Monday, June 14, 2021

Eating BIG in Traverse City

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties
- An emerging food scene in TC

I've vacationed in most of the regularly mentioned Michigan places and then some. But aside from stopping through on the Lake Michigan Circle Tour I've never spent the night in Traverse City or explored the area past a quick meal or a drive through town. We'd always wanted to but never really planned ahead and it's popular enough to where you would be best served to do so since summer is short and lodging is in heavy demand. Traverse City has a few things going for it the first of which is it's location as the gateway to Northern Michigan. The Upper Peninsula area is an outdoor lovers dream as it can feel more like Canada than Michigan and the area around Traverse City is no exception.  One thing you wont find a ton of in the UP is good restaurants but that's not the case for Traverse City. The area has seen a real uptick in openings from trained chefs that want to put to use the local bounty and be a part of the community in ways more than just selling food. Some would call this hipster and maybe some of them are but it's also a place younger chefs can do their own thing.

Pics from Traverse City 

Traverse City makes for a great home base whether you're planning on doing activities away from the city or you're just looking for a relaxing vacation and are staying some near the busy and often times flooded with tourists downtown area. Assuming you're visiting from Chicago or another part of the Midwest you'll most likely be driving in and it's good to have a car bc it's the area outside of Traverse city you want to explore. Aside from the fact it's on Lake Michigan there's also a ton of popular inland lakes in the area including Torch Lake. The Fishtown historic district in Leland is a close ride as is the amazing Sleeping Bears Dunes National Lakeshore.  "It hugs the northeast shore of Lake Michigan and includes South and North Manitou islands. The park is known for the huge scalable dunes of the Dune Climb. Beaches include Platte River Point, where the river flows into the lake." There's lots to do as far as outdoor activities and they can be as simple as sitting on a sandy beach in the sun to long bike rides up + down the arms of Grand Traverse Bay. If you prefer scenic rides on a motorcycle or in a car check out the views along M22 which goes through the area. If you like beer and or wine there's up and coming wineries and established breweries too. Plus some really good food!

Pics from Traverse City


If you want to get a great taste and feel of the surging food scene in Traverse City plan a stop for here. It was the number one spot on my list as far as places I wanted to check out which means if I was just driving thru TC and only had time for one meal it would likely have come from here. Hexenbelle has the look and the feel of a place that would crush it just about anywhere including places like Los Angeles or Charleston. It's the type of spot you'd expect to find in a major food publications 'best new restaurants in the country' issue. It's the product of a three person team and they bring three forms of service to the table in the likes of coffee, baked goods, and Palestinian inspired vegetarian dishes. The head chef comes from outside of Detroit where he was born to an Irish father and Palestinian mother. With his two female business partners they’re bringing “carefully curated and conscientiously prepared vegetarian fare, freshly baked pastries, and locally roasted coffee” to the lucky folks of Traverse City. The trio is also helping build a stronger more inclusive community. The menu is small but mighty as all three of the items we tried were outstanding.

Fatayar - Mixed greens and Feta Meat Pie

Musabaha - Warm Chickpeas; Tahini; Chile-Herb Sauce; Soft-Boiled Egg; Toasted Flatbread Garnish

Palestinian Rice Bowl - Vermicelli Rice w/ Ghee; Kofta Lentils; Makdous; Shatta Labneh

Sleder's Family Tavern 

I swear I've visited a few places that claim to be the oldest bar and or restaurant in Michigan. Sleder's Family Tavern was the latest one. It dates back to 1882 and claims to be the states oldest continuously operating restaurant / tavern. Whether or not it's the oldest (I have no reason to believe it's not) there's a ton of stories this place can tell and you can kind of feel some of them when you go inside. The floors are still made of wood and it has the look and feel of an old western saloon. I visited during the day so it was pretty empty but I got the feeling this is a popular place for the entire family. I'd read something about it being popular to kiss the moose which I assume was one of the stuffed ones inside but that might be a practice that covid killed. Fine by me as I wasn't there to kiss a large deer. I stopped in for their fried smelt basket served with a side of fresh cut fries - always pleasing. 

Fried Smelt Basket at Sleder's Family Tavern 

Wren (Suttons Bay)

The town of Suttons Bay is about 15 minutes north of Traverse City and it's a lovely little town that could compete for cutest in the Great Lakes region with it's colorful Main street and classic small town charm. It's also home to what might be the areas best fine dining experience via a chef from Detroit cooking rustic bistro type fare with a heavy hand of the regions natural bounty. Wren is old school in that you need to call for a reservation and if you're planning a trip to the area I highly suggest you do just that. We didn't have a dud in the bunch and service was very friendly while the layout of the restaurant was very nice. It's an intimate space. I thoroughly enjoyed everything we ate but the chefs whitefish prep was the best version of the Great Lakes fish that I've ever tried. Usually whitefish is served smoked or fried or if cooking some at home I like to blacken it but this version served with a coconut curry sauce with cilantro, cauliflower, pine nuts was on another level. The skin was so crisp.  

