Exploring a world of flavors in your own backyard
By Susan R. Pollack
You don’t have to travel far to get a taste of the world, thanks to the ethnically diverse dining scene in Southeast Michigan.
Ann Arbor offers a global tour of foods with no passport required, says Chad Wiebesick, vice president of the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, adding that the variety of cuisine is “unparalleled” for a community its size.
“Visitors can experience everything from Cuban-inspired street food and traditional Ethiopian foods to fresh handmade Italian-style pasta and savory sushi,” Wiebesick says.
And that’s not to mention Ann Arbor’s smorgasbord of other international cuisines, from Spanish fare at Aventura and Turkish delights at Ayse’s Café to Zingerman’s Deli with its mix of traditional Jewish specialties and epicurean treats from around the globe.
Here’s an international sampler of Ann Arbor eateries:
Aventura: Aventura’s roast suckling pig — cochinillo — is guaranteed to make diners’ heads turn and smartphones click. But that’s not the only attention-getter in this stylish downtown Ann Arbor restaurant with rustic brick arches, original stonework and eye-catching tile. The specialty is modern Spanish cuisine, starting with skewered Basque morsels called pintxos (PEEN-chos) — “toothpick food” — and Catalan flatbreads, or cocas. From bite-size
croquettes to Spanish cheese trays and charcuterie, favorite small-plate tapas include toasted almonds with goat cheese, thyme and candied pineapple, and fried cauliflower with green salsa and pine nuts, according to Andrea Cardenas, guest services supervisor, who notes that Aventura won an Open Table Diner’s Choice Award in 2015.
Ayse’s Turkish Café: Tucked away in a northeast-side strip mall, this unassuming spot serves flavorful from-scratch Turkish fare rarely found in Michigan. “Our cooking is a combination of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Greek and Armenian influences,” says owner-chef Ayse Uras.
Local eggplants, peppers and other farm-fresh ingredients star in not-too-spicy lamb, chicken and vegetarian dishes, she says. Turkish treats include ground chicken or lamb meatballs, borek (flaky pastries with cheese, spinach or potatoes), and the classic Noah’s Pudding with cracked wheat, chickpeas, walnuts, dried figs and apricots, rosewater and pomegranate seeds. Juices — cherry, peach, apricot or pungent Turkish turnip — are featured beverages, along with Turkish and American beer and wine.
Blue Nile: Diners receive hot towels before and after meals at this Ethiopian restaurant with locations in downtown Ann Arbor and Ferndale, north of Detroit. Fresh-baked, flat Ethiopian bread called injera is used in place of utensils to scoop well-seasoned chicken, lamb or beef dishes. Collard greens, cabbage, lentils and other vegetables are spiked with jalapeno peppers or the hot Ethiopian spice mix, berbere.
Beverages include Tej honey wine (traditionally given to newlyweds), aromatic herbal teas and organic Ethiopian coffee from the land where coffee originated, says co-owner Almaz Lessanework, who notes that sharing from communal platters fosters camaraderie. Unlike the dinner-only Ferndale restaurant, the Ann Arbor location serves alcohol and is open for lunch and dinner.
Cardamom: Even if you think you don’t like Indian food, this Ann Arbor eatery is the place to give it a try. At my daughter’s insistence, I happily discovered the pleasures of lunchtime thali, an assortment of Indian specialties served in small portions on a round platter — fresh, tasty and affordable. Reflecting the diversity of India, Cardamom’s menu is wide-ranging, with detailed explanations and many options for vegetarians, vegans and other special diets. Despite a recent, much-needed expansion (and the addition of a full and creative cocktail menu), there’s a reason this northeast-side restaurant continues to have long — but worthwhile — waits at popular dining times.
