Serena Daniels lives in Detroit. For her, "food can be a means of resisting colonialism, to provide the nutrients needed to battle on the frontline of a protest and can provide a healthy means to face each day with a clear mind and strength."
By Serena Maria Daniels, founder of Tostada Magazine
I’ve found in my tenure as a food writer that much of my time is spent compiling listicles. Sometimes they’re referred to as heat maps. Or clickbait.
Whatever your opinion of these types of stories is, the truth is listicles matter. If a restaurant or chef makes it on one of these roundups, their profile is elevated, and they're more likely to get noticed by national media or judges of culinary awards. So, as much as possible, I take these things seriously when I’m putting these “best of” articles together.
With that being said, I’ve taken the time to present you with 13 of my favorite dishes for 2018, keeping in mind Tostada Magazine’s ethos for celebrating culture and community. You see, in my view, it’s not enough that a meal is delicious or that the ingredients come from local farms. To be sure, both are important factors to consider, but food has the power to do so much more. It can be a means of resisting colonialism, to provide the nutrients needed to battle on the frontlines of a protest and can provide a healthy means to face each day with a clear mind and strength. The meals that make up this listicle are, in my estimation, the embodiment of the potential impact food can have on our lives.
1) Jollof rice at Saartj
For this one, I ventured out of Detroit to New Orleans, where I met with former Detroiter Tunde Wey, cook, writer, and “provocateur.” Last February, he launched a month-long pop-up dining experience focused around income inequality called “Saartj” (referring to Sara “Saartjie” Baartman, a 19th-century black South African woman who was taken from her home and paraded around Europe). At a food hall in NOLA’s Central City neighborhood, Wey served customers boxes of his Nigerian jollof rice with oven-roasted plantains, blackened cauliflower, golden beets and coconut sauce, pickled onions, and toasted collard greens. For black and brown customers, he charged $12 a plate. For white guests, he asked for $30 per order to account for the racial income gap of two and a half times.
His experiment garnered national attention, and later in the spring, he took Saartj to the Detroit area, where, over a multi-course dinner, he asked diners not just to think about their privilege, but also to give some of it up, even if it was for just one evening. For some, that meant a different plate of food. For others, it was their own seat at the table. The event culminated in a discussion around race and privilege that naturally left some feeling uneasy, which was, of course, the point.
2) Chicken and dumplings at the "Dinner for 30" dining series
I’m often invited to pop-up dining events around town. They usually involve several courses of dishes created by up-and-coming chefs looking to get their culinary style on foodies’ radars, maybe a brief description of what inspired each entree. It’s not too often, though, that the focus strays far from the actual food. Detroiter Cornetta Lane, creator of the "Dinner for 30" series, understands that food is a lens to tell a bigger story. And that’s just what she accomplished through her months-long event.
At each convening, up to 30 ticketed guests were invited to join in on hearing the backstories behind the cooks brought on to prepare the night’s meal. It created a platform for Detroiters who don’t always have the chance to tell their own narratives on their own terms. Oh, and the food was also mouthwatering. I attended the second dinner, featuring chicken and dumplings made by chef Yachecia Holston, a Top 5 finalist in season 8 of Fox’s MasterChef reality series. The Detroit native talked about her family’s migration from Tennessee to the Motor City and the recipes that shaped her Southern upbringing. Her family history illustrated the experience of hundreds of thousands of other African-Americans who made their way north over the decades for economic opportunity, and the ways they bring a taste of their Southern heritage with them. The dumplings were, in that chilly March evening, the perfect comfort food: filling, tasty, and leaving diners lining up for seconds and thirds.
3) Spicy chicken burger from Burgers and Shakes
Metro Detroit is increasingly becoming a haven for halal-friendly craft burgers. It makes perfect sense, considering the region is home to one of the largest Muslim-American populations in the country, who are just as interested in the deliciousness of a good ol’ American burger as they are in paying respect to their faith. While several halal burger spots are drool-worthy contenders (Brome Modern Eatery, California Burgerz, and Royale with Cheese, to name just a few), I have to give a hat tip to the simply named Burgers and Shakes in Hamtramck. The takeout and delivery eatery takes a build-your-own burger approach, giving customers their choice of not just condiments and cheeses, but also meats (there's beef, salmon, and chicken, and you can choose one, two, or three juicy patties), and over-the-top add-ons like sautéed mushrooms, jalapeños, onion rings, and mozzarella sticks. Being a Hamtramckan partial to Uber Eats, I’ve incorporated Burgers and Shakes in my delivery rotation. I’m partial to the chicken burger, made with halal-grade ground chicken that’s kicked up with a fiery blend of spices, along with provolone cheese, tomato, the house sauce, mozzarella sticks, and onion rings. For not a whole lot of money, I’m able to get a monster-sized burger with just a sampling of apps all snugly fit within a single bun.
