattop", served with mustard, onions, and an ample ladling of chili.  The sauce used for the marinade is a "special chili sauce" (presumably a Karampilas family creation) and the beef is lean ground round from Schiff's, a local butcher.  I, of course, had to try both a "Texas Weiner" (featuring a hot dog from another nearby meat purveyor, Gutheinz, served with similar toppings) and a "Texas Cheeseburger", which look almost identical on the plate (see below), along with a pile of fries dusted in Old Bay seasoning and a bottle of Cherikee Red soda (first developed by a small bottler in Cleveland and now part of the Dr. Pepper brands, although mostly just seen in Ohio and Pennsylvania).

I found the Texas Wiener to be good (it's on the left), but the Texas cheeseburger was excellent, a sloppy, wonderful mess of a sandwich that, were we not going to be overindulging on turkey and fixings in less than 24 hours, I would have considered eating another.  If you do get fries, I'd recommend ordering them with gravy instead of Old Bay (Mrs. Hackknife was kind enough to share hers with me) and skip the Cherikee Red in favor of a different soda or, better yet, try some of the house specialty pie or rice pudding for dessert.

So after all of this reading about the schism between brothers and rival chili dog factions, I didn't realize until I sat down to write this posting that the burger listed in George Motz's article as being the best in Pennsylvania was actually from CIL, not CITL (oops)!  For now, I have to assume that the recipes at both joints are nearly identical, but I won't be able to share a truly informed opinion about one versus the other until I'm back in Scranton someday...