America isn’t a melting pot. It’s a smorgasbord. A road trip over the Fourth of July weekend proves it without even trying.
Yeah, it’s Wednesday. There should be a recipe here. But we had too much fun in too much heat with too much driving over the holiday weekend—more than 800 miles by the time we got home Monday night. Tuesdays are my absolute deadline for my weekly Wednesday posts. If I haven’t cooked my post before then, it’s do or die time. This Tuesday, it was just not in me to cook something, photograph it and tell you how I did it.
So instead, let me tell you a little about our weekend—mainly about what we ate, this being a food blog. You’re not going to get restaurant reviews here and certainly no photos of what we ate. This is more a celebration of the wealth of food experiences available here in America—more specifically, in three Michigan cities not especially known as culinary centers, but all serving up plenty of good, diverse eats. Detroit, Hamtramck and East Lansing.
Whenever we find ourselves in Detroit these days, one required stop is the Detroit Beer Co., a friendly, comfortable microbrewery, bar and restaurant downtown. Besides a selection of award-winning lagers and ales brewed in the basement and served from tall tanks behind the bar, they offer an impressive menu of everything from appetizers to pizzas, sandwiches, pastas and filling favorites like pot roast and Shepherd’s Pie.
In probably our most “American” dining experience of the weekend, Marion and I found ourselves happily parked at the upstairs bar. We had just driven around downtown looking for parking and had caught glimpses of cheering crowds inside the Tigers’ new stadium. Sitting at the bar, we saw what had them cheering on TVs all around the room; the Tigers were cleaning Seattle’s clock, up 6 to 1.
Marion made a noble effort to put a dent in The Lunch Pail, a turkey, sage and garlic meatloaf sandwich served on sliced ciabatta bread and topped with barbecue sauce, Fontina cheese and onion straws, while I gave into my Anglophile urges and enjoyed every last bite of my fish and chips. Flaky fresh Atlantic cod, beer battered, of course, and served with a generous pile of chips.
Another thing besides booze and great food that keeps us coming back to the Detroit Beer Co, is that we invariably get into at least one great, wide-ranging conversation with a complete stranger there. The strangers are fairly evenly divided into Detroiters who stayed and are passionate about the city, flaws and all, and former Detroiters who will tell you how moving away changed their lives for the better and how they’ll never move back—but still, they keep coming back, at least for visits.
Lunchtime on the 4th found us sharing saag paneer, curried lentils and goat in Hamtramck, a small independent city that is actually inside Detroit. In the 1970 census, Hamtramck’s population was 90% Polish; you can certainly see that, in the Polish delis, restaurants and numerous bars. And in the way they celebrate Pączki Day, a holiday based on Polish doughnuts. City offices close for the day, and serious revelers start drinking the night before.
But a new wave of immigrants is reshaping the small community. Large numbers of people from the Middle East and South Asia have moved in, bringing their cooking pots with them. One of our favorite places for filling up without emptying our wallets is Aladdin Cafe, a Bangladeshi restaurant that has recently expanded beyond its original single storefront with formica tabletops. It now has a beautiful dining room and an outdoor courtyard. The multi-page menu offers an overwhelming selection for vegetarians and carnivores alike, all authentic, and everything we’ve eaten on our numerous visits has been delicious.
Detroit has long been known for its Greektown, but it also has a thriving Mexican Town. We headed there for dinner on the 4th. At Armando’s, a rambling, cheerful space, we found plenty of reliable Mexican favorites done well. But the menu offered a good number of less obvious choices, also delicious.
On the drive back to Chicago, we hit East Lansing, home of Michigan State University, just in time for lunch. We’re always impressed by the variety and quality of food options there. Still, when we pulled up to Korea House in a slightly forlorn looking strip mall, it seemed less than promising. Reflective mylar covered the windows, so you couldn’t even get a look inside.
Once inside, though, we found ourselves in a bright, multi-roomed space where the service was friendly and the food was wonderful and cheap. Once again, we were reminded that we need to seek out Korean food more often.
We were also reminded, appropriately enough on our nation’s birthday, that one of the things that has made this country great is our willingness to open our doors to others. The invitation is engraved right there on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Come on in.” Or words to that effect. More than any other nation on earth, we have historically opened our doors to immigrants from all over the world. We are a nation of immigrants. And as our weekend proved, that is a good and often remarkably delicious thing.