Best of Detroit 2012
Nutritional Value - Staff Picks
Our staff picks for dining in Metro Detroit
Published: April 25, 2012
Best Italian without Tomatoes
22023 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-277-2426;
Entrées with tomato sauce are rare at Ciao, even on the pizzas; mushrooms are more frequent. If you get tomatoes, they're either sun-dried or combined with something high in butterfat, as in "Gorgonzola tomato cream." Instead, the long and luscious list is made up of Italian fare that often feels more sophisticated than the red stuff, such as calamari with vino bianco, mushroom soup with Asiago, linguine with vodka and salmon. And then there's surf-and-turf. Chef Hassan Aoun eschews Italian wines too, preferring California's.
Best New Pizzeria
Antica Pizzeria Fellini
415 S. Washington Ave., Royal Oak; 248-547-2751
Antica Pizzeria Fellini pays homage to pizza's Neopolitan origins, which evolved from ancient flatbreads, using the dough and the wood-fired oven and the techniques that must conform to rigid standards. The result is soft yet chewy bread, topped with fresh toppings. The best test of a pizzaiolo's proficiency and the freshness of the ingredients is a Margherita pie. Fellini's gets high marks, covered with San Marzano tomatoes, fior di latte, basil, and, in this case, grated Parmesan. This is a pizzeria: no pasta, no veal. Salads and desserts — including a notable tiramisu — are worthy complements to the pie.
Best Authentic Chinese
116 S. Main St., Ann Arbor; 734-995-1786; kaigarden.com
Ask for the "Hong Kong and Taiwan" menu, which caters to the many Chinese students and faculty in town, and prepare for the real deal: spicy pig's ear, double-cooked pork belly, steamed ginger chicken, pomfret or steamed sole cooked whole and deconstructed on your plate (the best). Sauces with garlic and scallions are prominent. Those who dare can go with cold shredded pig stomach or sou chou pig cake, but there are plenty of dishes along the lines of Hunan spicy fish or braised pork with salted vegetable to keep others happy. The staff is only too delighted to help you choose.
Best Thai Cuisine
323 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-548-5373
Some things never change. In the case of Ferndale's Bangkok Cafe, that's a good thing. For as long as memory serves, everything about the place remains the same. The only noticeable modifications to the interior are a couple of Best of Detroit awards. Even one of the waitresses has been there for more than 10 years. Ditto the main event, the food. It must be fresh: There's no room to store anything more than the constant flow of customers consumes. What makes it so popular? Well-seasoned meats and crisp, fresh vegetables mixed into an array of time-tested recipes that need no tweaking.
Krishna Catering & Restaurant
28636 Ford Rd., Garden City; 734-513-3663 (FOOD); krishnacatering.com
The menu in this bare-bones vegetarian operation (plasticware, serve-yourself water from a cooler) tops out at $9, but many dishes are less than $6. Most of the business is carry-out, but sit down and get acquainted with such street food as chats and other dishes from north and south India, Gujarat and Punjab, plus "Indian-Chinese Fusion" if you dare. Masala dosa is a standout, dipped in golden sambal. Idli chat seems to be on a perpetual $3.50 special, a mix of idli, yogurt, tamarind sauce, chutneys and deep-fried chickpea batter. Or get your chickpea batter steamed as khaman dhokala ($3.25), with sprinkles of shredded coconut and cilantro on top. A fine mango lassi is $2.25.
Best Kosher Indian
29210 Orchard Lake Rd., Farmington Hills; 248-626-6021; udipirestaurantonline.com
There are a half-dozen Indian restaurants on Orchard Lake Road between 12 Mile and 13 Mile roads, but only one that serves kosher foods, conforming to Jewish dietary laws. Udipi is a find for vegetarian Indian food lovers, even those who don't keep kosher, with a menu that spans the cuisine of southern India. The worn-out decor needs some updating, and the dishes on the daily buffet should be labeled, but it's all about the food. Appetizers, entrées, rice specialties, curries and breads are all priced under $10. Namaste. And shalom.
