It is a restaurant that stands alone, a place that is popular not only for its food but because it represents the fabric of the community and its people.
Chicago has the original Pizzeria Uno, Philadelphia has Pat’s and Geno’s for cheesesteaks, and Fort Wayne has Coney Island. In Toledo, the place to go is Tony Packo’s Cafe.
I recently made my first visit to Tony Packo’s and am embarrassed it took this long. I watched the TV series “M*A*S*H” religiously and remember the hot dog eatery and his hometown being mentioned more than once by Cpl. Max Klinger (played by actor and proud Toledo native Jamie Farr).
“If you’re ever in Toledo, Ohio, on the Hungarian side of town, Tony Packo’s got the greatest hot dogs. Thirty-five cents,” Klinger said Feb. 24, 1976.
It would put the eatery on the map, so to speak. That line – and a few others, including one in the famous final episode in 1983 – turned this local legend into a must-see place for tourists. But it didn’t change the place.
I kind of expected the wedge-shaped restaurant on the corner of Consaul and Front streets to be a touristy place like Planet Hollywood or the Hard Rock Cafe, but what I found was a place true to its heritage, to its neighborhood and to its real customers: the ones who live and work in Toledo.
Yes, you can buy T-shirts, and there are mementos to gawk at, but when it comes right down to it, Tony Packo’s is still just a place on the Hungarian side of town with great hot dogs.
I couldn’t help notice the parallels between this place and two of Fort Wayne’s legendary eateries. Of course, Coney Island came to mind. The folks working behind the counter are much like those on Main Street. If you are a rookie and don’t know where to line up or what the proper lingo is, you will be a little lost, but only for a moment before someone points you in the right direction.
A no-nonsense woman was barking at the folks in line. “What ya havin’,” she would holler, expecting them to know because they were locals, and they didn’t even have to look at the menu board behind her. I was not one of those folks.
Luckily, another employee spotted my look of nervousness and told me to take a seat with my family and that he would bring us menus so we would have time to make up our minds before heading back up to the counter.
The sauce at Packo’s and the sauce at Coney Island are similar – both are dark with finely ground beef, and both have that not-too-thick consistency that makes them perfect on top of a dog.
Both eateries also use chopped onions and mustard in addition to sauce, but the dogs are much different.
Tony Packo’s Hungarian dog is basically a split, mild smoked sausage. It has the same texture and snap of smoked sausage, but it’s not nearly as salty and has a smoother texture. Much like American hot dogs, the flavor is conducive to being topped and allows the rich, hearty flavor of the Coney sauce to shine.
The foot-long sausages are cooked whole, then cut in half and split end to end to make four dogs. You can order the sausages whole if you dare; just ask for the M.O.A.D. – mother of all dogs.
I also couldn’t help but think back to Zoli’s – Fort Wayne’s popular former Hungarian eatery – as I peered at the rest of Tony Packo’s menu. There was chicken paprikas, stuffed cabbage rolls, Hungarian vegetable soup and several dumpling-inclusive items in addition to the classic Coney dogs.
The dumplings highlighted what might have been the best thing I had at Tony Packo’s – chili mac. A heap of Hungarian chili (basically the Coney sauce with beans added) tops a plate of these tiny, chewy, tasty little dumplings along with chopped onions and cheese. I am a big fan of the classic Skyline Chili five-way, but the Tony Packo’s chili mac was even better.
I also swear there had to be a little old Hungarian grandmother somewhere in the back making the vegetable soup. The zesty tomato broth was loaded with fresh vegetables and, of course, more of those succulent little dumplings.
As I made my way through the old restaurant, peering at the hordes of autographed hot dog buns, I was shocked to see Jamie Farr’s tucked away in a corner on a raised seating area. It was near those of Alan Alda and Loretta Swit, who also starred in “M*A*S*H,” but I just thought Packo’s favorite customer would have his bun placed somewhere special.
“Oh, that’s just one of them,” Packo’s general manager Kevin Knepley said when I asked him about this odd placement. “We have him sign three or four every time he comes in, so they are all over the place in here.”
Knepley took me to the front door and showed me the VIP bun section with buns signed by such esteemed visitors as Farr, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton and Trace Adkins (really?).
He also showed me a Plexiglas case holding a brown paper-covered box with the Packo’s logo embossed on it along with some airmail stamps. This box appeared in a “M*A*S*H” episode in which Klinger had sausage casings sent to the 4077th to be used in a blood-filtering machine.
Knepley, who grew up in a Toledo suburb, has worked at the restaurant for only a couple of years but is not a stranger to the place.
“I still love ’em,” he said of the dogs. “And most of the folks who work here do, too. One of our bartenders has been here 29 years, and she still loves ’em.”
When grilled, that bartender, Colette Bilius, wouldn’t say what her favorite dish was; she loves it all. That food and the place’s humble roots are what have kept her there so long.
“It’s a great place to work, good hours and good money, and I care about the place,” she said. “It is family-owned and not a corporate giant.”
Bilius did give me some insight on some of the things regulars and employees love that don’t necessarily appear on that menu board.
“Baked beans and mac and cheese go together really well,” she said. “That is pretty much how the chili-mac started, too, by someone just trying it out. We have some people that do chili over mashed potatoes, and one guy who likes brown gravy in his dumplings. You can learn a lot from watching what folks do with their food.”
Those folks, the regulars, are what Tony Packo’s is all about. It’s not about selling T-shirts, the “M*A*S*H” trinkets or the autographs on the wall. It’s their loyalty that makes places like Tony Packo’s – or Fort Wayne’s Coney Island, for that matter – legendary.
And, you know, the hot dogs may be more than 35 cents now, but the famous line from Klinger still says it all about this place.
“If you’re ever in Toledo, Ohio, on the Hungarian side of town, Tony Packo’s got the greatest hot dogs.”