Conor O’Neill’s Irish Pub and Restaurant: If you’ve ever visited a pub in Ireland, you’ll think you’ve crossed the pond at this authentic downtown Ann Arbor spot. Designed and built in Ireland, it’s decorated with heavy wood furnishings, stained glass and Irish knick-knacks. Even the slate floor comes from a quarry on Skellig Michael, a craggy island off Ireland’s southwest coast that was home to Christian monks for centuries. You may recognize it as the site where Luke Skywalker hid from the world in the last scene of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” says manager Caroline Kagonov, a Dublin native.
Not surprisingly, Conor O’Neill’s offers over a dozen Irish whiskeys, pints of Guinness and other Irish beer and authentic fare including fish and chips, shepherd’s pie and corned beef and cabbage. Especially memorable are the potato leek soup with bacon and dill and the warm bread pudding with vanilla sauce. A rollicking spot on University of Michigan football Saturdays, it’s also a Sunday night favorite when local musicians gather to play traditional Irish instruments and music.
Frita Batidos: Grab a seat at the indoor picnic tables and play dominoes while munching Cuban street food that stars tasty burgers — chorizo, chicken, black bean, beef or fish — topped with fries on delicious brioche buns. The other big treat in this stark white, casual and contemporary cafe is batidos, or tropical milkshakes, made with fresh fruit, crushed ice and vanilla ice cream. Happy Hour, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., daily (and the hour before closing time), is even sweeter — the beef frita drops to $5 and a Cuba libre goes for $3.
Isalita: Colorful Mexican artwork adorns this lively cantina featuring Mexican market and street fare. Favorites include house-made guacamole (there’s even a version with bacon!), chips and salsas; tacos with grilled mahi mahi, steak, pork or cauliflower; flautas with duck or buffalo chicken; and sashimi-tuna tostadas. Special tequila-tasting events are held in the lower level ($30 per person including chips, guac and salsas). A popular Sunday Mexican brunch started last summer and is scheduled to resume in January.
MANI Osteria & Bar: Next door, Isalita’s sister restaurant is the place to go for made-from-scratch pasta dishes and wood-fired artisanal pizzas served atop pedestals of oversize Italian tomato cans. But that doesn’t begin to describe the creativity of the shareable Italian small plates fare, starting with a memorable deconstructed bruschetta appetizer of pickled tomatoes served in a Mason jar with mounds of whipped ricotta, black olive tapenade and chewy-crisp bread. The Caesar salad is topped with a poached, lightly breaded and flash-fried farm egg that diners crack and mix in with the dressing. Specialty cocktails are inspired by classic Italian and American spirits.
Metzger’s: Regulars rave about the authentic German fare served at this Ann Arbor restaurant with roots dating to 1928. Located on the city outskirts after decades downtown, Metzger’s boasts an impressive collection of antique steins, cuckoo clocks and traditional recipes. Favorites, served up by third- and fourth-generation Metzger family members, include schnitzel, sauerbraten, sausages and spaetzen plus a wide selection of German beers and wines. Try the Red Reuben sandwich (starring Bavarian red cabbage), stuffed cabbage rolls, German potato salad and the Friday dinner special of spareribs and sauerkraut. And don’t miss the hearty brown bread and dark German mustard.
SlurpingTurtle: Diners gather at sleek communal tables in this contemporary campus restaurant starring celebrity chef Takashi Yagihashi’s upscale Japanese comfort food. The menu features casual, colorful Japanese fare, from duck-fat fried chicken and pork dumpling appetizers with soy-chili dipping sauce to house-made noodle bowls, fresh sushi and sashimi, steamed buns and dessert macarons. Check out the noodle-making operation on the lower level.