Best Dim Sum in Detroit
4710 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-974-7669;
Dim Sum translates to "little piece of the heart," referring to the bite-size portions of steamed or fried dumplings, noodles, braised meats, seafood and vegetables. And at Shangri-La's Detroit location, every day there are about 40 items, perfect for sharing, passed on rolling carts at lunchtime and available for ordering from the menu all day. Chinese broccoli is a must, a crunchy foil for the stuffed eggplant, the curried squid, shrimp wrapped in bean curd, and garlic chive pancakes. Mango pudding offers a sweet contrast. Cantonese fare and sushi, as well as a few Thai curries, round out the menu with choices for every taste.
Best Wood-Oven Pizza
341 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-769-6700;
At the far end of Mani Osteria's dining room, the open kitchen is in full view of the entire restaurant. And from its center erupts the warm orange glow of their wood-fired oven, practically saying to customers, "Don't be stupid. Get a pizza. It'll be good." And it is. Sporting thin, lightly charred crusts, each pie emerges with a great flavor and texture. The combinations of toppings each look so good — such as Taleggio, truffle and egg or smoked cheese, ham, mushroom and garlic cream — the menu dares you to order a few, just to sample.
Best Cheap Falafel
6540 Orchard Lake Rd., West Bloomfield; 248-855-6929
32748 Woodward Ave., Royal Oak; 248-554-9881
If you're going to name yourself "Falafel King," you'd better serve a damn good falafel, right? The falafel salad is like a combination meal served in a bowl: A large fattoush sans bread is topped with two mounds of creamy hummus, tabbouleh and four falafel patties, all served with just-baked bread that asks only a moment to cool so that the steam won't burn your hands. The signature Falafel King sandwich, pretty much the salad rolled up in a 9-inch pita, is a steal at $4.44. Add a cup of crushed lentil soup for $1.95. Still not enough? You can top your meal off with their smooth, smoky baba ghanoush.
Best Reason to Visit a Radiator Shop
For the most part, no one wants to visit an automotive radiator shop. Because unless you're visiting your cousin the mechanic, the chances are good that your radiator is fried. But not if it's a sunny spring weekend, not if it's Ferndale, and not if there's a giant black truck parked out front. Then you're all good — because rolling taqueria Jacques' Tacos is selling its fare in the auto shop lot. With names like "Little Piggie" for a $3 pork taco, it's a different experience than heading to southwest Detroit — but topped with a delicious sweet corn relish and salsa verde, the different approach is sort of the point. And, as a bonus, you can drop off your car to get that cracked inlet tank checked out. See website for hours and locations.
Best Dining on Wheels
211 W. Washington St., Ann Arbor;
Pop quiz, hotshot: Margie from accounting doesn't like Indian, but Brian in the next cubicle hates her suggestion of Thai food, and they're looking at you for the final word on lunch. What do you do? What do you do? If you're in Ann Arbor, you calm down and take them to Mark's Carts. Entering its second season in 2012, the collective of outdoor eateries is one of the best spots in town for a quick bite regardless of your culinary preferences or prejudices. It's hard to play favorites, but if there's a "can't miss" cart, it's probably San Street, home to steamed pork (or mushroom) buns on par with anything you'll find on the coasts. No joke.
Best Wine Gimmick
in a Restaurant
Green Zone Pizza's Wine Dispenser
17008 Kercheval Ave., Grosse Pointe; 313-332-0559; greenzonepizza.com
It's really two gimmicks in synch: wine on a gift card and wine from a vending machine. Fill up your card and insert it into the Enomatic. Eight bottles are displayed, four reds and four whites, the latter kept colder. Put your glass under the spigot and watch the pour. As each bottle is depleted by happy customers, the wine is kept fresh with argon gas, pumped into the bottle to blanket the surface and keep destructive oxygen away. The third novelty is that you can choose a taste for $1.25-$3.50, a half-glass for $3.75-$10.50, or a full glass for $7.50-$21.
Best Throwback That Stubbornly Hangs On
Polish Yacht Club
5249 Joseph Campau St., Detroit; 313-925-5335; ivanhoecafe-pyc.com
Ask most Detroiters how to get to the Ivanhoe Café, and you'll likely get a bewildered look in response; not so much if you call it the Polish Yacht Club. For more than 100 years, this landlocked spot has been the place to get some of the best pan-fried perch, hand-cut fries, top-notch burgers and kielbasa. The local cachet, the location and the decor make PYC the last place you'd expect to have a website. Skip the enhanced menu and go for the perch. Just be careful of the bones. Photos of local landmarks and bygone celebrities adorn the walls.
