In the early 1900s, two carpenter’s sons named Tom and James Papadakis left the Greek town of Kastelli and headed for New York with little education and less money. The brothers eventually made their way to Houston and, like many Greek immigrants of the era, decided to open a hot dog stand. They chose the name with a coin toss. James Coney Island celebrates its 90th anniversary this year—the flagship Walker Street restaurant opened in 1923.
With 21 locations in the Houston area, James Coney Island—JCI to locals—is best known for its Classic Coney hot dogs, including the Original Coney with mustard, chili sauce, and onions, and the Cheese Coney with mustard, chili sauce, onions, and Kraft Cheez Whiz. JCI rounds out the menu with deluxe dogs on Slow Dough buns. To celebrate their anniversary, JCI asked top Houston chefs including Randy Evans, Monica Pope, John Sheely, Hugo Ortega, Manabu Horiuchi, and Matt Marcus to design a custom dog of the month from June through November. In return, JCI will donate $1,000 to the charity of each chef’s choice. Chef Evans started out last month with a 44 Farms beef frank topped with his signature wild boar chili.
But JCI will always be best known for the old-fashioned “Coney dog.” While Coney Island, the New York amusement park, has long been famous for hot dogs, that’s probably not the “Coney” the Papadakis brothers were thinking of when they named their business. They were more likely inspired by the success of the Greek hot dog stands located in Michigan. One restaurant that claims to have invented the elaborate chili dog known as the Coney is The American Coney Island in Detroit, founded in 1917 by Greek immigrant Constantine “Gust” Keros. That version features a natural-casing hot dog with smooth chili sauce, mustard, and chopped sweet onions on a steamed bun—it’s very close to the Coney at James Coney Island.
While chili con carne has receded in popularity in most of America, it remains an iconic dish in Houston and most of Texas, and James Coney Island has been one of the few places to get a bowl of chili through the years. John Wayne, while in Houston to shoot the movie Hellfighters, was an ardent fan of JCI’s chili. The Papadakis family sold its interest in the chain to a group of investors in 1990, and the historic Walker Street location closed in 1993.
For parents who dare feed their children such nutritionally dubious fare, James Coney Island is a great place to teach the next generation about chili dogs and Frito Pies—especially on Wednesdays, when kids eat free.