Where To Eat In Southeast Michigan and Halal Food at ISNA 2014
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Southeast Michigan is a very special place to me. I have fond memories of summers spent with my cousins rotating between my five maternal uncles’ houses. I found my wife there and even moved there for about a year and a half for work. Without any hesitation I can say that area is my second home.
One of the most common questions I get asked is, “what are some good places to eat in Michigan?” Michigan is one of most highest Muslim-populated states in America with most Muslims residing in the southeast part of the state. Muslims come from all over to visit the region for weddings, family gatherings, and events.
The question on where to eat usually is in regards to the city of Dearborn, the most Lebanese concentrated area outside of the actual country of Lebanon. Muslims and non-Muslims alike know all about the famous strip of garlic-sauce and shawarma filled restaurants on Warren Rd east of Southfield Freeway until the Interstate 94.
But Dearborn isn’t all southeast Michigan has to offer. Home to the majority of the state’s businesses and population, the greater “Metro” area is a diverse combination of history, community, and culture.
You know what else southeast Michigan includes? Detroit. As in the infamous gotham of a city that invokes images of rundown streets, poor politics and financial disaster. It’s telling that whenever people tell me they’re visiting the area they say they’re going to “Michigan.” Not Detroit (and even more telling is the same goes for many residents of the suburbs when I ask them where they live, they say Michigan, where as in the Chicago suburbs residents say Chicago, not Illinois).
But for those who really know Detroit know it’s actually the home of a new American renaissance. Suburbanites are moving into redone areas and neighborhoods, tech companies like Twitter have set up office, and a scene of arts, culture, and especially good eats, both old and new, are an integral part of the future of Detroit that’s underway.
That’s why my list of places to eat go beyond just Dearborn. There are great bites to grab all over greater Metro Detroit. And since my concept of Halal is not limited to just meat, this list appeals to all sorts of cuisine: ethnic, local, vegetarian, and more.
So, if you’re planning an upcoming visit, are a local who’s looking for something new, or will be attending the 2014 51st Annual ISNA Convention, here are best bites to eat in southeast, MI for the Muslim Eater.
Chicken Shawarma Sandwich: Super Greenland MarketWhen done right the chicken shawarma sandwich is the ultimate shawarma sandwich. But it requires extra attention and care. Chicken can easily dry out when overcooked and a lot of the sandwiches across town fall victim to this. No matter how much sauce or condiments are added into the sandwich you notice the dried out chicken in every bite. The deli counter at Super Greenland Market, on the other hand, offers a chicken shawarma sandwich that is superior to any other in town. The chicken they cut off their spit is consistently juicy and perfectly seasoned. With pickled cucumbers and an adequate but not overboard amount of garlic sauce, the only things ever needed in a chicken shawarma sandwich, Super Greenland Market makes hands down the best shawarma in all of southeast Michigan.
Meat Shawarma Sandwich: Golden BakeryIt’s funny how every restaurant in Dearborn calls shawarma sandwiches made with red meat as “meat” (lahma) shawarmas while chicken is called “chicken” (dajjaj). What, does chicken not have meat on its body? I’m sure it’s because of Arab’s love of red meat but meat shawarma sandwiches are a treat. Dressed differently than their chicken counterparts, tahini replaces garlic sauce while the pickles are replaced by tomatoes and onions. I guess some guy in Lebanon one day realized this different combo just works, because boy, are these sandwiches delicious. Golden Bakery on Warren and Chase makes the superior meat shawarma sandwich in all the land. It’s all in the meat they slice off their spit right in front of you. Always tender and soft yet has enough char and browning from rotating on the spit. You almost don’t need anything else in your sandwich. Only their tahini is the perfect accompanying sauce alongside tomatoes and thinly sliced onions. How do you know they make the best? Many natives I’ve met don’t know about the place. But whenever I’ve had once of them try the sandwich they agree on first bite. “Wow,” they say with a stuffed mouth. “This is really good.”
Chicken Wings: CedarlandI’m not sure when Cedarland became the official Lebanese restaurant for all Desis, locals and tourists alike. But anytime I visited my family in Michigan my uncles’ families would always eat there and inevitably see other Desi people. Some claim that Cedarland isn’t all that great and that the quality has significantly gotten worse though it tastes that same as I remember from my childhood. It could just be dissenters who are loyal to Al-Ameer restaurant across the street. But even the haters agree no one makes chicken wings like Cedarland. Crisp, seasoned in some sort of Lebanese-esque spices, and addicting. Dunk them into their super potent garlic sauce for the ultimate finger food experience in all of Dearborn. So, if you’re going to inevitably end up at the Land of Cedar, get the wings. Oh, and make sure to follow up a garlic sauce dipped wing with a nice glug of of Pepsi. Your tongue will sizzle.
