It's been a while since I posted from Detroit so it's time for another edition of Eating BIG in the Motor City. As longtime readers know this is one of my absolute favorite US cities. No you cant rebuild in a few years what was neglected for decades but the return of Detroit is near. Actually it never left. When they say the return is near they mean people are starting to build trendy hotels and restaurants are being recognized by national media for their food. But the truth is what makes Detroit still great to this very day are the people who never left. If becoming trendy and instagrammable is what Detroit needs to fix some things then so be it but part of what I love so much about the city is so many of the old time spots were never lost to gentrification and redevelopment. Visiting some of Detroit's longtime establishments has always felt like taking a step back into time and I love that. Today's post is a collection of spots both old and new that help solidify the area as rich in both food and culture.
Buddy's Pizza - coming soon to a strip mall near you. That's bc Detroit's original pizza recently signed a deal to expand nationally. That said you know I like to get to the original that started it all when an empire like this is born. Buddy's on Conant is where you want to go if you want some old school Detroit atmosphere with your Detroit style pizza. That pizza first appeared on the menu in 1946. It was a Sicilian style recipe that soon became Detroit's own square cut pie. Square cut bc they were cooked in old blue steel industrial utility trays common in Detroit's auto industry at the time. Gus Guerra used them to mimic the Sicilian pie of his childhood and boom - the now legendary Buddy's was born.
Minestrone Soup / Antipasto Salad at Buddy's Pizza
Aside from the pizza Buddy's is also popular for both their signature soup and salad. I think I like the salad a little more as it's loaded with bits of Italian deli meats and comes with a nice zesty dressing. But the soup is really good on a cold winters night. The pizza at Buddy's is what set the standard for what Detroit style pizza should be. There are four key distinctions of a Detroit pizza that differentiate it from others. The pizza must be baked in industrial blue steel pans which gives it it's shape. It's then cut into squares which is another trait. The spongy dough is twice baked leading to both a crunchy and chewy crust. Lastly the pizza must include brick cheese. Pepperoni is the preferred topping of pizza people in Michigan though you can enjoy Detroit style pie with all the usual toppings including pineapple if that's how you want it. A visit to the original Buddy's is a must for any pizza aficionado.
Pepperoni Pizza at Buddy's Pizza
Then there's Loui's. Like any other beloved regional eat there's plenty of old time purveyors of Detroit style pizza in the area. Loui's is in the suburb of Hazel Park. It's a favorite of many in the area. It's much like Buddy's in terms of it's old school atmosphere and menu. They too have a signature salad and also a soup. Their cappelletti soup
is outstanding. I like the Antipasto salad from Buddy's a bit more though. As far as ambiance Loui's is hard to beat. It reminds me of Maria's in Chicago and Marie's in Milwaukee. By which I mean you can expect lot's of Xmas lights and worn down furniture.
Cappelletti Soup / Antipasto Salad at Loui's Pizza
The Loui in Loui's Pizza is in reference to Louis Tourtois. An old French cook who worked at Buddy's. He opened Loui's in 1977 and as I mentioned it still feels like the 70's inside. Detroit pizza comes in two sizes which are four piece and eight. I prefer four bc then each piece has two caramelized sides. Detroit pizza can look almost burnt on the side but you need not worry. It's only major caramelization. Spots in Detroit will also give you the option to put pepperoni under the cheese so it doesn't get too burnt up. I loved Loui's Pizza as much as I love Buddy's Pizza. Both are American pizzeria classics.
Pepperoni Pizza at Loui's Pizza
But don’t sleep on Cloverleaf. If you couldn't tell we're visiting the three spots most associated with being Detroit's best pizza. It's just a matter of which locals you're talking to. There are others but these three are all long time purveyors and also connected. You may have noticed Gus Guerra's name in the sign pictured above. That's bc he eventually left Buddy's and started his own spot - Cloverleaf. It's out in Eastpointe and is popular for both pizza and drinks. Though I've never visited more than a single pizza spot on a single trip I may like Cloverleaf the most. I've only been twice bc it's not centrally located but it's worth the ride for the extra charred sides and also the little cups of pepperoni that hold a small little pond of pizza grease. The sauce has chunks of tomato like Lou Malnati's. So good.
