2163 Michigan Ave., Detroit
Burgers and sandwiches mostly: $6-$8; dogs: $4-$5
Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
until midnight Thursdays
and 1 a.m. Friday-Saturday.
Are there enough burger joints in the world? Will Americans ever get enough of ground cow? Apparently not, which is why Dave Steinke was forced to spend a year-and-a-half rehabbing the Mercury, a pebble's throw from Michigan Central Station. Customers are thronging there for burgers plain and fancy, and mostly they're ordering ... the cheeseburger.
I'd been grousing lately about my bad luck with burgers in more expensive eateries. Mercury filled the void at 58 percent of the price — even though Steinke is using Black Angus from Creekstone Farms, which uses a slaughterhouse designed by Temple Grandin. Creekstone brags that its cows are genetically certified.
Although my companion had the bad sense to order his Bacon Cheddar Burger medium, on first bite it squirted. (This is a restaurant reviewer perk, to get dibs on your companion's order.) The cheddar was bounteous, the bacon generous — Mercury is generous with applewood-smoked bacon wherever it appears. A Shroom with portobellos and buttons was equally luscious, and well-dressed with red onion rings and a decent tomato slice.
Other burgers are embellished with jalapeños and chorizo from nearby Honeybee Market, or with corned beef, Swiss and sauerkraut — essentially a Reuben on top of a burger — or blue cheese and bacon, or pulled barbecued pork. The last one is named "The Local" — perhaps for local barbecue magnet Slows, across the street? Non-beef "burgers" are salmon (a salmon sandwich, really, and just fine), black bean, turkey and portobello.
To come with, Mercury offers eight kinds of fries for $2 or $3, cooked in lard. (There's a warning on the menu — or is it a boast?) Garlic fries are luxuriant with garlic sprinkled over but also imbued in each skinny piece. Sweet potato fries are, yes, sweet, but rich too, as umami an experience as you'll get from a root vegetable.
And there are hot dogs, mostly $4 or two for $7. Order the "Detroit" only if you like a typical Coney-style beanless chili, medium-bland, the only item of Mercury cuisine I felt didn't make the grade. (But Steinke says he's going through 10 times as much chili as he thought he would, so go figure.) The New York Dog is superior, with corned beef and sauerkraut, though I thought it was heavy on the spicy mustard. The Chicago is loaded with everything dog-related except chili or slaw; it even has tomatoes.
The health nut who wanders into the Mercury by mistake can order an Aidell's chicken-apple sausage, which is actually delicious, with lots of strong flavors and caramelized onions. My companion said it reminded her of a hot dog in Iceland, where it is the national food.
There are three more menu categories: sandwiches, salads and shakes, besides the full bar, specializing in familiar Michigan craft brews, with a dozen 16-ounce pours on tap. I tried the Hummer, thoughtfully served with a wide straw: Kahlua, dark rum and vanilla ice cream, and although I make this at home, I'd never thought to add strips of candied ginger, which perk up the deeply rich concoction remarkably. A Boston Cooler, as we all know, is also the perfect combo, the gingery fizz of the Vernor's smoothed out by the velvet blandness of the ice cream. Any of the shakes can have liquor added for $3.
Sandwiches are mainly retro: grilled cheese on an inside-out bun, fried bologna, BLT, fried egg on white bread, whitefish. I was crazy for my BLT variant where the T is green and fried, adding a whole 'nother dimension to the classic. In a season when it's hard to get a good ripe tomato, it makes sense to try out a sour version instead.
Amid all this fat and richness, the Rocket Salad comes as a welcome refresher — nothing but baby arugula, Parmesan, red onion and avocado (there's rich again), in a perfect light lemon vinaigrette. It's quite large and its relative skinniness compared to the rest of the menu is a good excuse to order a Hummer.
The Mercury has some fun decor going on, with a red theme. Three-fourths of a metal cow made from an oil drum greets visitors at the door; its rump is in the basement, where you'll also find a few retro ornaments, such as a "Save Tiger Stadium" bumper sticker and a century-old iron plaque from Bay City Shovels, a steam shovel company. One wall is painted to resemble a Ford Mercury’s grill.
For now, service is pretty slow, 25-30 minutes till you get your food. Steinke says they're working on it — and notes that the rise of social media has made a soft opening impossible. The throngs were there on Day One. And no wonder. Corktowners and others have been waiting for something to happen in this building since the Mercury Coffee Bar closed in February 2009.
In the March heat wave, and again soon, one of the best things about the Mercury is its patio, fenced off from the street but with a perfect view of the train station. I'm a recent recipient of Volume 1 Issue 1 of Bridge Connection, in which Matty Moroun's minions tell of the family's "sincere efforts" to rehab the depot and vow to replace windows, roof and electrical connections. If true (a first), the activity could make for intriguing worker-watching. We'll see.
By mid-April the restaurant should be open for $6-$8 breakfasts, the choices a cross between Zingerman's and Russell Street, says Steinke.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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