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As a child in the 60’s and early 70’s growing up in a very small town in Schuylkill County in the southern end of the Anthracite Coal Region, a “big day out” was a trip to Pottsville, the county seat to see a movie; the theater of choice for my family was The Capitol Theatre on Centre Street.
The theater was magical to a kid; plush seating, extravagant lighting, the aroma of freshly popped corn wafting throughout the building. Opened in 1927, in actuality the grand lady was looking a bit worse for the wear during my youth and closed her doors for good in the mid-70’s. (A parking lot now occupies the space).
Each visit to The Capitol came with a routine; pick out a good seat, get a big bucket of popcorn, pick out a favorite candy, settle in for a couple hours to enjoy the big screen — then head across the street to The Coney Island for an after-movie snack.
The downtown “Coney” was a fixture in Pottsville for generations, located in among the tightly placed buildings that once greeted bustling throngs of miners and their families, out for a day or evening of leisure in “the city”.
I remember staring in the front window that bordered the sidewalk, watching hot dogs cooking on the flat-top, my mouth watering, anticipating the treat for my taste buds that awaited inside. The restaurant was narrow and tight and could get really packed!
“The Coney” also had a small menu — basically hot dogs and burgers — but it was a winning strategy; do a couple things, do them right, and serve them up quickly. My Pop never, ever, ate at The Coney without getting one hot dog and one burger. He loved both so much he could never choose just one.
My go-to was the “coney burger” — a burger on a steamed standard burger bun, smothered with stewed onions (not chopped raw ones) and “coney sauce”. To this day, this style burger is a favorite of mine.
Sadly, the downtown Coney in Pottsville closed years ago, but the memories linger on and always bring back a smile. (The Coney Island in the Yorkville section of Pottsville is still operational, serving those with a “coney craving” today.)
They were not alone
The Pottsville downtown Coney was not alone. “Coney Islands”, as they are called, are a unique type of American restaurant and can be found scattered across the country. The first Coney Island restaurant was opened in Jackson, Michigan in 1914 by a Macedonian immigrant and was followed by several others that opened in the same area.
Many European immigrants of the early twentieth century entered the United States through Ellis island. One of their first stops was often the Coney Island neighborhood of Brooklyn, along the South Shore beachfront, where hot dogs were very popular. The original restaurant name referred to the restaurant being an immigrant-owned establishment, serving Coney Island’s food of choice.
Since the owners of the first Coney Island restaurants did not trademark the name or business plan, many other restaurants began using the same name and formula. “Coney Islands” were opened in many areas, There are some regional variations, such as the chili sauce, which can range from a more liquid formula to a drier sauce, a tomato-base or no tomato. (Source: Wikipedia)
The menu of Coney Island restaurants centers on the Coney Island hot dog, which is a natural-casing hot dog in a steamed bun dressed with chili, diced onions, and yellow mustard; often referred to simply as a “coney.”
At the Coney Island in Shamokin, PA, you’ll order “one up” for a coney dog (chili, onions, and yellow mustard) and “one down” for a burger with the toppings.
Here in Johnstown, the Coney Island, a hopping place at lunch time during its heyday, had closed several years ago having suffered the fate of many downtown businesses devastated after the loss of the steel mills. It recently re-opened, much to the joy of Johnstown residents and has enjoyed a successful resurgence.
During my years spent away from Pennsylvania, I often had a craving for my beloved comfort food that eluded me outside The Coal Region. Some I could make myself, others I did without. One of my regular cravings was for a burger from Coney.
In doing some searching I found that recipes for coney sauce were as varied as snowflakes; there were too many to count and each was somehow different that the other. I started to experiment and came up with a sauce I really liked and, on a burger with stewed onions, it tasted good enough that I did not sit in the corner pining away for my beloved burger from Schuylkill County.
My recollections and tastes are based on growing up with the Pottsville Coney Island. I do not purport that this sauce is a copy of, identical to, or even close to the Pottsville coney sauce, but it is one I like, and the one I created, so that’s the recipe I am sharing.
This recipe is flexible to your tastes. To me, the thing that sets off coney sauce is the very fine grind of the meat in the mixture. To achieve the familiar consistency, I brown the ground beef, then place it — drippings included — in the bowl of a food processor and pulse it until it is a fine consistency. Return this processed meat to the pan, add the other ingredients, and simmer until it reduces and thickens.
I recommend using a good quality chili powder for this recipe; it imparts flavor and helps provide a rich color to the finished sauce.
I often reduce my sauce until it is fairly thick, as a matter of personal preference, but depending on the time constraints or my mood, I reduce it less for a more “pourable” sauce.
Make up a big batch, portion it into freezer-safe containers or zip-top bags and store it in the freezer for up to 6 to 8 months. You’ll have coney sauce at the ready!
Coney Island SauceCourse: Main Dishes, RecipesCuisine: SaucesDifficulty: Easy
Finely ground beef simmered with seasonings for topping hot dogs and burgers.
1 pound 80/20 hamburger
1 1/2 cups water
1 Tablespoon dried onion flakes
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
! Tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon yellow mustard
salt and pepper to taste
- In a frying pan, brown the ground meat. Allow to cool slightly.
- Place the browned meat, along with the juices and drippings, into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel “s” blade and pulse until very fine.
- Return the meat to the pan, add the remaining ingredients, bring to a simmer and cook 15 to 20 minutes or until thickened to your preference..
- Double or triple the recipe, portion into freezer-safe container and freeze for later use.