Cheese and Zatar Flatbread: Golden BakeryBakeries are a dime a dozen in Dearborn. Patrons are always buying pita bread, flatbread, and even “pizza” like items to take home on their way out from work. Try asking Golden Bakery for a fresh baked sensation my wife’s cousin revealed me to: a flatbread topped with cheese *and* zatar. Like most bakeries, Golden has pre-baked flatbreads with options like cheese and zatar separately. But if you want both, they have to bake it fresh for you. But don’t stop with the double top. If you want it crispier, get them to bake your flatbread *long.* They’ll stretch it out long and thin to fit the length of the entire wooden peel they launch dough into their ovens with. The result is a very hot, crispy, thin, freshly baked flatbread topped with salty cheese, zatar and plenty of olive oil. A serving for two perfect on a cold winter day or breezy summer night. Just make sure you don’t ask for it to-go otherwise they’ll fold it into a brown bag which leads to an oily mess. Plus, why would you not eat the thing right there and then? It’s too good not to.
Arab Sweets, French Pastries, Chocolate Ice Cream: ShatilaEasily the most famous spot in all of Dearborn, Shatila is where out of towners go for dessert after feasting on Lebanese food for dinner. You can’t miss it on Warren Rd with its bright almost over the top exterior design. Shatila has a seemingly endless array of Lebanese sweets that magically refill from the back of the shop. It also has a ton of drool-inducing French pastries toward the back, a hint of Lebanon’s colonization by France after World War I until gaining independence in 1943. But a hidden gem is their ice cream. While the strawberry and and pineapple flavors taste like nothing but artificial flavoring, their pistachio is solid and the chocolate won 2nd place in a regional taste test for best chocolate from local creameries. Whatever it is you choose you will more than satisfy your sweet tooth by hitting up one of the must-visit spots in Dearborn.
Kanafeh: Masri SweetsYou know that lesser known spot that’s better than the more famous ones? That’s Masri Sweets. You’ll find people bringing offerings from other places all the time. But when someone brings Masri Sweets I get excited. Their top item is their kanafeh, the famous cheese based dessert of the Middle East. Look them up on Yelp and nearly every user submitted photo is a picture of theirs. As a Chicagoan, I’ve had some fine kanafesh in my Palestinian-rich hometown, both homemade and store bought. Masri Sweets nails it. Strangely enough, the place isn’t Egyptian as the name suggest. It’s actually Palestinian!
Italian, Mexican, Thai, & Sandwiches
Thai Cuisine (Chicken): Go Sy ThaiI’m not that experienced in Thai Food, but it’s one of the cuisines I tend to miss meat the most on while eating out. And “Halal Thai” is not something you tend to hear about. Enter Go Sy Thai. Owner Cedric Lee happens to run a joint that has already excellent reviews. But he happens to source his chicken from from a Halal supplier. Unlike most attempts at Halal Asian cuisine that aren’t very good or mix in Desi style flavors into their food Go Sy Thai is a legit Thai place you can enjoy Halal. At least the chicken, anyway. They also have a pretty cool fast-dining setup which Lee describes to as “Thai meet Qdoba.” If you’re into Thai food, hit this place up.
Almond Chicken: LA BistroDearborn isn’t only about Lebanese food and LA Bistro is there to prove it. The place serves excellent “New American” cuisine. Steak dinners, turkey wraps, salads, you name it. If you want something more local in place of the the Lebanese usual in Dearborn, this place has it. Try the Almond Chicken. It’s breaded chicken breast with thin almond slices, pan fried and served over white basmati rice and steamed vegetables all topped with sun-dried tomatoes and a pesto cream sauce. It’s dishes like these that show Bistro has culinary credibility. The place looks nice and service is pretty good, too. It makes sense why LA Bistro is located off of Michigan Ave on the small strip of posh western Dearborn. It fits right in.
