(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — New York Lunch on East Avenue in Erie has a small dining area. A lunch counter currently is closed for social distancing — boxes on the counter, stool seats missing — making the dining area feel that much smaller. Behind the counter, the employees move between a backroom kitchen and the area behind the lunch counter. In some places, it’s a tight fit for two workers to pass each other.
In the mix is Constantine “Gus” Paliouras who essentially runs the show. He has a confident, pleasant way about him, answering questions with a smile. Gus lives in Pittsburgh but he comes to Erie on Tuesdays and leaves on Saturdays, all to help his parents with the restaurant. His parents, Stephen and Nina Paliouras, have owned New York Lunch on East Avenue for nearly 53 years. While Gus is in town, he stays at his parents’ house.
“We go home in the evening, I see my parents, we get into an argument, and I go to my room — just like when I was in high school,” Gus jokes.
Nina and Stephen are at the restaurant most days, greeting customers. Nina proudly shares photos of her great-grandchildren. To one customer, she reminisces about the goats her family had before she moved to the United States. She makes sure guests have something to drink.
“The reason we come in is to see all the people. We have friends from all over,” Nina said. She laments that the once busy Erie neighborhood has changed. The businesses that used to line the blocks are no longer there. “There aren’t any jobs, so kids move away.”
The world changes, and the change is evident within New York Lunch on East Avenue. It’s not that all of the tables and decor are modern (they’re not — the dining area has a classic diner/lunch counter feel), rather the change is evident in the photos that cover the walls. Like the photo of a former waitress who had worked for the restaurant before the Paliouras family came to own it, and stayed on after they took over. Gus reminisced about how she didn’t write things down but insisted on calling out orders to the kitchen. The seats and booths have stories attached to them, with names. When longtime customers die, their families bring photos to the restaurant so they can be featured on the wall.
“Your customers turn into your family. You carry that relationship with the first generation, and then they come in with their children, and then they come in with their grandchildren,” Gus said. “If you’re truly vested in your business and your community, you can make those relationships… You’ve got to care about everything, and we do — honestly.”
There’s a story at New York Lunch on East Avenue. It’s a story of family: Stephen and Nina Paliouras bought the restaurant from Nina’s first cousin; Stephen fondly remembers how his daughters would stand behind the counter, their heads just high enough to see over, and they’d take customer orders; now Gus mostly runs the show.
There’s also the story of the Greek dog. It’s an Erie staple, but Erie isn’t the only place to have them; however, walk into some other major metropolitan areas around the country and ask for a Greek dog and you’ll be met with confused stares. Greek dog is a local name for it. It’s not exactly a chili dog because the Greek sauce isn’t exactly chili.
“Greek sauce is a derivative of our pasta sauce. If you look up “Greek pasta,” you’ll see a very, very meaty sauce on the pasta,” Gus explained. “They took the recipe (for the pasta sauce), spiced it up, and put it on a hotdog. You’re talking late 19th Century, early 20th Century.”
In Detroit, they call it a “Coney dog” (Kerby’s Koney Island in the Detroit metro area is owned by a relative of the Paliouras family, Gus said). There, it’s a locally-made hot dog on a steamed bun, topped with mustard, chopped onions and “Coney sauce.”
On its website, the Detroit Historical Society notes that the name is somewhat misleading. A Coney dog didn’t come from Coney Island in New York. It’s theorized that Greek immigrants passing through Coney Island borrowed the name for their hotdogs. In fact, it gets even wackier because Greek dogs are called “Texas hots” in restaurants throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. To confuse the issue even further, people in Texas may not even know what “Texas hots” is.
(For even further confusion, ordering Greek fries in Erie will result in a plate of fries smothered in hot Greek sauce, whereas ordering Greek fries in Seattle will result in a plate of fries with crumbled feta cheese, Mediterranean spices and tzatziki sauce.)
And many cities claim to be the home of the original Greek dog, Coney dog, Texas hots. And in each of those cities, multiple restaurants likely claim to be the first — famously in Detroit Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island both stake the claim for being the first.
In Erie, New York Lunch on East Avenue stakes its claim as the first Greek dog. It makes a pretty strong case having first opened in 1927. No matter who was first, New York Lunch on East Avenue builds its Greek dog like its Detroit counterparts — Gus said they use locally-made Smith’s hotdogs. The Greek sauce is made in house. The recipe is simple: beef, water and spices. It’s cooked in 80-pound batches.
Any city can make a claim to the Greek dog, Coney dog, or any other name the dish may have. And each city may have its own case because the sauce is a little different from city to city — Greek sauce is different even as nearby as New Castle, where Gus says the sauce is a little bit more like gravy. But what generally isn’t disputed is its roots. Greek immigrants created the dish. And where one can find a Greek dog or Coney dog, one also can usually find a gyro (phonetically written on New York Lunch’s menu as “Yeero”).
“It’s a story of all sorts of immigrants making different types of food and stuff,” Gus said. “There was a huge need back then. They came here with nothing. This is the greatest country in the world. There is no greater country in the world. If it wasn’t for this country, these opportunities wouldn’t exist for our families.”
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Greek dog, Coney dog; first to have it on a menu or second — whatever. It’s objectively delicious, and the Greek dog is an Erie staple.