Chowhound is a weekly column about trends in Detroit food culture. Tips: [email protected].
Walking distance: Recently, a reader came to miss his hometown’s food scene and lamented the more cosmopolitan life he lived in Chicago. From their own city to the sprawling surrounding suburbs, those bustling neighborhoods were associated with food businesses not far from their front door; in incarnations and concentrations that make our Motor City pale in comparison. Responding with some thoughts and a question, I asked Mr. Hungry for Home what hadfound to his liking since he moved. Still new to our area, he admitted that he hadn’t done much exploring as an epicurean to date, so I challenged him to go out and find some places near his new metro Detroit address that were worth telling me about. Hopefully, he will.
On my own home front, I recently did the same, having moved west to Dearborn from Livonia just a few weeks ago. When it comes to proprietary (“small”) food businesses, prospects for success are strongly enhanced by regular support from customers who live or work within a 1.5-mile radius of those businesses. Now that I live a few blocks from a bunch of food stops lining a stretch of Monroe Street in my new neighborhood, I recently walked in on the local eating and shopping talk I gave to the guy from Chicago.
On foot, I started moving forward and headed to an oasis of dining options where Monroe Street meets Outer Drive. Walking, biking, or driving, I’m just five minutes from Mati’s Deli, Monroe Bakery, Dearborn Farm Market, JJ’s Custard Co., and two anchored food trucks (Tio Juan’s and Nami Sushi). Except for Mati’s (maybe a quarter mile up the street), they’re all clustered there at the intersection.
At Mati’s (1842 Monroe St., 313-277-3253, matisdeli.com), the chicken soup passes the legit deli test with a matzo ball almost as big as the cup it comes in. The liverwurst is delicious sandwiched with chopped onion between thick slices of Superior Bread (Livonia) rye and washed down with Doc Brown’s Black Cherry pop. Please note: Mati’s is not cheap. My combo of half a sandwich and soup with a drink costs me about twenty points. Still, the pleasant, conversational service and quality of food create a value perception for me. The best delis take customers to a better place in quick service culture, and this place delivers.
Taking the short hop from there to JJ’s Custard Company (2801 Monroe St., 313-274-1750, jjcustardco.com), I’m tempted by their sweet signatures: the absolute hot-and-cold coldness of “The Sweet Bun.” an ice cream sandwich or custard donut, toasted on the outside, and family-sized frozen custard pies ($24) sprinkled with all kinds of crumble toppings (Fruity Pebbles, Cookie Monster, Strawberry Shortcake, et al.). At award-winning JJ’s, the custard is light and creamy, and the presentations are colorful and creative.
As for Tío Juan’s food truck (2731 Monroe St., facebook.com/tiojuansdearborn), the elote (Mexican street corn, $4) makes me more homesick than usual for Arizona. In a cup, rather than on the cob, this south-of-the-border staple comes parfait-style layered with crispy corn, crumbled cotija (Mexican farmer’s cheese), mayonnaise, and Tajín. One small quibble: add some chopped cilantro, please. With a concise five-item menu (tacos $3.50 to $4, quesadillas $7 to $9, burritos $8 to $12, nachos $10 to $12, corn), TJ’s doesn’t try to do too much, and that’s true for the vendors Mexican food vendors. tradition without a doubt. It is simply Welland the meats are halal.
Across the street, though conceptually an ocean away, Nami is making some really good sushi (2823 Monroe St., 734-558-4718, namisushi.co). So far, I’ve tried a spicy salmon roll, ultra-fresh and full of flavor, drizzled with garlic aioli and decorated with broccoli micro-sprouts and shredded jalapeño, and nibbled Asian Charred Corn Cobbettes (Tomorokoshi) smothered in signature sauce and chili oil . The breadth of Nami’s menu is almost impressive for a place of its size and format, but from rolls ($8-$14 or so) and bowls (around $17) to nigiri/sashimi and raw/hamachi ($10-$20 or so), that’s all. coming out of this ambitious little Asian food truck.
Needing two thick-cut pork chops and enough fresh baby bella mushrooms to smother them, I purchased those items to my liking at Dearborn Farm Market (2645 Monroe St., 313-278-3719, dearbornfarmmarket.com). On my first visit, I met Ted, the business’s resident butcher, and we struck up a conversation about the benefits of having an experienced, knowledgeable butcher to turn to for specific cuts of protein for special cooking occasions, who can also prepare informed recommendations on the proper handling and preparation of meats, poultry and seafood. Good luck getting that level of customer service from any retail grocer who has family packs of still-frozen, pre-packaged round steaks and chicken thighs for you to choose from. Screw that. In fact, I’m going to talk to Ted tomorrow about a friend who buys and cuts up a whole piece of meat, because I know he’ll hook me.
Having returned to Dearborn as a resident for two weeks, my new favorite food spot has quickly become Monroe Bakery (2611 Monroe St., 313-561-5400, monroebakery.com). The first time, I went in to grab a couple donuts. Since then, a handful of return visits have kept me coming back for more of the absolutely charming, old-fashioned, warm and welcoming atmosphere that perfectly exemplifies what neighborhood food shops can add to the neighborly feel of the neighborhoods we call home . Monroe Bakery has given me the pleasure and privilege of knowing three perfectly charming ladies who man the customer service counter with social grace and poise. They have engaged me in pleasant, cordial conversation and have indulged my tendency to talk to someone when given the opportunity. I’m already visiting three or four times a week (spending maybe five dollars per visit) just to grab a bite to eat and chat some more.
And that’s all I’m saying here, friends. Go out into the world right where you live. Explore. Make difference. Try more of the sweet, simple sustenance right outside your door. Support the people who hang their shingles at the end of your street. Make your world and theirs the same and better place. Amen.
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