Best Local Gringo Taquerista
Timmy "Vulgar" Lampinen
Most people know Timmy Vulgar for his antics as the lead singer of the Clone Defects, Human Eye and Timmy's Organism. Some may be familiar with his visual art, which often adorns the records he's on. But fewer still know him as a talented cook, one who has worked in numerous Detroit-area kitchens. These days, he limits his culinary work to serving his tacos when he bartends Wednesday nights at Hamtramck's Painted Lady Lounge. His tacos are no joke. When it comes to food, Vulgar is most obsessed with Mexican fare. Vulgar strives to keep his Mexican food authentic, using real corn tortillas, white onions, fresh lime and cilantro, and very limited cheese. "If there's one thing I hate," he says, "it's fake, crappy, gringo Mexican food!" And, as Vulgar says, you can't just eat three.
Best Coney Island Maitre d'
Mayo at Duly's Place
5458 W. Vernor Hwy., Detroit; 313-554-3076
On weekend nights, at a hallowed little coney island restaurant on Vernor Highway called Duly's, you'll likely find a real Detroiter holding forth up front. He calls himself "Mayo," and as the bar crowd wanders in for post-beer coneys, Mayo treats the front counter as his personal vaudeville stage, wisecracking with the customers up front by the cash register. A sharp-eyed host, he runs the room well, chattering in French, English and Spanish. Along with your onion rings, you could get his philosophy about life, with a host of Mayo-isms along the way. Deadpan and funny, most of his utterances are unpublishable here — in a good way. And what's his philosophy? He pretty much says he doesn't give a hoot. Except the word isn't "hoot." In short, Mayo is a character. Part maitre d', part comedian, part bouncer, part diplomat. He keeps his remarks brief and funny, the better to watch the diners and bid everybody hello and goodbye. If you're a good customer and don't give anybody trouble, he may even give you a sucker when you go.
Best Use of Fake Meat
5169 Trumbull St., Detroit; 313-833-2701; woodbridgepub.com
At the vast majority of America's bars, vegetarians are lucky to have the option of a grilled cheese, some mozzarella sticks or a prefab frozen veggie burger — if anything. Fortunately, Woodbridge Pub takes its vegetarian fare as seriously as the rest of its upscale pub menu. There are a few interesting choices, including a white bean burger with nutritional yeast, a pasta primavera with ramp pistou and a seitan and rice pilaf dinner. But the shining star of the meat-free selections — the one that has vegetarians swooning — is the Pho Philly. Perfectly seasoned soy "beef" on a bolillo roll gets heaped with sautéed onions and red peppers and smothered with gooey melted fontina; there's even a side of mushroom jus for dunking. Hands off, carnivores — no sharing!
Best Restaurant for Omnivores, Vegetarians and Meat-Eaters to Coexist Contentedly
22651 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-548-0680; anitaskitchenonline.com
Meanwhile, at Anita's vegetarian items are so tasty and diverse (the Phoenician pizza and the artichoke pie are favorites) that we find ourselves bypassing the meat as often as not. On the other side of the spectrum, carnivores can get in touch with their inner caveman by ordering the kibbeh nyeh (raw ground lamb with bulgur and spices) or a big, meaty lamb shank. Of course, this being Lebanese food, you won't get far if you don't like onions, garlic or food with actual flavor, but if that's the case you're probably a lost cause anyway and should just dine solo to spare your friends your picky eating habits.
