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Food Dude

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By Jim Duncan Reviews

Billy Mack’s Coney Shack
2510 Ingersoll Ave., 243-4799
Mon. - Sat. 7 a.m. - 8 p.m., Sunday noon - 6 p.m.

Billy Mack’s

Ulysses discovered the hot dog on his long way home from the Trojan War. That makes the humble sausage at least 3,200 years old and probably the western world’s oldest processed food. The United States consumes about 20 billion hot dogs a year with Midwesterners and Southerners consuming nearly twice as many as people in the rest of the country. Over half are eaten in summer, and hot dogs are the most common item cooked on outdoor grills. Since Des Moines ranked second last year, behind only St. Louis, in per capita consumption of charcoal briquets, it’s safe to say that we are a true dog town. Graziano’s has been our alpha sausage dog for 102 years, and supermarkets have upgraded the quality of this product the last few years. Niman Ranch, Lewright’s, Aaron’s Best, Polehna’s, Usinger’s, Klement’s, Wimmer’s and Scavo’s all produce nationally renowned dogs made in Iowa or neighboring states, and all are now sold in Des Moines markets. Most of them use natural casings, the sine qua non of hot dog chic.

Billy Mack’s Coney Shack is betting on those dog lovers because this new fast food joint offers little else. If a minimalist menu doesn’t make this a bold business plan, the location does. Billy Mack occupies Ingersoll Avenue real estate just four blocks from Ted’s Coney Island, a Des Moines institution specializing in a bargain hot dog with chili. Although Billy Mack’s $4 Coneys cost more than twice as much as Ted’s, big crowds packed the place the last couple weeks. Billy Mack’s offered three kinds of sausage: dogs, Polish and Italian. All were large, weighing nearly twice as much as Ted‘s dogs. Billy’s were offered with typical dressings, ranging from chili to kraut and processed cheese. I was assured the dogs were stuffed in natural casings. If that’s true, they are the most impervious natural casings ever, yielding to the teeth without any snap or resistance. My Polish was salty, my Italian lacked the snappy casing and snappier flavor of Graziano’s, but that‘s probably a plus when served with chili. Billy Mack’s chili was nothing like the old Greek recipes that devotees of George the Chili King or Ted’s expect. It tasted more of tomatoes than chilies and more of ground beef than the secret spices of the other places. Buns came from Rotella’s — which even Ted’s fans admitted were an upgrade.

Seeking diversity, I tried to order a burger. I was told there was only one size, and it came with or without fries for $6. I was also told it could weigh anywhere between a quarter pound and a half pound. Since I fret when I choose a slow line at a grocery checkout, I spared myself from agonizing whether someone else’s was bigger than mine. I ordered a decent grinder — the only other non-sausage sandwich on the menu. Chili Cheese Tots, blanketed with mild cheddar, appeased vegetarians.

Billy Mack’s breakfast was the happiest surprise. It comes in the wake of two shocking closings in the neighborhood — Dahl’s lunch counter and Baker’s Square. It pretty much fills the gap, with $4-$5 specials that include eggs, meat, hash browns, pancakes and “endless” cups of coffee. Bottom line — this is not a showcase for the best hot dogs in Iowa but it does offer big dogs and good short order breakfasts for less than $5. The contents of the homemade bar cookies could become as famous a mystery as those in Ted’s chili— I detected caramel, coconut and several other mystery nuts.

Side dishes

Django will feature a hot dog when it opens next week. The late feature will start with a boudin blanc sausage, on a New England roll, with house mustard, cole slaw and foie gras. … Dulce Vida opened in the old Dolce Vita space in Clive. The new restaurant offers Mexican fare with Venezuelan-Columbian specials. CV

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