The Family Way

Vasil Eschoff (Kathy Choka’s grandfather) followed by his partners and employees stand behind the counter at Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Island in the late 1920s.
Grandfather James Casaburo with family on his farm in upstate New York.

For the city known as a great place to raise a family, Fort Wayne is also a great place for families to raise thriving restaurants. The generational dedication to eating establishments throughout the city has taken on a life of it’s own.

Perhaps the most famous generational establishment dates back to 1914. Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Island stakes a legitimate claim as one of the two oldest Coney stands in the nation. And it has been in the same family since 1916.

Kathy Choka and James Todoran are the current co-owners. Kathy succeeded her late father Russ who ran Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Island for 53 years.

Not much has changed in 100-plus years, Kathy said. For example, the restaurant still has and makes use of one of the original refrigerators, although it has been technologically spiffed-up in the interim.

The Coney sauce recipe remains a well-kept secret.

“The Coney sauce secret recipe is vaulted in our hearts and other super-safe places,” Kathy said.

Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Island was cited in a People magazine article about the best hot dogs in each state.

Comedian Jim Gaffigan mentions the eatery in his book, Food: A Love Story.

“In Fort Wayne, Indiana, a must-stop is Fort Wayne[‘s Famous] Coney Island …, where you get the hot dog with way too many fresh-cut onions and a dollop of chili on top …” he writes.

Jimmy said these sorts of citations always take he and Kathy by surprise because they’re so focused on the daily operation of the restaurant.

“We are typically honored whenever we gain some attention but we’re also a bit taken back because our focus is on our product and our customers, not awards or notoriety,” he said.

It’s not just the food that keeps people coming back to Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Island, Kathy said.

“I think it’s our welcoming atmosphere,” she said. “We think of our customers as family and get to know them personally. In doing so, people feel like they belong.” 131 W Main Street, 260.424.2997, fortwaynesfamousconeyisland.com

Just down Main Street at the corner of Main and Fulton street, Henry’s Tavern was opened In 1959 by a welder named Henry Freistroffer.

“He had seven kids and one on the way – my little brother,” said current owner John Freistroffer. “My mom inherited a little bit of money and that’s what got his foot in the door.

“The reason we bought this,” he said, “is that we grew up in the Lakeside Park area and this was just close to home.”

More than 50 years later, Henry’s Restaurant is a Fort Wayne landmark, as deserving of commemoration as the Lincoln Tower.

Over the years, Henry’s became the primary hangout of newspaper people, theater folk and students at the now defunct Fort Wayne Art School.

Whenever creative people tell you their life stories, several of the episodes they impart are likely to have unfolded at Henry’s.

Over the years, Henry’s has expanded in size and sophistication: Its menu items and specials these days tend to be both ambitious and reasonably priced.

Freistroffer said his dad passed away in 1979, the same year he graduated from IU Bloomington.

“I was 21 and I thought, ‘Let me take a stab at the old family bar,'” he said.

Although Henry’s has weathered many of Fort Wayne’s ups and downs, downtown’s unprecedented recent renaissance can only mean good things for the restaurant.

“With all of downtown blowing up around us, it’s adding even more to our better future,” Freistroffer said. 536 W Main Street, 260.426.0531, henrysftwayne.com

El Azteca may have been the first Mexican restaurant in Fort Wayne.

It was opened in 1973 in the space formerly occupied by Helmsing’s Lighthouse Restaurant and the cooks from that previous venture were retained.

They didn’t last long. They all quit on opening night for reasons that have been lost to the sands of time.

Perhaps the newly added menu items, ubiquitous in Fort Wayne now, seemed too strange to them.

At any rate, one of the owners, the late Michael Ray, took off his sports coat, rolled up his sleeves and got cooking.

That was nearly 50 years ago and Ray’s wife, Juanita Zepeda Ray, still runs the place with her daughter, Cristina Ray-Durnell.

The recipes came from Juanita’s side of the family but were modified over the years by Michael.