Best Kitchen Open
Only on Weekdays
Northern Lights Lounge
660 W. Baltimore St., Detroit; 313-873-1739
Many MT readers may be familiar with New Center's Northern Lights Lounge as a stylish bar and performance venue, but for several years the nightspot has kept its kitchen open Monday through Friday in a bid for Detroit's weekday lunch and dinner crowds. For a business luncheon, you could hardly pick a snazzier joint. Not only does it sprawl throughout a large building that can seat more than 100 diners, it offers a variety of environments to dine in, including informal chairs up front by the free shuffleboard table, wraparound booths in the moodier main room, simple tables for a tête-à-tête, and even seating along the bar. The full bar can mix up offbeat, eye-catching concoctions. And the menu has several strong choices, with appetizers averaging about $7.50. The fried calamari appetizer is especially good — and big enough to share. Sandwiches average around $7, and include a turkey burger, a club with turkey, ham and bacon, and even a Philly cheese-steak. Their simple USDA prime chuck burger is an excellent specimen of bar food, coming cooked to order on a smallish sesame-seed bun, offering an excellent bread-to-beef ratio in each bite. Kitchen open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; 21 and older only.
Best Breakfast for You, the Earth and Southeast Michigan
From 6:30 to 10 a.m., Fridays, at 722 Soule Blvd., Ann Arbor; 734-417-1144; selmacafe.org; $12-$15 suggested donation for breakfast
Founded in 2009, Selma Cafe is a weekly local-foods breakfast fundraiser and party catering to people into food. Not just any food, mind you: slow food, organic food, local food, sustainable and secure food. And the folks who gather there often have lively discussions about what the ideal regional food economy should look like. Every Friday morning, on Ann Arbor's west side, a different guest chef creates a breakfast menu chock-full of seasonal, local ingredients, assisted by an all-volunteer kitchen crew. The weekly event happens in the home of the hospitable and gracious Lisa Gottlieb and Jeff McCabe, where they have served about 10,000 meals to 4,000 people, raising more than $100,000 for agricultural projects. Not only are about a third of the funds fed back into the local food systems thanks to the locally sourced menus, proceeds also go toward micro-loans that have assisted such local urban ag figures as Greg Willerer of Detroit's Brother Nature Produce and Kate Devlin of Detroit's Spirit of Hope Farm. All around, Gottlieb and McCabe are on to something delicious.
Best Place to Eat Your Way to Social Justice
COLORS — Detroit
311 E. Grand River Ave., Detroit; 313-496-1212;
Newly opened in 2011, COLORS is a restaurant whose motto — "Just. Good. Food." — belies its ultimate purpose. There is good food, to be sure, such as the grilled cheese with Zingerman's cheeses on Avalon bread, the tasty sweet potato fried wontons, and the achiote-rubbed roast chicken. But there's also a larger agenda than serving up great locally sourced lunch fare: The restaurant is a nonprofit whose ultimate goal is to empower its staff by paying a living wage and equipping them with the tools and training to run businesses of their own, should they desire to do so. The restaurant is already serving as an incubator for an employee-run catering division, Colors Event Services, and a spinoff called Café Colors, which will be a retail outlet for Colors-branded products and other local food items.
Best Place to Try Something New
Atlas Global Bistro
3111 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-831-2241; atlasglobalbistro.com
Have you ever tried a green apple gelée? How about lemon horseradish vinaigrette? Or a chicken liver tart with celery root purée? Surely you haven't tried duck breast with braised baby fennel and an apple cider red peppercorn sabayon? We bet you haven't — unless you happen to have dined at Detroit's Atlas Global Bistro. Atlas has been around for nearly a decade, and — though chefs have come and gone — proprietress Nicole Barbour has maintained the restaurant's commitment to innovation. Tentative eaters will find familiar ingredients, such as shrimp or chicken, but paired with such unlikely companions as ale and caraway with a jicama-grapefruit slaw or the aforementioned chicken liver tart. If this all sounds too wild and crazy, rest assured that you're in good hands; we've sampled many of chef Zachary Stotz's dishes and didn't find a single one disappointing.
Best Brewpub Food
311 S. Main St., Ann Arbor; 734-913-2730;
One of the state's finest breweries, Jolly Pumpkin, opened a restaurant in Ann Arbor a couple of years ago. Food at many brewpubs is notoriously mediocre, so it was a pleasant surprise when their menu featured some genuinely delicious fare. Clog your arteries with a mammoth burger topped with bacon, mushrooms and a thick chunk of moderately stinky cambozola cheese. Or dine healthy with their ample selection of vegan fare. And wash it all down with a snifter of what is quite probably the country's best farmhouse ale. Don't live anywhere near Ann Arbor? No worries — they're launching a second location in Royal Oak expected to open as soon fall 2012.