Frida Mexican CuisineThere are a few Halal Mexican joints in Dearborn. Frida is the best. Offering authentic Mexican with all Halal meats, this is probably a Halal eating experience you won’t be able to find so easily throughout the US. Flautas, enchiladas, tacos, you name it. It’s all very good. If you really want to stretch your Mexican cuisine muscle, try a Horchata, a sweet rice drink, or some dessert via fried ice cream or tres leches cake. Just make sure to get the chicken tortilla soup. It is outstanding.
Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich: Ricky’s Sub ShopAt exactly 11:59pm on any given weekday you will see a bunch of Ford cards pull up to this shop and get in line for a sub. That’s because is one of the places that always brings in employees working at Ford’s headquarters and campus nearby. Ricky’s charm is in its long time history of a familiar product. Owner Ricky Freji’s been chopping up Halal ribeye steaks for years now. His place has mad value with its ridiculous portions. For $4 you get “half” of a sub which can easily feed a professional linebacker for the Detroit Lions to satisfying proportions. But get a full sub for $8 and you will have enough for the bench. All sandwiches come with lettuce and tomato even the Philly cheesesteak. But get it without the veggies and add in bell peppers, onions, cheese and mayo. For just $4 you will have a sloppy, meaty, greasy fill-you-up you will not regret.
Coney Island Hot Dog: Superior Coney IslandIn case you didn’t know there are city-specific variations of the regular ol’ hot dog all over America. In Detroit it’s all about the Coney Island. Which is also the name of the Greek-American restaurants that serve these bad boys. But let me be very clear in my recommendation: hot dog enthusiasts only. This isn’t exactly a high-brow gourmet dish despite it being served with on a plate with a fork. And Coney Island restaurants are anything but fine dining establishments. A simple look up on Yelp or Google Reviews will have you scratching your head. But the “coney” has a reputation for hot dog lovers all over. Its defining factor? Coney sauce. Not to be confused with chili, this stuff is milder and… saucy. The sauce traditionally tops hot dogs along with mustard and diced raw onions. There are a bunch of places that serve Halal coneys throughout Dearborn and Detroit. Most Muslims are aware of Halal location of the chain Leo’s Coney Island in Dearborn. But according to a review by Joe Grimm, a man who wrote an entire book on Coney Island hot dogs, Superior Coney Island in Dearborn makes a Halal version that are “excellent and worth the extra two bits.” The fun fact about coney sauce? The sauce is made with ground beef. What kind of ground beef? Ground beef heart. Step aside casual hot dog fans. This one’s for the pros.
New York Style Pizza: SupinoDon’t get me started on Supino. Because I will not stop. Introduced to me by my wife’s cousin and her husband, high-school friend of owner Dave Manicini, it is by far my favorite restaurant in all of southeast Michigan. And I will not hesitate to say my favorite pizza on the planet. With Supino, it’s all about their dough. Dave worked on his recipe for seven years before quitting his job as a physical therapist and opening shop. It’s called Supino because it’s named after the village Dave’s father came from where Dave visited to learn about pizza in Italy itself.
The pizza is some of the best of its style in America for two reasons. First, Dave makes his dough a day in advance to cold-rise in the fridge allowing the yeast to develop superior flavor to same-day fast-risen dough. Second, his pizza isn’t exactly New York style, usually baked at 550 degrees F, nor is it Neapolitan, traditionally baked at 900 to 1,000 degrees. It’s something right in between, baked at around 675 F. The slices are thin and crispy yet soft and pillowy with plenty of char underneath; all signs of a perfect pizza. I always enjoy plain cheese which you can ask to be topped with basil. You know a place is good when a plain cheese is great. But the namesake Supino is the king. Topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella, roasted garlic, kalamata olives and ricotta cheese, it is New York and Italy hybrid perfection. Doesn’t sound like your thing? Try the Funghi. A white pizza (no tomato sauce) with portobello mushrooms, mozzarella, parsley, and smoked gouda. It tastes like smoked meat, only without any on the pie. A couple issues to be aware of, though. First, you should only eat here if you like thin crust. If the concept of pizza for you is only something that will fill you up within two bites, you might have some preconceived notions you’ll be fighting against. Second, you want to eat this in the restaurant, as the pizza is best when right out of the oven and doesn’t do that well after it cools down. Last, know that Supino is closed Sundays and Mondays and has limited seating that is first come first serve. Call to gauge wait times and place your order ahead. You’ll be glad you did.
