Celebrating America’s birthday by eating our way around the world in Michigan

by Terry B on July 7, 2010

America isn’t a melting pot. It’s a smorgasbord. A road trip over the Fourth of July weekend proves it without even trying.

hamtramck-disneyland-day

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. detroit-beer-coBesides 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.

hamtramck-disneyland-nightWe 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.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

TheKitchenWitch July 7, 2010 at 12:01 pm

We ate a bunch of ethnic food over the 4th of July weekend, too! My husband found it funny, but I said, “Hey, we’re The Melting Pot Nation! It’s a perfect way to celebrate.”

Randi July 7, 2010 at 3:41 pm

One thing I love about living near Toronto is that we have so many diverse ethnic restaurants…except there are no more really good Indonesian restaurants :( . It’s so nice to try something new and I’m rarely disappointed. So glad my kids have the same adventurous curiosity when it comes to food.

Terry B July 7, 2010 at 4:35 pm

TheKitchenWitch—You’re absolutely right!

Randi, I’m guessing your kids came by their culinary curiosity honestly. We’ve always exposed our girls to all kinds of foods from all kinds of cultures and places and they are similarly adventurous.

Laura [What I Like] July 7, 2010 at 4:42 pm

800 miles?!!! That is impressive. You’re making me jealous with all of this talk of fabulous Michigan food…the “lunch pail” sounds like quite the vision!

ellen July 7, 2010 at 11:26 pm

Right on Terry. It sounds like you and Marion had an authentic American experience. Now I want to go to Michigan!

Barbara July 8, 2010 at 12:21 am

Terry, next time you go to Michigan you should try India House on South Division in GR. Currently the place is nothing to look at but the food is amazing.

Nishta July 8, 2010 at 12:34 am

hooray for eating! and hooray for the last paragraph of this post. I am the proud daughter of immigrants from India, and my 4th was also a smorgasbord—homemade dosas for brunch, happy hour guacamole, & a Southern-style shrimp boil for dinner. God Bless America indeed.

PS–I love your recipes but didn’t miss one here. it was enough fun to live vicariously through your travels.

Jamie July 8, 2010 at 1:06 am

Michigan is my home state and we will be there in a few weeks! Next time you drive through Michigan on your way back to Chicago you need to stop in Union Pier and eat at the Red Arrow Road House. Yum!

Terry B July 8, 2010 at 1:08 am

Laura—We like road trips, so while 800 miles is pushing the long weekend limit, it’s not unheard for us. And regarding jealousy, your jaunt to London doesn’t sound too shabby, you know!

Ellen—You know, the wonderful thing is that in much of America, you can have experiences pretty much like ours without a lot of effort.

We love the new art museum in Grand Rapids, Barbara. Next time through, we’ll just have to plan to be there around lunch or dinnertime. Thanks for the tip!

Nishta, your July 4th smorgasbord sounds wonderfully American. And thanks for the PS—I do love to just tell stories sometimes.

I’ll tell you, Jamie, so much of the time in Michigan, we’d just have finished a great meal and be full as ticks, as my Southern Aunt Veta is known to say, and see some other wonderful food thing we had to pass on. We’ve spent some time along Lake Michigan in that area and passed through Union Pier. We’ll have to put it on our to-do list. We did stop for fresh Michigan highbush blueberries near Douglas on the way home. They were amazing.

Dani H July 8, 2010 at 5:53 am

A wonderful post, Terry! I had Chinese food delivered on the 4th. A little place near me has an amazing pu pu platter with shrimp toast to die for. I can never decide on just one thing, so whenever I order in from there, I get to eat Chinese for two or three days.

I got strawberries today for 88 cents a pound, so will be making your Cornmeal Lemon Cake this weekend. Can’t wait!

Thanks for sharing your trip. See you next week!

Helmut July 8, 2010 at 9:57 am

Sounds like you had quite a time in Michigan. The development of brew pubs over the past years is a definite quality improvement!

Melissa July 8, 2010 at 1:38 pm

This makes me want to go to Detroit Terry. Laurent has been home brewing beer, so any new brewery to try out is a great reason for a roadtrip. I have never been to the Eastern Market either, which I heard it great. Hopefully a Michigan trip is in my near future.

A Teenage Gourmet (Sami) July 12, 2010 at 1:47 am

Pffft – nobody said that recipes were required. This is a good post regardless. :)

Terry B July 12, 2010 at 2:13 am

Dani—We always order multiple dishes when we get Chinese food, to enjoy all the flavors then and, unless we totally pig out, to have leftovers later. I hope you got to make the cornmeal cake—and that you enjoyed it!

Hi, Helmut! Microbreweries and brew pubs really have revolutionized beer. And they’ve gotten America back to its small brewery beginnings. Although the beers being produced today are far more varied, I think.

Melissa, the Eastern Market is really wonderful. Big and lively! If you find yourself headed to Michigan, let us share some ideas with you.

Thanks for stopping by, Sami! I was happy to find your blog.

Julie @ Pickley Pear July 13, 2010 at 5:50 pm

Wahoo for the Detroit stop!! Detroit Beer Co. is one of my favorites. Not only for their crafted brewery of amazing beers, but the unique menu sums it up.

Hamtramck is a charm. Poletown as we call it :) I have never even heard of Aladdin Cafe (yes, I grew up and still live in Metro Detroit) – who am I?! It’s on my list.

Mexicantown – never heard of Armando’s either. Thanks for the great ideas, both are on my ‘list’.

Can you tell I stick to the oldies and goodies?! Speaking of Eastern Market, please tell me you have visited the Roma Cafe?

Terry B July 14, 2010 at 3:54 am

Hi, Julie. We often get into our comfortable restaurant ruts here in Chicago, sticking with places we love, so I know what you mean. We didn’t get to Roma, but will check it out on our next Detroit visit. Thanks for the tip!

Sherri July 15, 2010 at 1:31 am

I so miss my home town of Michigan, we will be back there in a few months. I must say I grew up eating at all the wonderful places in Hamtramck, my favorite was the Red Eagle, not even sure if its there anymore. Thanks for sharing your article.

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