4) Cranberry crumble petit fours from Warda Patisserie
Warda Bouguettaya has a knack for creating pastries that are equal parts miniature works of art and an homage to her Algerian roots and global travels. That’s why her tarts, meringues, cakes, and other baked goods have been a hit long before her Warda Pâtisserie settled into its first permanent brick-and-mortar space at Trinosophes toward the end of 2018. Weeks before opening, I caught a preview of what was to come during a book release party for fellow Detroit baker Lisa Ludwinski of the acclaimed Sister Pie. That’s when I tried Bouguettaya’s heavenly cranberry crumble petit fours, which — true to her aim to use seasonal ingredients — incorporates tart, sweet cream, flaky crust, and crushed walnuts in one dainty, satisfying bite. While these squares were prepared for a special event, they offered a glimpse of her ingenuity.
5) Folk Bowl at FOLK Detroit
If you would have asked a vegetarian where you could find a really good salad in Detroit just a few years ago, their response would likely have been prefaced with a heavy sigh. Plant-centered menu items were just not quite as emphasized at many of the city’s standby eateries. I mean, the Motor City has a long history as a very meat-heavy dining place (hello, the Coney?). But when FOLK Detroit entered the scene last year, its founders Kiki Louya and Rohani Foulkes proved that, yes, you can get excited about eating your greens. I recommend the namesake Folk Bowl, packed with a variety of locally-sourced kale, roasted fennel, berbere spiced carrots, and vegan cashew dressing. To top off its artfully-designed menu, FOLK’s ethos for using Michigan-centric ingredients and providing an equitable work environment makes the Corktown diner a destination that nourishes both the body and mind.
6) Terroirs of Vietnam at Flowers of Vietnam
To be sure, I’ve been a fan of George Azar’s Flowers of Vietnam since the lauded Southwest Detroit restaurant’s beginnings as a once-a-week eatery set in an old former Coney Island. Critical praise, a residency under Danish chef René Redzepi’s Noma pop-up in Mexico, and a dramatic redesign later, Flowers continues to turn heads with its inspired Vietnamese menu. My go-to? The Terroirs of Vietnam on the dessert menu. Influenced by the Vietnamese egg coffee, what you get here is a rich, buttery slab of ice cream and nougat juxtaposed against an 80 percent cacao “chantilly” cream. The incredibly-plated treat is a decadent finale to Flowers’ famous Korean-style caramel wings, bok choy, and crunchy salt and pepper shrimp.
7) Tacos at El Parian
The tacos from El Parian Loncheria — the popular fleet of taco trucks in Southwest Detroit — recently received a major shoutout from NPR’s Here and Now resident chef Kathy Gunst, who named the tacos one of her favorite bites of the year. And I couldn’t agree more. Says the cookbook author, the tacos there are “cooked in a bubbling vat of braising liquid seasoned with onions and spices,” before being fried briefly and packed into two warmed corn tortillas. The result is a slightly crispy, incredibly flavorful protein (you can choose between a variety of marinated beef, pork, or chicken fillings) that’s usually accompanied by a caramelized grilled onion and potato, plus a choice of salsas and garnishments of pickled carrots or onions.
8) Aseed at Sheeba
If you live in Metro Detroit, you gotta appreciate the incredibly diverse availability of Middle Eastern cuisine. While most of us are familiar with the shawarmas and taboulis of Lebanon, another distinct culinary region that’s growing in numbers around town is Yemeni food. While shooting a promo video for Tostada, I met with chef Hassan Musselmani at Sheeba restaurant in Hamtramck. This is where he introduced me to the traditional, high-carb Yemeni delicacy known as aseed. Made with flour, salt, and boiled water, and often smothered in some sort of protein, the dish is usually served with a condiment similar to Mexican table salsa. The texture looks like mashed potatoes, while the flavor resembles Southern dumplings, though with a heavier dough-to-gravy ratio. To be eaten with your hands, some say it’s the ideal pick-me-up when you need to store up enough energy for a marathon day of work.
9) Halo-halo at Tou & Mai
Halo-halo is an ubiquitous and refreshing Filipino dessert made with shaved ice and a medley of toppings like sweetened beans, fruit, evaporated milk coconut julienes, ube (purple yam), flan, and sometimes ice cream. Many have tried to reimagine the iconic combination of flavors with varying degrees of success (or epic failure, as was the case when Bon Appétit attempted to create its own rendition in 2016). In Detroit, Midtown’s Tou & Mai has its take on Halo-halo with its “Hello Hello.” While the mini-mart and boba tea shop, owned by Gowhnou Lee and husband Cedric Lee (who also run Go! Sy Thai), takes a few liberties with the ingredients (they incorporate basil seeds, for example), folks in the know appreciate that the tiny establishment otherwise pays respect to tradition.