Detroit-style pizza: Buddy’s PizzaApparently Chicago-native Oprah likes Detroit-style Buddy’s pizza better than any other Chicago-style pizza. So do a ton of other famous people as evidenced by copies of newspaper clippings posted all over the insides of Buddy’s locations around the city. They have legitimacy to their claim because Buddy’s is awesome. Detroit-style is basically a Sicilian pizza, so it’s baked in a square oil-lined pan. Like a truly good pan pizza should, Detroit pizza crafters line cheese all the way to the edges of the pan. When the pans go in the oven, that cheese touching the pan’s side get some extra cooking love offering a super salty crunch to each square piece you eat. A classic cheese is a great start. But if you’re into exploring go for the Greek pizza. The pizza is like a legit Greek salad topped with brick cheese, feta cheese, tomatoes, and an ingredient you’d never expect on pizza: dill. Is Detroit-style better than Chicago-style? Only one way to find out.
New Haven-style pizza: Tomatoes ApizzaVisiting relatives near Farmington Hills, MI? Go out and get some “apizza” (pronounced ah-beetz). I had heard about New Haven-style pizza but wondered how I’d ever end up in Connecticut to try it. Turns out I was able to experience it while living in southeast Michigan. The pizza is kid friendly and the two locations carry a decent salad bar, too. But behind the two locations’ unassuming Midwestern exteriors is highly specialized regional pizza with a big reputation. Super thin and crisp, yet soft and chewy with plenty of char thanks to a coal oven (brick oven at the Halsted location) just like the original Italian immigrants to New Haven used to make. Most interesting is the story of Max Weinstein. Similar to how traditional Islamic scholars learn under a ijazah system that goes from teacher to teacher back to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, Max’s teacher chart is known going four teachers back to the originator of New Haven-style pizza, Frank Pepe of New Haven, CT, uncle of the famous Sally or Sally’s Pizza out there. So, you know this is the real deal. It has to be. It’s just so good.
Griddled Burgers: Hot ToppingsIf a place has a burger on its menu called an “In-N-Out,” then you know you’re in store for something legit. Hot Toppings sprouted up recently at the western edge of Detroit just north of Dearborn offering classic griddled burgers with an insanely amount of toppings to choose from. There are some crazy options but you’d be best to order something classic: burger, cheese, grilled onions, pickles, sauce and if you really want, lettuce and tomato. If you’re a suburbanite you may be put off by the bulletproof glass windows where you place orders, something to take this into consideration as to who you bring and what time you go (e.g. don’t bring your suburbanite Meijer shopping mother-in-law after sunset). But look past it and you’ll have access to something Detroit is actually known for, classic 50s style hamburgers, but has never been available in Halal form. Do note: while the owner clearly uses Halal meat, the supply for certain items (like bacon) has reportedly run low in the past after which non-Halal meat is supplemented. So call ahead and ask on site if Muslim-friendly meat is in stock. If it is then rejoice. Halal In-N-Out-style burgers await.
Organic Burgers: Elevation BurgerElevation Burger’s “ingredients matter” mantra is problematic. The Virgnia based chain focuses on ingredients that are technically healthier by themselves but when put together don’t really make a difference. It’s a burger: fatty salty beef fried on a flattop served on a processed bun with a side wedges of potatoes deep fried in vats of oil and a tall fountain soda. It’s unhealthy regardless of ingredients! Reviews say their choice of those “healthier” options leads to an inferior product (e.g. insisting on using olive oil which leads to greasier less crisp fries defeating the purpose of using it in the first place, picking cheddar over American but many times is applied in a way where the cheese is not melted, etc.). And to have for premiums like grass-fed beef means you pay more for your meal. But I would be remiss not to mention Elevation Burger on this list. And while it isn’t something exclusive to MI many Muslims from the Midwest, south, and west coast will be hard-pressed to find a decent Halal burger, let alone one with plenty of seating, a family-friendly setup, and that “burger joint” feel. The location in Ann Arbor, MI, just on the way out of Detroit heading toward Chicago, has rave reviews for customer service. When opening in summer of 2013 the owner kept the restaurant open later to bring in the post-tarawih crowd. They also recycle their used olive oil to convert it into bio-diesel fuel. So, Elevation Burger may not be perfect but for many Halal eaters it’s a darn fine option.
