Don’t Knock it ‘til you Try it: Detroit’s First Vegan Coney Island Thrives

Detroiters take their coney dogs seriously. If you know anything about the rivalry between American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island, you know that.  

Pete LaCombe, the owner and head chef of Chili Mustard Onions – Detroit’s first all-vegan coney island – learned just how seriously some locals take their coneys as he prepared to open in 2018.  

The thought of vegan coney dogs was so culinarily blasphemous to some that LaCombe recalled receiving hateful comments before ever even firing up his grills.  

“It lit a fire under me that’s still burning. Some people are like, ‘He’s going to last a month.’ And it’s like, my wife and I are taking this huge leap, putting all our money into this, we’re super excited, then we read some of this stuff. I mean, we’re talking about food. Not politics or religion – food,” he said in an interview with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.  

LaCombe said the negativity made him work even harder to get Chili Mustard Onions – known as “CMO” for short – off the ground.  

“I had to prepare and brace for some hatred,” LaCombe recalled thinking. “And I did. I’m tough, I’m from here. I thought, ‘Nothing’s going to deter me from doing this.’”  

LaCombe and his wife, Shellee, made the personal choice to go vegan 10 years ago. That was about the time LaCombe began creating vegan comfort food dishes in his home kitchen. Evenings spent tinkering with burger recipes and experimenting with spice mixtures and signature sauces served as the genesis of CMO.  

The menu at CMO is like a mash-up between a greasy spoon diner and a fast-food restaurant, only every single bit of it is vegan. When you eat at his restaurant LaCombe likes to say you are “guilt-free eating.”
Vegan coney and chili fries

“I thought, ‘I love food, I know food, I know spices and everything. Why don’t I just start making my own vegan food?’” LaCombe said. “So, I was doing that, and it just kept getting better and better and better. After [a while] I was making my wife crazy, tasting everything, we took a chance and opened the restaurant in Detroit.”  

The menu at CMO is like a mash-up between a greasy spoon diner and a fast-food restaurant, only every single bit of it is vegan. When you eat at his restaurant LaCombe likes to say you are “guilt-free eating.”  

“I say this all the time, but this is like my kitchen at my house,” he said. “These are all people coming to my house. I’m feeding families, I’m feeding strangers, but they’re all there for one reason – they’re there for vegan food. That was the whole purpose behind this restaurant. We went vegan for the animals. We opened this for the animals, to save and rescue animals. Anyone that eats there is doing that, whether they know it or not.”  

The chili at CMO is a spice blend LaCombe added to a soy-free and gluten-free Beyond crumble. LaCombe said his spice blend is the “hero” of the meat-free chili. His own in-house cheese sauce is also soy-free and gluten-free, as are most items on the CMO menu.  

As for the hot dog itself, it’s best if coney dog traditionalists don’t compare the original to its vegan counterpart. LaCombe said most everyone that is open-minded enough to try CMO’s meat-free dogs has walked away satisfied.    

“With coney dogs you get that snap and the fatty bite of a hot dog, but mine are more like a Ballpark Frank. It’s quite a bit different,” LaCombe said. “You can only do so much to mimic coneys like the kind I had coming up. You’re not going to mimic the snap of a dog from Lafayette, American, National, with a vegan product. But things are changing daily. One day I may come out with a dog that snaps. But right now, it’s more about mimicking the chili than anything.”  

Chili Mustard Onions in downtown Detroit isn't afraid to put its vegan fast food concoctions up against sandwiches made by the fast food titans.
“Big Mock”

CMO’s biggest success may be its “Big Mock,” a vegan take on a popular fast-food chain’s signature sandwich. LaCombe isn’t bashful about ranking his creations against the big boys.   

Other favorites include vegan gyros made with in-house gyro meat and tzatziki sauce and a handful of “Chik’un” based wraps and sandwiches using Quorn products. These items jump off the plate in part because of LaCombe’s spice blends. They are the backbone of his menu and a big reason why customers haven’t stopped coming into the restaurant at 3411 Brush Street since it opened.  

“When you see people in there, and they’re loving your food, and they’re ordering more – that’s the most rewarding part,” he said. “They say, ‘Hey we want some more,’ after they eat. They want to get more to take home. It’s that feeling of, ‘You did create something special.’ All that hard work paid off.” 

A little less than four years after reading those initial hate-filled comments LaCombe feels like his restaurant has proved his doubters wrong and his supporters right.  

Those supporters represent the majority now, by a wide margin.  

“Without sounding cocky or narcissistic, I wanted to build something iconic,” he said. “I really did. I didn’t need anyone’s permission to do this. It was our idea, our money, and we took the chance. We put it out there and we didn’t care what anyone thought. I think when you take a chance on yourself, you don’t care what anybody says. And now I think the way things turned out, and with the following we have, it is iconic.” 

CMO is open between Wednesday and Saturday from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. It is regularly closed on Sundays and temporarily closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Click here to check out the menu 

Photo credit: Pete LaCombe/CMO

More metro Detroit vegan options:

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