10) Arepas at El Rey de las Arepas
One of Major League Baseball players’ best-kept secrets comes in the form of a small eatery on Detroit’s southwest side. El Rey de las Arepas is famous among Venezuelan pro ball players for dishing out a taste of authentic cuisine. In particular, Tigers first baseman Miguel “Miggy” Cabrera, Cincinnati Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez, or Eduardo Escobar, a shortstop and third baseman for the Arizona Diamondbacks are all known to place orders there whenever the season takes them to the Motor City. The restaurant’s namesake arepas are a handheld meal best eaten fresh out of the deep fryer. It’s a cumbia of taste, with the crunch of the maize arepa vessel, followed by slowly-marinated shredded beef filling. An element of creaminess is added with a cilantro aioli, as well as a ketchup-infused mayo.
11) Pad Thai Roll at Bangkok 96 Street Food
When you can’t decide between a filling plate of peanuty pad thai or an order of egg rolls, why not get both from Bangkok 96 Street Food? This eatery, located in a food stall inside the recently-opened Detroit Shipping Company, is a spinoff of the longtime Bangkok 96 in Dearborn. Here, you’ll find a fast-casual version of the original location, with items like my favorite, the pad thai roll, made with the eatery’s famous stir-fried rice noodles, and your choice of meat or meatless protein, wrapped in a flour tortilla — all topped with crushed peanuts and green onions. It’s like noodles meets egg roll, meets sushi, meets burrito. Whatever you call it, it’s a fun dish that’s easily shared with after-work beers with friends from the food hall’s expansive bar.
12) "Matriarchy in the Kitchen" dinner at the Allied Media Conference’s Dream Cafe
The first-ever Dream Cafe was born when a group of organizers of the annual Allied Media Conference in Detroit began to think about how to incorporate food into its lineup of social justice-oriented programming. The group of activists, community organizers, artists and cooks wanted the food served at the June convening to be representative of the conference’s values. In other words, to imagine foodways where everyone involved could realize economic equity, and at the same time, enjoy a meal that paid homage to the preservation of the many cultures represented at the days-long event.
It was a tall order, for sure, yet the Dream Cafe garnered national attention for serving what could become a model for what a more representative food system could be. One of the highlights for me was the "Matriarchy in the Kitchen" pop-up dinner held at FOLK Detroit in Corktown. The multi-course meal enlisted New York-based Kit & Kin pop-up and catering company, which centers around Trinidadian and Jamaican food traditions. Founder Anya Peters enlisted the help of family members and cooks from Detroit. The result: jerk-fried pig ears, green-seasoned fried chicken, coconut callaloo and greens, veggie jambalaya, and hummingbird cake. Diners marveled, not just at the menagerie of fiery, savory, and sweet flavors on display, but also that the offerings were able to draw from the wisdom of several generations and family histories.
13) Vegan tacos al pastor from Rocky’s Road Brew
I’ve had many occasions to sample various vegetarian takes on Mexican food over the years. A lot of it is great, after all, in pre-Hispanic Mexico, a plant-based diet was par for the course. However, some of it, like the ground taco “meat” one might find in the frozen food section of major grocery retailers, not so great. One truly unique spin on the vegan taco market can be found at Rocky’s Road Brew, a food and coffee truck that sits on a corner of Vernor Highway in Southwest Detroit. Owner Rocky Coronado told Tostada contributor Brittany Hutson that they wanted to create a menu that would offer residents a healthy, but no less tasty alternative to much of the processed fast-food options that run rampant in the area.
The tacos “al pastor” do just that, with the filling made of jackfruit instead of marinated pork. The texture of the jackfruit is a worthy contender with a similar texture as the original and, I imagine, is a tad better for you than your typical soy-based meat substitute. Coronado says they’re planning to open Damelo, a cafe, eatery, and sober gathering space in the building next to where they park the truck that they purchased in 2018. I personally can’t wait to be able to while away my afternoon hours in Southwest with a cup of their cold brew, a few tacos, and a short walk away from Clark Park (one of my favorite hangouts in Detroit, when weather permits).
Note, there’s really no way to encapsulate every single one of the amazing dishes I’ve had this year in one article. So, if I’m missing anything you think should be named, just hit me up and give me your suggestions. Also note, the meals aren’t ranked in any particular order.
This article first appeared on Tostada Magazine and was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.
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