Ice Cream and Doughnuts
Ice Cream Sundae: Guernsey’s Dairy
Guernsey’s Dairy sells its milk and ice cream in grocery stores all over Michigan but its their ice cream shop that had to make this list. Made from their own cows, their ice cream is rich, sweet, and classic. A single serving is enough for at least two people so come with plenty of room in your dessert compartment. While their fruit flavors have some issues in the flavor department, their classic and chocolate flavors are decadent. Seating is only for restaurant diners so tradition has people get their ice cream and sit outside or in their cars. Recently, though, they’ve added a few seats around the register in the antique-like gift shop. To go all out vintage I recently decided on an ice cream sundae but couldn’t decide between natural vanilla without eggs or French vanilla with a custard base. After sampling both I ended up going with the richer eggy French style. Together with hot fudge, whipped cream and a cherry I hit the jackpot. But what would it have been like with the natural vanilla? I guess I’ll just have to go back and find out.
Doughnuts: Any non-chain doughnut shopIf doughnuts don’t excite you it’s probably because you’re used to standardized chain offerings that someone buys for breakfast that never finish. There’s something different about these mom-and-pop type doughnut joints, though. The yeasted doughnuts are lighter, airier, and straight up bigger. And the cake doughnuts are fried better, with a crisp, uneven, caramelized crust and impossibly moist interior. Glazes and frostings are better, too. They have something that the factory-esque Tim Horton’s and Dunkin Donuts simply can’t produce. Southeast Michigan is filled with quality doughnut shops. The queen lives in Detroit itself Dutch Girl Donuts just west of downtown. In Dearborn there’s Donutville USA. And there are a bunch in the west, like the Looney Baker, and north like Knapp’s Donut Shop in Rochester. The key is to go for a place that’s family owned and isn’t gimmicky. Doughnuts at these joints don’t need to rely on some trendy Red Velvet or Maple Bacon flavor to get sales. A classic yeasted glazed goes down like a light frosted cloud, a chocolate frosted cake is like birthday for breakfast, and a buttermilk doughnut takes you back in time. If you want to enjoy them as close to fresh as possible go after Fajr. You’ll probably find people already there enjoying the good stuff. But these things reheat great with a seven second spin in the microwave making you wonder how and why they are so much better than the chain-shop stuff. Once you go non-chain doughnut you’ll never go back.
Cider Doughnuts & Apple Cider: Parmenter’s Cider Mill, Plymouth OrchardsEvery fall, my wife and I find ourselves making plans to revisit her childhood through apple cider and cider doughnuts in southeast Michigan. It’s a thing throughout the Midwest but an absolute speciality in Michigan. There are a number of cider mills that harvest fresh pressed cider from apples using it directly in their batter for doughnuts. The doughnuts are made from a thick cake batter and are smaller than your average doughnut. Theyalmost always come in two varieties: plain and “spiced,” as in coated in a delectable cinnamon-sugar coating that goes down perfectly with a glug of cider, hot or cold. The cider is pricey at $7 or so a gallon. But it’s unlike any of the cider you find in grocery stores; thick, pulpy, and… appley! If you’re in southeast Michigan during the fall, head out to either Parmenter’s or Plymouth Orchard’s in the west suburbs. Plymouth Orchards has a super kid friendly tractor tour. But for the best apple cider? It’s all about Parmenter’s in Northville.
Halal Food at the 2014 51st Annual ISNA Convention
When the southeast Michigan locals found they would be hosting ISNA for 2014 they went all out. A 5K Run/Walk along the river, a $10 carnival for the little kids, a robotics program for older kids, tons of arts and cultural exhibits and shows, an open forum, and a completely revamped matrimonial event.
But the food is what will make headlines this year. The local organizers made the meat at the food court at the COBO Center Halal, allowing attendees to grab some good eats right within. The offerings are both ethnic and American style, from burgers to falafel sandwiches to salads.
Even better is how they got Detroit-based food trucks to go Halal just for the convention. Parked nearby the COBO Center Muslims attending the conference can eat food trucks they would otherwise never be able to enjoy. This is super exciting for Muslim foodies!
The best part about this whole setup is what implications can come from it. Restaurant groups, caterers, and even food trucks recognize the potential of Halal so long as you communicate with them. Who knows. Maybe by seeing the frenzy that will inevitably take place at the convention, these food trucks will consider going Halal full time? That’s the direction we need to move toward and the local Detroit organizers for this year’s ISNA can be thanked for that.
Here’s the list of options this year. Enjoy!
COBO Food Court
Mac Shack (Macaroni & Cheese)
The Chicken Coupe (Chicken & Waffles)
El Guapo (Tacos & Burritos)
Delectabowls (Comfort Food)