Back in the day when Hamtramck was the scofflaw capital of the United States, streetcars still shuttled the masses to their automotive jobs. Weary from a long day's work, they stopped off at the many speakeasies, corner bars, and saloons that saturated the small factory town — giving it the distinction as having the most bars per capita than any other city in the country.
Today, the 2.1-square-mile Hamtramck still boasts some 40-odd watering holes — including Baker Streetcar Bar — named in tribute to the Baker Streetcar line that ran right up Joseph Campau to take workers across Wayne County to the Ford plant in Dearborn. It's a dimly lit, carpeted, shot-and-a-beer kind of joint, noted only by a neon sign in the window. The walls are covered with old newspaper clippings recollecting the city's boom years, faded photographs, and vintage Polish regalia. Regulars are mostly middle-aged and senior Hamtramckans, as well as a number of former denizens who stop by for a few cold ones on their way to their eastside burbs. As for food, most days folks order a Detroit square from Amicci's Pizza down the street, which will deliver it right to your barstool.
Come the spring and summer months though, and you'll find a more diverse clientele. There's that long-haired bassist in that local garage punk band who just got off tour; the city clerk/bartender; or yours truly, the food/news writer who lives above the local coffee shop. You'll find these characters with frequency, all to indulge in Alley Cow Grille — the Friday night only, unofficial steakhouse of Hamtramck.
If you ever walk through one of the alleys just west of Joseph Campau, your nostrils will help you understand the allure. That's where the bar's bearish proprietor Richard "Rocky" Radtke can be found behind the grill, tongs in hand, flipping charred meats in beef, poultry, and pork variety over an open flame. It doesn't matter if the temperatures are pushing triple digits or that there's no longer enough room to sit at the bar — he starts setting up the day before and doesn't stop until the food is sold out. And sell out, it does. Folks pick up stacks of Styrofoam boxes to go. Hungry locals make it a point to fast most of the day to make way for stealthy slabs of proteins. Some have even been known to call in and ask if Rocky takes reservations.
The cult-like popularity came about seven or eight years ago when the town's softball beer leagues started drying out and stopped visiting Baker as much. To drum up business, Rocky decided to start a modest grill night, with just one cut of steak on the menu of meat offerings. It didn't take long for word to catch on, so to appease the growing crowds he added more choices — both rib eyes and strip steaks, pork chops, and white meat chicken breast, all from Eastern Market — along with his "famous" slaw, choice of potato (hickory smoked baked, creamy house-made au gratin, or fries), and a Hamtramck obligatory basket of sliced bread and butter.
No matter what you go with, you won't be disappointed. The juicy steaks — Rock's Rib Eye and Streetcar Strip — are each 12 ounces and hit that sweet spot of having the right amount of protein, lined with just enough fatty, charred bark on the outside. Rocky and his team take care not to overcook the pork chops, and dish out two per serving. The chicken breast, probably on the menu for those who insist they don't eat red meat or swine, also manages to achieve succulence, though we strongly suggest going with the former proteins as the stronger contenders. All come out with nice, smoky charred ends for that backyard cookout flavor.
The amply portioned coleslaw has several unique touches, including the use of tiny cauliflower, and broccoli florets, and bacon bits. The potatoes au gratin is another personal detail, seemingly whipped up from a grandmother's recipe.
As for dessert, you're sure to be offered a slice of pie prepared by one of the bartenders, Summer Radtke (no relation to Rocky), who when the steak night is not in season, hosts her own popup there on Sundays called Gingersnap. She's been known to bring in strawberry ginger crumble, Key lime, and chocolate blondie pie, to name a few.
Rocky's steak night (dubbed Alley Cow Grille by a regular) marks the unofficial arrival of springtime for many in Hamtramck. This year, with a new influx of visitors each week flocking to Keyworth Stadium to watch the Detroit City FC, bars like Baker are already experiencing exponential spikes in traffic. With boom-era Hamtramck drinking back in full swing, the local watering holes that offer food have an advantage over the rest. While you're in town for Friday games you may as well do as the locals, and have yourself a steak dinner at Baker.
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