Pepperoni Pizza at Cloverleaf Bar _______________________________________________
Almost 50% of the population in Dearborn Michigan is Middle Eastern. It just might be the Midwest’s best ethnic food enclave with Lebanese cuisine leading the way (Iraqi, Syrian, Yemeni are also common). Head over to AlTayeb for an incredible Lebanese breakfast. It gained national fame when it was included in a “most exciting restaurants in the country” list by the NYT. It’s owner ran a similar spot in Lebanon where they focused on breakfast which features big bowls of fava beans and chickpeas mixed with hummus and such. But I couldn't resist the Harhoura which consists of shaved ribeye stir fried with onion and chili served up with hummus and pita, plus a plate of pickles, tomatoes, raw onion, and mint with two dipping sauces. This was awesome on all levels. A must stop spot.
Harhoura at AlTayeb of Dearborn_______________________________________________
Here's a newer spot I found browsing places online. It's a Syrian spot that's also popular for breakfast. Lots of their online reviews mention big bowls of fattah and other Syrian breakfast dishes and I wish I could've tried them but I was solo on this visit which came directly after breakfast at AlTayeb up above. But those same reviews also mention the falafel and most of them call it the best in town and that's saying something. I haven't had a ton of falafel in Dearborn but this was probably the best plate of falafel that I've ever been served. Not only was the falafel itself outstanding but so was the plate of tomatoes and pickles plus the pita bread that came with it. All of it was seemingly as fresh as can be.
Falafel at Shamiat Restaurant
Dearborn Meat Market
No trip to Detroit is complete without a trip to Dearborn Michigan. The home of Ford Motors is also the home to some of the country’s best Middle Eastern food. Dearborn Meat Market is a Lebanese-American owned meat market that just might be Michigan's best restaurant. They're specialists so to say and their specialty is meat. You can buy it raw from the fridge up front or you can purchase kebabs to eat in back. The only other menu items they have is perfectly made hummus and fresh pita.
Hummus at Dearborn Meat Market
When you walk back to the dining room you're greeted by a long grill built specifically for kebabs. If this doesn't get you excited go get your pulse checked and make sure you're not a closet vegan. Both the smells and the sound of the meats sizzling are euphoria to a meat eater. Pictured below is two of each kebabs they offer minus the organ meat. We may have passed on the liver, heart, and kidney but what you see up above and also below is pretty much the entire menu. It's made up of beef kabob, beef kefta, beef makenek (sausage), and chicken tawook. Served over a large pita wrap that catches all the meat drippings. Outside of the picture are some blackened tomatoes full of smokey flavor.
Kebabs at Dearborn Meat Market
Roti Max Bakery
This spot was just a shot in the dark. We were riding by and it was new to me so I stopped to scope it out. Since they had just opened there wasn't much to find about them online. What I could figure out was this is a Yemen style bakery. Aside from from baked goods they also do fruit juice, smoothies, and sandwiches. We tried a sandwich and also a Yemen treat which I couldn't tell you the name of. That said the drink was the clear winner and seemed like the best reason to come back here.
Drink and Sandwich at Roti Max Bakery
This is the last restaurant remaining from Detroit’s old Chaldean Town. A neighborhood where Iraqi Christians settled in the 1920’s. The area took a turn after the 1967 riots and the decline of the auto industry when it saw most of its wealthy residents leave. This created room for new immigrants from Iraq who were attracted to the established Chaldean community. It peaked in the 70’s and will be near history when Sullaf Restaurant closes for good. Luckily there’s no sign of a closing coming. This was my first visit but like at all the old school spots in Detroit it felt like I was a regular. I think the owner is the cook. There is no menu. Though a few of the items are always available. Iraqi’s call their beef shawarma “Guss” as it’s different from others in that there’s layers of fat that render up real nicely on the spit. This makes it a bit more flavorful than most of the other versions I’ve tried.
Beef Shawarma aka Guss at Sullaf Restaurant
Both the curried potatoes and the white beans gave off fragrant smells that can only come from longtime Middle Eastern recipes. What I love about my visits to spots like Sullaf is the diverse clientele they serve. Aside from all the old timers who never left the neighborhood, this spot feeds everyone from those who work the ‘hood to the police that patrol it. It’s easy to understand why once you try the food. It’s fucking phenomenal. On the way out I noticed all the old timers were eating lamb shank which I overheard was made daily. Next time for sure.