Zingerman’s Deli: It’s not surprising if you’re gripped with indecision at this legendary, much-hyped Ann Arbor institution. With scores of creative soups, salads and sandwiches (including the popular corned beef Reuben that President Obama described as “killer”), plus other traditional deli standbys and international gourmet fare, it’s hard to choose. But Zingerman’s devotees insist you can’t go wrong despite the sensory overload. And, you’ll soon have favorite sandwiches of your own, such as the yummy #73, Tarb’s Tenacious Tenure featuring turkey breast, fresh avocado spread, Wisconsin Muenster cheese, tomato and Zingerman’s Russian dressing on grilled farm bread, or the #214, Aubrey’s Milk & Honey with thinly-sliced, hot sopressata salami and Zingerman’s Creamery fresh goat cheese drizzled with honey on grilled rustic Italian bread. Beyond that, cheerful associates will let you taste free samples — even of expensive aged balsamic vinegars — in the gourmet foods shop and deli and in areas devoted to cheese, bread, meat, coffee, gelato and pastries. Bottom-line: It’s a bit pricey, true, but many feel Zingerman’s quality and over-the-top experience are worth it.
In and around Metro Detroit
Metro Detroit is a longtime bastion of culinary diversity. Several area enclaves, with high concentrations of certain ethnic groups, are known as the go-to places for specific cuisines. Here are just a few.
Al Ameer, Dearborn: With the largest concentration of Middle Easterners outside the Middle East, Metro Detroit boasts dozens of Middle Eastern restaurants, but only one honored with a 2016 “American classics” award by the prestigious James Beard Foundation. Among the area’s first Middle Eastern eateries and now, with three locations, the largest, Al Ameer offers traditional Lebanese favorites, from fresh, house-made hummus, baba ghanoush, falafel, tabbouleh and raw juices to spit-grilled shawarma (chicken, beef or lamb), all accompanied by fresh-made pita bread. Between 3,000 and 4,000 pitas are baked daily at the main Dearborn location, which is open every day of the year.
Thuy Trang, Madison Heights: If you prefer authentic ethnic fare to fancy digs, this unpretentious little spot in a nondescript retail strip on John R is the place for traditional Vietnamese food. It’s the real thing, judging by the many Vietnamese patrons seated around the small, no-frills dining room. Many of them come for Vietnamese pho (pronounced fuh), a rich broth studded with rice noodles and various kinds of boiled beef, accompanied by a heaping garnish of fresh bean sprouts, cilantro, Thai basil and lime on the side. But if slurping isn’t your style, dozens of other entrees feature various meats or seafood with chewy or fried rice noodles, soft or crispy egg noodles, or basic white rice. Here, and in all these ethnic restaurants, don’t hesitate to ask your server for suggestions.
Polish Village Café, Hamtramck: Generations of families have been flocking to this homey basement restaurant for authentic Polish food reminiscent of what their grandmother — babcia — used to make. Beyond the dill pickle or beet soups, fans rave about the potato pancakes, golabki (stuffed cabbage), meatballs and noodles — all Eastern European comfort foods. For variety, the Polish Plate with stuffed cabbage, pierogi, kielbasa, sauerkraut and mashed potatoes offers what the menu calls “a taste of Poland.” The current restaurant, brimming with vintage charm, dates to 1976 but the building, which goes back to 1925, flourished as a hotel and restaurant during Hamtramck’s 20th-century heyday.
Chung Ki Wa, Sterling Heights: Whether you order Korean barbecue or other dishes, meals at this pretty Korean restaurant typically start with banchan, complementary side dishes that are often refilled. They may include fishcake, soy and sesame spinach, bean sprouts, seaweed salad, fresh or pickled vegetables like zucchini, radish or carrots and kimchi, Korea’s national dish of spicy fermented Napa cabbage. Servers prepare the barbecue on tabletop grills and assist with choices, from marinated beef (bulgogi or kalbi) to pork belly and seafood. Don’t miss the popular bi bim bap, vegetables in a hot stone bowl with a layer of crunchy rice on the bottom, meat, hot sauce and a whole egg on top.
A Taste of the World
Ayse’s Turkish Café
Blue Nile (Ehiopian)
Conor O’Neill’s (Irish)
Frita Batidos (Cuban)
MANI Osteria (Italian)
Slurping Turtle (Japanese)
Al Ameer (Middle Eastern)
Blue Nile (Ethiopian)
Thuy Trang (Vietnamese)
Polish Village Cafe (Polish)
Chung Ki Wa (Korean)