“Our loyal patrons tell us, ‘You have a different style than everyone else,'” Cristina said. “I think it’s great. Yes, there is a lot of competition these days, but we’re all different from each other.”

Back in the 1970s, what is now thought of as authentic Mexican cuisine was not something that would have been embraced by most stateside diners of that period.

“We have never claimed that we’re an authentic Mexican restaurant,” Cristina added. “If you go to different regions of Mexico, you see different styles.”

One niche that El Azteca managed to carve for itself relatively recently involves appealing to tequila connoisseurs.

“This was where my dad was ahead of the times,” Cristina said.

El Azteca offers 170 varieties of tequila and hosts a Tequila Club for devotees. 535 E State Boulevard, 260.482.2172, elaztecarestaurant.com

The Casa chain of Italian restaurants began in 1977 with a coffee klatch involving two friends: Tom Casaburo and Jimmy D’Angelo.

Neither man knew anything about running a restaurant, but they did know a lot about enjoying Italian food.

D’Angelo had relatives in St. Louis who ran an Italian restaurant called Cunetto House of Pasta.

He and Casaburo trained there, then opened the first Casa restaurant on Coldwater Road.

Unlike many new restaurant ventures, the first Casa was an instant success, according to current owner, Jim Casaburo.

“It had a very faithful, growing clientele,” he said.

They soon expanded to a location on Fairfield Ave. The Fairfield location, long considered the flagship store, closed in 2010. The chain now consists of four locations on Dupont Road, West Jefferson Blvd, Parnell Ave. and Stellhorn Road. They each have their own allure.

The menus have expanded a tad over the years. Wood-fired pizza was introduced in the early 1990s.

But some things are eternal. “The Casa Salad has not changed one bit since they opened,” Casaburo said. “The original salad dressing is still the one we use today. It hasn’t been tweaked at all.”

Tweaks are often made to the menu, Casaburo said, but a lot of people don’t seem to notice them because they always order the same thing.

“Whenever I do events, I’ll take dishes out to the public,” he said. “And they say, ‘Oh my gosh! This is great! How long has it been on the menu?’ And I say, ‘That has been on the menu for 42 years.'” Casa Grill: 411 E. Dupont Road, 260.490.4745; Casa Grille Italiano: 6340 Stellhorn Road, 260.969.4700; Casa Ristorante Italiano: 4111 Parnell Avenue, 260.483.0202; Casa! Ristorante: 7545 W. Jefferson Boulevard, 260.436.2272, casarestaurants.com

Loyal patrons have been the foundation for China Palace as well. How loyal?

Co-owner Yung Phan, whose two daughters are 17 years old and college-aged, pointed to a gray-haired chap across the room who was enjoying some soup.

“See that man over there,” she asked. “When (my daughters) were growing up, sometimes he would pick them up at school when we would get busy.”

Phan cited another customer, now retired, who ate lunch at China Palace every day of his working life.

“After he retired, he still comes in every Friday,” she said.

Phan and her husband, Kim Trinh, are both Vietnamese immigrants who met in Fort Wayne after Trinh had worked in restaurants across the country.

Trinh’s accumulated experience plus a few innovations of his own went into the China Palace menu, one of the most popular east Asian menus in Fort Wayne.

When the daughters were smaller, Phan and Trinh tried to work it so one of them was always home with the girls.

Of course, the girls also spent a lot of time in the restaurant.

“She’d pick us up at school and we’d change in the car,” daughter Lillian Trinh said. “I’d take naps in the back room and do my homework on the front table.” 5810 Bluffton Road, 260.747.0370

Family commitment goes a long way at RMY’s Restaurant too. RMY’s has been open since 1986. Yolanda Johnson runs the restaurant with her mother, Maggie Fuqua.

It used to be open full-time, but the death of Yolanda’s father, Ronnie, and a cancer diagnosis for Maggie meant that the restaurant had to recede into the distance for a while.

Yolanda is a banker in Indianapolis, so she moved her mom to the state capital to care for her. The restaurant was shuttered.

