My neighbor, Murray, works for UPS and used to live in Des Moines a number of years ago. He travels to UPS terminals in Eastern and Central Iowa and earlier this summer he was going up to Dubuque. I said, "Oh, you've got to go to Mulgrew's in East Dubuque and get a chili dog." (Click here to see my entry on Mulgrew's.) After he went to Mulgrew's (and told me how much he loved the place), he said, "Have you ever gone to Jim's Coney Island on SW 9th in Des Moines?" I wasn't familiar with Jim's, although I'd probably driven by the place numerous times over the years. Even though I grew up in Central Iowa, but haven't lived in the Des Moines area for over 20 years, I'm still woefully short of Southside Des Moines restaurant knowledge. On a recent trip to Des Moines, I made a point to stop at Jim's Coney Island for a chili dog or two.
Murray talked Jim's Coney Island up pretty big to me. "They've got a chili cheeseburger that is just to die for," he told me over a couple beers in my garage a few weeks ago. "The chili is an acquired taste. Some people don't care for the chili, but I like it a lot. I'd be interested in what you think of it." I was looking forward to giving it a try.
Given that Jim's Coney Island has been in business since May of 1971, I know I've driven past the place dozens of times in the past. It's housed in a non-descript building at the corner of SW 9th and Wolcott in the Watrous Park neighborhood on the south side of Des Moines (see map). It's been 42 years since Jim Frangos opened his eponymous Coney Island restaurant serving chili dogs, burgers, pork tenderloins and homemade onion rings.
Jim's son, Eric, began to work in his family's restaurant at the age of 14. Today, he and his wife, Tonya, run the business that features not only the chili dogs, but "Coney-style" cheeseburgers that my neighbor, Murray, is so fond of.
After a meeting with one of my dealers in Des Moines, I made my way down SW 9th and found Jim's Coney Island on the right side of the street. Even though it was after 2 p.m., there were a number of cars and trucks in the parking lot. Jim's is a pretty popular lunch stop with laborers working in the area.
I went inside and was greeted by a lady behind the counter. There were a few booths in the large, well-lit area up front. The menu was on a back-lit board above and behind the counter, just above a serving window from the kitchen. I took a moment to look over the board before I stepped up to order.
As I said, included on the menu were burgers, pork tenderloin sandwiches, sausages and chicken sandwiches. They also had something called the "Big Bite" that was a combination of a chili dog and "Maid-Rite"-style loose beef. (It's similar to the "Tavern Dog" at Bob's Drive-Inn in LeMars, IA.) But I decided to get a couple chili dogs, which was against Murray's recommendation of getting a cheese burger "coney style" which is topped with Jim's homemade Greek style chili, in a basket that includes both fries AND onions rings with a side of cole slaw. To me, that's a lot of food. Plus, I'm not too big on chili on cheeseburgers. They also have a bar at Jim's and I got a glass of beer to go with the chili.
I decided to sit in the bar area at Jim's. It, too, is a clean, well lit area full of tables and booths. Stuffed deer heads and trophy fish hang on the paneling which probably is the same as it was when Jim Frangos opened the place years ago. The bar wasn't big, but it looked like the kind of place that would still be fun to sit at and have a couple beers with some chili dogs.
The same lady who took my order came out with my two chili dogs served on a plastic tray on top of a paper with ads of local businesses. Interestingly, the chili dogs were garnished with a small dill pickle spear. That's a Des Moines chili dog signature. I've had kosher dill spears on Chicago-style hot dogs, but the only place I've ever seen a dill pickle spear on a chili dog have been at Des Moines area chili dog joints.
My first taste of the chili dog at Jim's Coney Island was sort of a mystery to me. Murray told me the chili was an acquired taste and I found it to be somewhat bland at first bite. However, a few moments later the spices and flavor broke through on the taste buds. It had a bit of spicy bite to the aftertaste. It was very subtle at first, but it heightened as I took more bites. The chili dog buns were spongy and chewy, and the hot dogs had a nice snap to the bite. I wasn't certain that I could have had fries, onion rings and slaw with the chili dogs, but I thought I could probably down three chili dogs in one setting.
I reported back to Murray that I thought the chili dogs were pretty darned good. I told him how the taste of the chili sneaked up on me and it had a pretty good flavor after a bit. He said, "Man, you should have gotten the cheeseburger 'coney-style'. The taste combinations are just unbelievable." Ahhh... I don't know about that. Chili goes on hot dogs, not beef, in my world.
I was never a big fan of some of the other Coney Island-style restaurants around Des Moines - notably George the Chili King or Ted's Coney Island - and it's been years since I've been to either one of those places. While I liked the chili dog at Jim's Coney Island, it wasn't one of the best I've ever had. Now, I'm sure that it is an acquired taste and I'll probably like it better the next time I stop in since I'll know what to expect.