Chicken Liver Mousse with mustard, cornichon, pickled vegetables

Asparagus with Idyll Chévre, mustard greens, lilacs 

Sous Vide duck breast with local strawberries, rhubarb chutney, congee, egg, and baby bok choy

Pan Fried Whitefish with coconut curry sauce with cilantro, cauliflower, pine nuts

Genoise with marscapone, white chocolate, and pistachio mousse

Housemade confections compliments of the chef

Taqueria Las Lagunas (Suttons Bay)

Perhaps the best thing I ate on this trip came from a taco trailer that sets up shop in the parking lot of a local liquor store on weekends. The trailer is owned by a family with roots in Mexico. The menu is fairly standard but tortillas are made in the trailer and the fish taco comes with fresh fried local whitefish. It was one of the best fish tacos I've had that wasn't prepared in the traditional Baja way. 

Fried Whitefish Taco from Taqueria Las Lagunas


Traverse City has a hip breakfast and brunch scene. One of the daytime spots that intrigued me the most was Sugar2Salt. As their website states they're a "locally focused and seasonally driven breakfast restaurant and catering kitchen located in The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. We love our Northern Michigan community, its land and the waters that surrounds them." The menu changes weekly and on our visit there were at least four dishes I wanted to try but we settled on two. The fist of which was an expertly prepared Whitefish Cake served with some hollandaise sauce and an egg. Great use of the local bounty that is whitefish. The other item we couldn't resist was the weekly risotto offering which is their specialty in that there's always a risotto recipe of some sort on the menu and it's usually going to include something in season which at the time was asparagus (it was everywhere). Risotto is one of those dishes that's very hit or miss especially in restaurants but I was confident enough in their ability to make a good one based off the overall feel of the menu. It too was excellent but I kind of wish I tried their short rib pasty which was their take on the UP specialty.

Whitefish Cake with fried potatoes, sunnyside egg, sorrel, salmon caviar, hollandaise, preserved lemon

Risotto with smoked chicken, asparagus, shiitake mushroom, arugula pesto, goat cheese, poached egg

The Little Fleet

I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of the food and setup at The Little Fleet but it’s a legit ATX / PDX type food trailer park that had a line around the block to enter on a Saturday. We skipped the wait and returned to no line the following Tuesday with the holiday weekend wrapped up. I went with the intent of getting just a smashed cheeseburger from The Glendale Avenue food trailer but the menu at Happy's taco Shop was too tempting with what looked to be some creative taco options. The lamb cheeseburger served with a chihuahua cheese costra crust beneath some well spiced ground lamb and cheeseburger toppings like special sauce, lettuce, onion, pickle on flour was outstanding. I also enjoyed their Asian leaning fried shrimp taco with a chorizo mayo + chile jam as well as the smoked potato taco and the refried beans offering. I was pleasantly surprised how good they all were.

Lamb Cheeseburger Taco
I barely had any room for the beautiful smashed burger that the Glendale calls the Junction. Two Beef balls are smashed / seared in Yellow Mustard and topped with American Cheese, Onion, and Pickles on a Brioche Bun. Other than the bun this was almost an exact replica (classic toppings) of some of the better old school smashed burger spots I’ve visited. No pics but the bar serves cocktails that seem to be pretty decent plus many of the world class beers brewed locally. It would be nice to have a setup like this in Chicago. I can help curate the trailers if there's anyone interested in that.

Double Cheeseburger from Glendale Ave. Food Trailer 

Scalawags Whitefish & Chips 

Scalawag's is a popular seasonal operation in both Traverse City and Mackinaw City. It's been around since the early 90's and makes great use of the abundance of whitefish that the Great Lakes region offers. But they were out of it on my visit which meant my difficult choice of whitefish or lake perch was an easy one. I always enjoy a plate of fresh fried lake perch and this battered version was no exception however while eating it I realized I much prefer a light breading when it comes to lake perch. I did get to try the whitefish chowder which is like clam chowder but with whitefish instead.

Fried Lake Perch at Scalawags Whitefish and Chips

Rose & Fern Cafe
Rose & Fern is another one of the spots responsible for the city's blossoming into a Midwest culinary destination. It's a daytime spot that puts to use some of the states great purveyors of food and coffee related products. Instagram is a big plus for businesses like this and their account as well as he check-ins from others definitely caught my eye. One item in particular was the chilaquiles burrito which was as good as it looked and sounded. The craves for this one will come often this summer.

Chilaquiles Burrito - refried pinto beans, salsa verde, scrambled egg, tortilla chips, feta, white onion, cilantro and sour cream

Oakwood Proper Burgers 

There's lots of burger options in Traverse City, too many to try them all in one trip. So I had to choose which spots to try and I felt a trip to Oakwood Proper Burgers was in store for a couple of reasons. The first of which was they were a burger joint in the model of the burgeoning local food scene. I also thought it was cool that they were a new spot that wasn't doing smashed burgers but rather the thicker patties that were kind of forgotten about when the smashed burger went coastal. Oakwood uses Michigan Craft Beef and uses a special bun that's baked by a local bakery. That bun was getting lots of love in early reviews (it's a pretty new spot) as were the burgers in general so I was intrigued but I must admit it was a bit of a letdown. I think I might've caught them on a off day or maybe it was too busy (I just beat the rush) bc this wasn't the masterfully crafted burger I had hoped for. The bun was cold and a bit too dense while the beef itself was a bit overcooked and when that happens with a pre-formed patty it can become what many describe as a hockey puck.

