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October 23, 2009

Who knew Detroit was a food mecca?

AlAmeer.jpgHere's part two of guest poster Robert of Cross Key's eating adventures on his recent road trip. His photo and descriptions are making me hungry. EL

Detroit is not a food desert.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, the demise of Detroit has been greatly exaggerated.

Don’t get me wrong, I saw a lot of hurt in the city.  There are many vacant and boarded-up homes.  There are a lot barren fields that seem out of place in an urban environment.  There are numerous abandoned factories.

I went into Detroit, however, expecting to see much worse.  I wasn’t expecting to see crowded museums, or rush hour traffic in a city with such high unemployment, or restaurants of all types filled with diners. Nevertheless, that's what I saw. ...

It was probably the filled restaurants that surprised me the most. A lot has been written about how Detroit is a food desert, insofar as the city has no grocery stores.  I figured a city that couldn’t support grocery stores probably couldn’t support its restaurants. But I visited restaurants throughout the city, the suburbs and the countryside. Every place I went had decent crowds.

My first dinner in Detroit was at Pegasus in their Greektown.  I ordered the old chestnuts of saganaki, calamari, pastichio, moussaka, and spanakopita.  It wasn’t different from what I normally get at Ikaros or Acropolis in our Greektown.  In fact, I would say the fare at Ikaros is probably better.  The exception would be the spanakopita at Pegasus, which was very good.  It was a nice contrast of flaky and creamy, and I really liked the nutmeg flavor in it.

The food at Pegasus is good, but what really makes this place is the atmosphere.  It's open until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., which makes it like our Sabatino’s, but with much more energy.

It adjoins a casino, but unlike most casinos that isolate themselves from the surrounding area, the Greektown Casino seems to integrate itself with not just Pegasus but all of the Greektown restaurants.

Finally, I love how Greek food is just a part of the Detroit culture.  I was there about 11 p.m. The place was filled with people who were at the Red Wings game, and every table was ordering saganaki. It was a constant chorus of Opa! and a spectacle of flaming cheese.  You wouldn’t see that in Baltimore after a Ravens game.

I went to Dearborn to visit the Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village and to have lunch at Al-Ameer, a Middle Eastern restaurant.   These activities wouldn’t seem to have much common, but they are probably the best representation of Dearborn.  This city on the outskirts of Detroit is home to both the world headquarters of Ford and the largest concentration of Arab-Americans in the country.  

As you drive through Dearborn, you go from a sprawling, corporate campus of Ford to a downtown where all the signs are in Arabic.  The latter is quite a sight, and I would be disingenuous if I didn’t say it was a little intimidating  (although I’m sure there are some who would be intimidated by a corporate complex). I don't think these feelings can be chalked up to simple xenophobia.  It's not the same as being in a Chinatown and seeing signs in Mandarin.    

Now, I’ll acknowledge my cultural apprehensions, but I’m not going to let it get between me and a meal. At Al-Ameer I had the house platter, which has two grape leaves, two fried kebbie, chicken shawarma, tawook, kabob, kafta, shawarma, falafel, served with hummus and salad.  All of it was good, although you have to really like garlic in order to enjoy the food. The two best things were the falafel, which was the first falafel I ever had that was not dried out, and the shawarma that was flavorful, succulent strips of marinated, fatty lamb.  

When I was enjoying my Middle Eastern feast, I was not alone.  Al-Ameer’s, like Pegasus, had filled tables.  The same was true for my fine-dining meal of short ribs and opera cake at the Whitney and my Belgian beer and bowl of mussels supper at the Cadieux Café.

Every place I went had a decent crowd, and it was really good to see that.          

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 11:04 AM | | Comments (12)


Re: the title-- I'll bet Lissa knew.

Greenfield Village HF Museum is nice but you really MUST check out the Detroit Institute of Art. Great collection. Never heard of Cadieux Cafe but the Bar food at Nemos is killer!

If they don't have grocery stores aren't they kind of forced to eat out?

Sadly, there are plenty of poor neighborhoods in Baltimore that don't have supermarkets.

Very informative, RoCK and quite useful to anyone who wants to visit Detroit.

I'll bet those ladies who lunched at the King's Grilled Kabob wouldn't be intimidated in Dearborn.