Against all odds, Maggie beat the cancer and the restaurant was reopened with Yolanda coming to Fort Wayne every week to help her mother prepare and serve the food.

Now, RMY’s Restaurant is only open five hours per week – 1 pm to 6 pm on Sundays.

Not surprisingly, it is always busy during those hours.

RMY’s Restaurant serves Southern comfort food stemming from her parents’ life in Alabama before moving to Fort Wayne: fried chicken, candied yams, collard greens, peach cobbler and much more. The recipes have been passed down from “generation to generation,” Yolanda said.

“My mom got them from her mom and her mom got them from the women who came before,” she said. 3402 Wayne Trace, 260.456.1409

Salsa Grille traces it beginnings to George’s International Market on Broadway. Steel worker George Rongos opened the market in 1985 so that local chefs – amateur and otherwise – could get ingredients that weren’t widely available in grocery stores.

Using those ingredients, George’s sons, Chris and Jerry Rongos, and a cousin, Roulie Mangos, started Salsa Grille as a taqueria inside George’s market.

That taqueria has since grown into the four-store Salsa Grille chain.

“We figured, ‘Hey, we have the best ingredients in town,'” Jerry said. “We have the best tortillas in town, the best veggies in town, the best corn chips in town. So we decided, ‘Hey, let’s do something different from the taqueria and let’s do it in the fast casual format.'”

Chris said Matthew Nolot, who now owns Tolon, helped them devise recipes based on ingredients readily available in the supermarket.

There are always anywhere from seven to 10 freshly made salsas on offer at all Salsa Grille locations. One thing that will never be found at any Salsa Grill location is a freezer.

“We make multiple deliveries a week to our restaurants,” Chris said. 7755 Coldwater Road, 260.755.6905; 5735 Falls Drive, 260.209.5049; 5709 YWCA Park Drive, 260.492.9661; Taqueria Salsa Grille: 2301 Broadway, 260.425.9811, salsagrille.com

The Hall’s restaurant chain started in 1946 when Don Hall opened his eponymously named drive-in on Bluffton Road.

More than 70 years later, the Hall’s chain encompasses a dozen local businesses including a bakery, a theater, a Japanese restaurant (Takaoka) and a seasonal eatery (The Deck) along the banks of St. Marys River.

In 2018, Hall’s Original Drive-In reopened after undergoing $5 million worth of renovations. Carhop service, which was discontinued there in 1968, was restored.

Co-owner Ben Hall said there’s good and bad about owning such a beloved and venerable local business.

“The good is that you’ve exposed yourself to a lot of people and, hopefully, endeared yourself to them,” he said. “The bad is that there are people who say, ‘Oh yeah. Hall’s. That’s where my grandparents had their first date.'”

Keeping your oldest patrons happy while making new fans of younger patrons is a perplexing task.

In the earliest days of the Hall’s chain, patrons’ expectations were something along the lines of “how much meat and potatoes you put on a plate and how little you charge for it,” he said.

That expectation still exists among older patrons. But younger people have different priorities.

“They’re look for something more exciting than a table and a chair and someone who services it well,” he said. Hall’s has certainly made some youthful converts with The Deck.

As for the Baltes-Cambray Building that the family moved from 312 South Harrison to the corner of Superior and Harrison in early 2019, Hall said they haven’t decided what they’re going to do with it yet.

Every decision the family makes has an element of long-range prognostication in it.

“It’s all about what the best bet is to make sure that we’re not just here in three months or three years but in 30 years,” Hall said.

Don Hall’s Factory: 5811 Coldwater Road, 260.484.8693; Don Hall’s Gas House & Deck: 305 E. Superior Street, 260.426.3411; Hall’s Original Drive-in: 1502 Bluffton Road, 260.747.7509; Hall’s Hollywood Drive-In: 4416 Lima Road, 260.481.1113; State Street Prime Rib: 2005 E. State Boulevard, 260.483.0597; Hall’s Tavern at Coventry: 5745 Coventry Lane, 260.459.2893, donhalls.com


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