Proper Burger from Oakwood Proper Burgers

Farm Club 

Somewhere along the line the term ‘farm to table’ became way overplayed. But that’s exactly what Farm Club is doing in the form of both food and beer. Their setup reminded me a bit of a winery in how they took full use of the big property it's on. It's address is in Traverse City but it's location is on the outskirts of town in an area with other working farms. We thought the food was pretty good with a vegetarian beans in broth dish being the high and a pretty plain tasting polenta being the low. The pasta in-between was pretty good though most every time I try Italian sausage outside of the Chicagoland area it's never quite as good. Still I wouldn't hesitate to check them out if you’re ever up this way. Yeah the wineries are nice in terms of the views but it’s the breweries in Michigan that can be considered some of the best anywhere. There’s always been good produce in these parts too. 

Beans in Broth - Golden Eye Heirloom Beans, Olive Oil, Garlic, Thyme, Mixed Salad, Toasted Bread

Polenta - Granor Farm Heirloom Corn with Pecorino, Local Mushrooms, Charred Tasso Turnips, Mustard Greens, Toasted Sesame Seeds, Herb Citrus Butter

Turnip Greens Pasta - Raduno Creste di Gallo, Italian Sausage, Sautéed Turnip Greens, Garlic, Chili Flakes, Pecorino

Moomer's Ice Cream

Michigan is an ice cream lovers haven and Moomer's makes some of the best in the state. The critically acclaimed creamery supplies lots of spots around town and elsewhere with it's product. But to get the freshest of the fresh stuff plus the full on experience you have to visit their homebase where all the action takes place, it's also their dairy farm. Customers can enjoy ice cream overlooking the cows that helped make it. It's certainly the most scenic ice cream stand I've visited and also one of the best. The flavors switch daily but a few can always be found and one of them is the Super Moo which is their play on what many consider a Michigan original. So the story goes the flavor was created by Stroh's in Detroit which was known in Michigan for it's beer before being purchased by Pabst. During prohibition they decided to make ice cream and it's said they they concocted the Superman recipe though the dates don't match as far as Superman being a thing a during prohibition. Still it's said maybe they renamed it Superman after the comic came out bc the colors matched. The other thing with this popular flavor is it's different at each spot as far as what's actually in it. Some places just make a vanilla that's color dyed while other spots use Blue Moon (Michigan flavor), lemon ice cream, and sometimes cherry or another red option like red pop (Michigan flavor). I also liked the Cherries Moobilee made with black cherry ice cream and chunks of black sweet cherries, chocolate fudge swirl, brownies. I visited three times. It was that good and just a 5 min ride from our AirBNB. 

Super Moo Ice Cream on a housemade waffle cone at Moomer's Ice Cream

Lakeview Hill Farm 

I saw a post from the chef of Wren about the first fresh strawberries of the season arriving locally and we reserved some to pick up on the way out of town. I love the smell of fresh fruit in the car and these smelled as good as they tasted. Lakeview Hill Farm is one of the many farms in the area supplying all these restaurants with a wonderful bounty of ingredients and they have the cutest little farm stand. If you visit TC during the farmer market months make sure you stop here and see what's fresh inside where it's an honor system (cards accepted) as far as the purchase of it goes. A great operation. 

Pure Michigan Strawberries

Bonus Trip to Fishtown!

The History of Leland's Historic Fishtown District (click pics to enhance)

The town of Leland Michigan is about a 20 minute ride from downtown Traverse City. Long before commercial vessels this was one of the busiest spots for fisherman due to it's location along the Leland river which led into Lake Michigan. Local preservation societies have worked hard to preserve this part of Michigan's commercial fishing heritage past and have done a pretty good job doing so. It's worth a stop if you;re ever around here and if so and you;re hungry there's a few businesses in the actual village along the river where there's still some old buildings being preserved and in the case of Carlson's Fisheries used to sell smoked whitefish and a smoked fish pate. I liked the pate and the fish enough to where that's all I'd need for a nice lunch on the river but if you want something more substantial there's also a place called the Village Cheese Shanty where they sell sandwiches and cheese. I waited a long ass time for my sandwich but it was pretty good minus the wait (call ahead). Pretzel bread is made in-house. My roast beef sandwich had a locally made fromage blanc. Fun stop but not alot to see or do after you walk the river, snap some pics, and eat some smoked fish.

Pics from Fishtown

See ya next time @chibbqking

Note: Check my stories at the instagram link above by clicking 'Traverse City' for extra coverage.

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