Attached to a Bar
2040 Park Ave., Detroit; 313-965-3111; bucharestgrill.com
The streets behind the Fox Theatre have come alive with clubs and restaurants, dens of food and entertainment that are drawing folks looking for new venues to explore. In the heart of it is the Bucharest Grill, where you'll find an array of Middle Eastern and Romanian food, hot dogs and sausages, as well as shawarmas, the stars of the menu. Try the signature Bucharest shawarma loaded with grilled chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, spices and fries awash with garlic sauce for less than $5. The attached Park Bar awaits you, where you can quaff a cold beer with the chow.
Best Food at Happy Hour
2030 Park Ave., Detroit; 313-961-2543; cliffbells.com
We were going to title this category "Classiest Place to Drink a 50-Cent PBR," but we didn't want to sidestep the sumptuous food offerings. So instead, we'll just focus on the outstanding small plates executive chef Matt Baldridge has devised for Cliff Bell's happy hour. For a mere $3, you can try a dish of grits with heirloom tomato relish and crisp sage. Another dollar gets you sweet cherry pepper "poppers" with roasted pears, Manchego and aged balsamic, or tenderloin tips in puff pastry with mushrooms, shallots and red wine demi-glace. Upping the ante to $5, choices include a spicy shrimp "puff" with pickled veggies, or bacon bites with fresh melon & jalapeño-infused molasses. If drinking a PBR with these posh noshes strikes you as déclassé, they also offer deals on wine, bartender specials, and classic swizzlers and sippers, all $7 or less.
Best Reason to Hate Mondays
Astro Coffee is Closed
2124 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-638-2989; astrodetroit.com
Sure, Monday sucks for at least a half-dozen reasons. But none elicits the same inevitable wistful sigh as waking up, dragging oneself to and from the shower, and suddenly remembering that Detroit's finest café isn't open. Coffee junkies will miss the superior espresso, the addictive flat white, and the ever-rotating selection of nuanced pour over brews. But arguably more so, everyone should be able to start their week with whatever rotating food selection they've dreamed up, whether it's a crumbly cake punctuated with seasonal fruit or an impossibly delicious vegan lentil sandwich. The overall approach and execution are unmatched in the region, and it's no surprise that the combination of food, coffee and friendliness has turned Astro into a community hub all its own.
Best Use of Condensed Milk
300 Hamilton Row, Birmingham; 248-792-9766; gocommonwealth.com
OK, so there's a lot more to Commonwealth than condensed milk. But it's a key ingredient in their signature latte, and it's pretty damn good — a sweetened, almost dessert-like twist on the über-popular drink. They also select and roast their own beans in-house, making it one of only a handful of coffee shops in southeast Michigan to serve single-origin coffees and expressive, flavorful espresso. The food menu stands up to the bar set by the coffee, focusing on quality ingredients. And the space itself is beautiful with two garage doors that open during warmer months, perfect for enjoying a chilled treat in the open air. You might not think a sweetened, condensed milk latte would be good on ice. But it is.
Best Tres Leches Cake
203 Hamilton St., Birmingham; 248-593-6060;
Oddly, for a chef and a restaurant decidedly not of the barrio, Barrio's tres leches cake is even better than those from Mexicantown bakeries; it's richer than it is sweet, though it's plenty sweet. The three milks used to soak this traditional Latin American gem are evaporated, condensed and heavy cream, but the sponge cake is full of air bubbles and doesn't come out soggy. Chef Hammond Lawton's version comes swimming in cream and topped with cinnamon-spiked whipped cream and cubes of raw mango.
Best Restaraurant for Feeling Like a 19th Century Tycoon
4421 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-5700;
If you want to revel in an environment of bygone ostentatiousness, nothing beats a meal at the Whitney. With its 52 rooms, 10 bathrooms and 20 fireplaces, the three-story pink-granite edifice built for a lumber baron in 1894 has been one of Detroit's most celebrated restaurants since it opened 1986. The building is unquestionably a work of ornamental majesty, with stained glass windows and fine-carved wood walls really setting off the mood. It certainly provided a sumptuous setting for this issue's model, football hero Justin Durant.
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