Meal at Sullaf
When I named Detroit the second best food city in the Midwest it was with spots like this in mind. Pictured below is Nyumbani which is a tender beef slow simmered in a ripened tomato sauce and served with fried plantains, peanut-stewed spinach, and spiced rice pilau. It's the signature dish at Baobab Fare where East African inspired fare is front and center. Nyumbani means at home in Swahili and Detroit is the home to this exciting dining destination among many others worth a stop.
Nyumbani at Baobab Fare
Here's another spot that's unique and emblematic of the city's current food scene. Bunny Bunny is ran by a couple that's mashing up some personal flavors inspired by the American South as well as India and South Africa. The last two are already a popular combo in South Africa in Durban in particular which is home to the largest Indian diaspora outside of India. They have an Eastern Market location but are only open for dinner. Our favorite dish of the night was likely an order of potato samosas with a terrific tomato gravy. The sauce was served warm and worked in perfect harmony with the puffy samosas. Moving on an order of potato thread salad was a chef driven plate of the Chinese style potato salad found on Sichuan menus. This version came with caviar, boiled peanuts and scallions. The days biryani offering was a vegetarian variety made with braised kale and Sea Island peas plus yogurt and saffron. A crispy rice tostada type shell came served on top and was great used as an edible scooper. I liked this place and the people behind it who had a mural of menus from some of their favorite restaurants around the county and I recognized quite a few of them. Cool spot.
Dinner at Bunny Bunny
Detroit's Corktown continues to thrive. One of the neighborhoods best restaurants comes in the form of a udon specialist called Ima. It won the 2019 "Restaurant of the Year" award from the Detroit Free Press. Ima is a neighborhood spot with a love for the underrated Japanese noodles that don't get mentioned as much as ramen. Udon noodles get the trendy chef driven treatment and it works really well. I've been here twice once in the dead of winter and once in the middle of summer. On my winter visit the curry udon was what I wanted on a frigid cold night. It warmed me up right. One visit in July we stopped by and on a hot and muggy night and the Yaki Udon (stir fried noodles) was full of flavor.
Yaki Udon at Ima
Flowers Of Vietnam
One neighborhood over in Mexicantown is one of the city's hottest spots. Still. I say still say bc they've gotten the big media buzz from the likes of Bon Appetit and others. Flowers of Vietnam is housed in an old school Coney Island diner. From the outside it looks like the diner is still in operation as they didn't change up the inside too much. The counter is still there and customers can sit there and watch in on the kitchen which is open air in a long narrow space just like all the Coney Island spots around town. Our meal got off to rocky start in that they were out of the most popular dish and the reason we were there - the whole fried fish. But the dishes we got instead still hit most of the notes as far as Vietnamese flavors go. Although this meal was a few years ago so I forgot exactly what we got but we both agreed it was good enough to go back and get that whole fried fish that we initially wanted.
Meal at Flowers of Vietnam
On one quick trip to Detroit this last winter I only had time for one dinner. We were able to get a seat at the bar of Mabel Gray which was once nominated by the Beard Foundation in the best new restaurant category back in 2016. The menu is switched up daily and takes inspiration from all over as evidenced by a lineup Sichuan Broccolini (sesame, ginger, BB soy, mint). Crispy Portuguese Octopus (wild boar green chorizo, braised MI heirloom beans, pickled onion). Lamb Double Cheeseburger (Brasserie style w/ gruyere, dijonnaise, cornichons). Black Fried Rice (squid, clam, crispy pork belly, house kimchi, sunnyside duck egg). I could take both the broccolini and the burger pretty much any day of the week. The other two dishes had a lot going on but that which was good was really good.
Dinner at Mabel Gray
Hungarian Strudel Shop
On my recent visit to Detroit we were headed to a friends lake place afterwards so I wanted to bring an edible gift of some sort. I decided to check out The Hungarian Strudel Shop in Allen Park which has been open for more than 40 years. This was a different type of strudel than I’m used to as it’s sold by the log and not in single smaller pieces like other old time strudel spots I’ve stopped in at. The strudel here is hand stretched each morning and when it’s gone for the day they close so plan on stopping in on the earlier side. Everyone enjoyed them with the cheery being the most popular.
Strudel from Hungarian Strudel Shop
I've covered the history of War Su Gai aka ABC Chicken in Detroit before. This classic regional American-Chinese dish is super popular in both Detroit and Columbus. The biggest difference in the two spots seems to be the gravy. It's brown in Detroit and orange in Columbus. You can find War Su Gai in others parts of the country but only in the Detroit and Columbus areas is it regularly available at every American-Chinese restaurant in town. Ho Ho Village is an old school spot in Mexicantown open later than most spots downtown. I tried the ABC Chicken one night and while it wasn't the best version I've had in the area it was a pretty damn satisfying version. They pretty much always are.