I suggested skipping Greek Town, but Al Ameer is my favourite place to eat in Detroit. I knew he'd been there from the picture. Did you make it to any of the Lebanese bakeries, RoCK?

One of my favourite signs in the Arab section of Dearborn (I used to live in the Arab section of Detroit, across the street) was for a dentist. Dr. Poniatowski's sign was in English, Polish (this used to be a Polish neighbourhood) and Arabic.

There are no grocery stores inside the city limits, and have not been for at least 5 years. People drive to the suburbs or walk to corner stores with high prices and no fresh food to shop. Except in the Arab strip of Detroit bordering Dearborn, where there are fresh fruit and vegetable markets, along with halal butchers.

There is good food in Detroit, and if you stay away from the Whitney, it needn't break your wallet, either.

What was good about Greektown, however, was how late it was open.

The one thing I wanted to visit in Detroit is the Eastern Market, which is their farmers market. I guess that is the closest the city comes to a grocery store. I did hear, however, that a grocery store is being planned for the city.

Unfortunately, I only got to Al Ameer. (I was with Detroit Tourism people that day. My wife was doing a travel piece for the Herald-Dispatchthe did, so there wasn't alot of flexibilty.) Most of the day in Dearborn was spent at the Henry Ford/Greenfield village.

The food at Greenfield Village is also pretty good. They are trying to use as many local sources as possible, and apparently Michigan has the second most diverse agriculture. I had a great harvest meal at the Eagle tavern.

Greektown is a fun place to wander, true. Most of the restaurants in Warrendale (the Arab part of town) are open until at least 11 pm on weekdays. The only restaurants that close before 10 pm are the Polish places. They close as early as 7.

My partner still shops at Eastern Market every Sat. morning. It isn't like our markets - vendors can sell anything from anywhere. There are some local vendors, of course. There are also a lot of wholesale slaughter houses, some halal, around the market. So, yeah, it is the closest thing to a grocery store, but the city has been trying to murder it for years now, and it is a shadow of what it was 15-20 years ago (and nothing compared to 100 years ago).

I'm glad the food at the Village has gotten better. It used to just be overpriced, over cooked hot dogs and stuff. Although they also used to sell ginger cookies fresh out of the 150 year old ovens.

Detroit is a hard city to get to know, but there is a lot of cool stuff there. Almost no way you are going to find it without a local guide, though.

I'm glad you liked my hometown, RoCK.

RoCK, I think most cities are difficult to navigate without a local guide or at least a good map (and map reader) and some recommendations.

I've noticed that even when Tony Bourdain does a show on his beloved NY, he still has guides taking him to new places that he knew (supposedly) nothing about.

Miami Beach is relatively easy to explore for restaurants as it's one big long strip. But, get off the causeway (everything in Fl is about the "causeways") and you can end up in Little Haiti. Where there may be good eating but the gangs are deadly and it's a place any sane vacationer doesn't want to be!

Do you get back to visit Detroit much?

I seem to remember Detroit and its surrounds having a very heavy Polish influence, and have heard that the Arabs have made quite a presence there as well. Thanks RoCK and Lissa for the information. As a geography major, this stuff interests me greatly.

I have noticed that a bit of attention has been made lately of Detroit, TIME magazine is doing a yearlong story on what's going on there. What was once "the Arsenal of Democracy" has faded badly. I hope it finds its bearings and gets going again!
I understand there are processes underfoot that if successful, will bring Detroit back.

No, Rob, I don't get back to Detroit much. I'll always be from Detroit, but Baltimore is home now.

The Detroit Historical Society runs monthly church tours, which spend a day visiting 4 or 5 churches. I've been on a few, and love visiting the Polish churches. First off, they are gaudier than a Victorian whorehouse. The old ones all have wonderful histories, too, filled with feuds, splits, excommunications (this generally involved German cardinals who were just over the Poles), gun battles and other fun stuff. Enough to make one wish to be Catholic, nearly.

I made it to the Detroit Historical Society, as well as the Art Institute and the Motown Museum. I thought they were all excellent.

In the long-term, I would bet on Great Lakes region to make a recovery for one simple reason: water. That region has an abundance of fresh water, and development in the sunbelt will begin to reach a point of diminishing marginal returns as the cost of water will become a prohibiting factor. Simply, investment will then shift from the southwest to the upper Midwest.

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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