ABC Chicken at Ho Ho Village
Mike's Famous Ham Place
Here’s a spot I recommend to any and every one that asks where to eat in Detroit. Mike’s Famous Ham Place has been open since 1974 and aside from the prices nothing here has changed. Not the stools, not the cash register, and not the Owner, Mike Muftari, who runs this American classic with his wife. I try to stop by here every time I’m in town as there’s just nothing else like it, anywhere. Bone-in ham is bought locally and roasted in house for sandwiches. The bones and all the scraps are used to make the soups. The supreme sandwich consists of a huge portion of ham to order and placed in a locally baked poppyseed roll. Topping choices are mustard and pickles with cheese and a fried egg also being available and that’s it. At some point the ham sandwich suffered the fate of capitalism which caused the downward spiral of this once classic sandwich that’s been reduced to pre-sliced deli ham from the supermarket matched with cheap cheese and cheaper bread. The ham sandwich at Mike’s tastes like they did before easy access to deli meat became a thing. The soups (split pea and navy bean) are as good as the sandwich. There's other spots in town to score an old fashioned ham sandwich but none of them come close to what Mike and his wife give you.
Ham Sandwich and Split Pea Soup at Mike's Famous Place
Right across the street from Mike’s is another Detroit classic that I’ve previously profiled, The Hygrade Deli. It opened in 1955 and had been with the same owner the past 50 years but he recently retired and sold the place to a local restaurateur. I’m guessing the new owner was a longtime customer and won’t change much except maybe the prices and an online presence. Hygrade is popular for corned beef sandwiches and soup. Breakfast is also big at the daytime only deli where a corned beef and egg sandwich is a great way to start the day. Don’t skip the chicken rice soup if it’s on special. Classic spot.
Soup and Sandwich at Hygrade Deli
I first stopped in at Marcus Hamburgers more than a decade ago and I recently returned for my first visit since then. That’s bc there’s so many returnable spots in this area it’s impossible to get back to them all each trip in. This is the type of place that personifies both the city and it’s people. Started in 1929 by an immigrant from Macedonia named Charles G. Marcus who started selling burgers from a horse-drawn pushcart at the Highland Park Ford factory which eventually led to 12 restaurants in and around Detroit. This Hamtramck location is the original and last one left. Part of what makes these burgers unique is the fact they're served on hot dog buns. Back then hamburger buns weren't as common but it’s the cooking process that gives these their old school flavor. The rectangular patties of fresh ground beef are cooked in a unique setup that sears and steams the beef. These tasted exactly the same as I remembered them to be. One of the many spots I wish I could hit every time I visit.
Hamburger and Cheeseburger at Marcus Hamburgers
American Coney Island (L) - Lafayette Coney Island (R)
There’s 100’s of stands to score a Detroit style coney dog around the Metro Detroit region. So the story goes an immigrant named Gust Keros opened American Coney Island on West Lafayette Street in 1917. A few years later, in 1924, he brought his brother William to Detroit to help. Shortly after that Keros’s brother started Lafayette Coney Island when the space opened up next door. The businesses have operated continuously in the same locations ever since. The rivalry between the two is one of the city’s most fierce but the best part about them is you don’t have to pick a side since you can easily eat two. I find it hard to eat just one of these especially not knowing when my next visit will be. So I typically stop in at both and this is what I’ve determined, the biggest difference between the two of them is in their prep. Lafayette is a bit messier than American but both of them are fantastic.
Coney Dog from American Coney Island
Coney Dog from Lafayette Coney Island
Bob-Jo's Frozen Custard
Our last stop takes us Downriver which is a term that locals use to describe the cities and townships in Wayne County Michigan, located south of Detroit, along the western shore of the Detroit River. This is the type of old blue collar working class area that’s more reflective of a previous era than todays. I wanted to attend a lake perch fish fry at an old dive bar but they were on summer break so it never happened. There’s other spots that serve lake perch but none of them were open yet and some only do so on Friday’s. But a visit to Bob Jo’s for some frozen custard was a nice consolation prize as I liked their signature coconut soft serve which is always on special. This summer was their 75th. That’s it for this trip!
Custard at Bob-Jo's
Click HERE for a google maps guide to the spots featured in this post