Soul survivor: Motor City Soul Food 

In jail, there's not a lot to do or eat. That leaves a lot of time for talking, and empty bellies dictate the topic of conversation — food.

Deep dish or thin crust? Who in town stacks the tallest Reuben? Who in the cell block dazzles behind a smoker? Who can suck down the most post-spliff White Castles?

These are the things we discussed and debated at great length. It was also a unique opportunity for a white guy like myself to easily poll 100 black dudes on the best dining in Detroit's neighborhoods. While I'll regularly dip into random spots throughout parts of the city I'm not too familiar with, recommendations are helpful, so I asked around while lodged in the Oakland County Jail's East Annex cell block for seven months.

Contrary to what one might have read in The New York Times or insulting local articles, Detroit isn't a "food desert." Believe it or not, the 600,000 or so people who live in the neighborhoods eat — and don't need to travel to hip suburban eateries to do so.

It's just that the New York Times' mostly white demographic doesn't typically venture into the city's mostly black neighborhoods, because, well, segregation still exists. So Detroit's neighborhoods might be a ramen desert, or a cutesy-slider desert, or a gastropub desert, or a $5 pour-over-coffee-while-you-listen-to-the-Velvet-Underground desert, but there's food, and good food.

And the unanimous choice for Southern cooking among the East Annex's African-American population: the northwest side's Motor City Soul Food. The vote came with no debate. In fact, people looked at me as if I had just grabbed them and loudly asked "Isn't this a blast?!?" The answer was that obvious to everyone.

The restaurant sits on the northwest corner of Seven Mile and Meyers Road, where a crew toiling behind bulletproof glass serves up meals cafeteria-style. There are no tables — everything is carryout — and there's not much in the way of decoration or personality, giving Motor City the ambience of a Secretary of State branch.

It doesn't really matter, however, because the huge menu and piles of steaming food grab and hold one's attention, and that helped pass the time while my co-diners and I stood in line for roughly 20 minutes before ordering.

All dinners come with either one or two sides and corn bread, and the oxtail intrigued me the most. I've noticed oxtails rolling out of kitchens at trendy restaurants like Antietam, but opted against ordering it there, partly because dining on any variety of tail takes a certain amount of courage, and partly because ordering a hipster chef's version doesn't seem like the best route in acquainting oneself with a new food.

Motor City, on the other hand, trades in Mississippi-style oxtail, and the order came with around a dozen 2-inch bones covered in loose, fatty, gelatinous meat that looked and tasted similar to ribs. The gravy in which the kitchen submerges the tails is big on flavor and very salty, like nearly everything in the restaurant's menu. While delicious in any weather, oxtail is really a classic comfort food and something to look forward to ordering again during the winter.

The collard greens fit perfect next to the oxtail. For whatever reasons, restaurants everywhere like to cook to death their "Southern-style" collard greens, reducing them to a pile of green slop, but Motor City seems aware of the line separating tender and mushy. As with most of their dishes, they didn't forget the salt, though the greens came sans the bacon or ham that's typical.

The oxtails were good, but without question the best dish was the mac and cheese. While preparing bad mac and cheese is difficult — it's noodles and cheese, after all — the "gorge-'til-you-regret-it" variety is nearly impossible to find on this side of the Mason-Dixon line. But that hard-to-find variety is Motor City's specialty. Their noodles get dressed in a creamy, peppery cheese blend that's almost a sauce, then dusted with a layer of paprika.

Like collard greens, lazy black-eyed pea preparation leads to a bland and mushy dish, but Motor City also manages to push the peas to tender and not an inch beyond. The potato salad is a variation of the standard-issue potatoes-mayo-mustard-egg-paprika recipe. My co-diners passed after a few nibbles, commenting that it tasted like mashed-up deviled eggs, but that's a compliment, not a complaint, in my book. Both sides were among the supporting standouts.

Motor City also understands the art of frying, and that's a welcome relief in a city that suffers from its restaurateurs' inability to properly fry a chicken, which in most cases ends up a heavy, grease-soaked piece of fat and bones. We tried the catfish along with the fried chicken. Once again, Motor City didn't hold back with the salt and pepper shakers in preparing the cornmeal batter, coating a relatively thick and flaky catfish filet. The flavor and the batter's crunch are what set it apart. Similarly, the fried chicken batter came with an original, salty flavor but much less grease than what's typical.

The okra, conversely, can best be described as frustrating. The dark green, seedy veggie is among my favorite sides, and theirs pops with the strong peppery flavor that's a theme, but the slime overwhelmed the taste. Okra can be prepared in a slimy fashion, or fried. Many, for reasons hard to understand, prefer the former. Because of the consistency, I took small bite after small bite, trying to get used to the slime as one slowly wades into a cold lake in an effort to get used to chilly water, but it never happened.

Turkey wings are another soul food standard, impressive at Motor City for their size and flavor. The restaurant slow roasts them with a pretty basic mix of seasonings and plenty of salt, cooking the skin until crisp. They also come as big as a baseball bat, so they're worth the $15 price.

The candied yams aside the turkey wings were the first I've ever tried, and, as Motor City clearly likes pushing its flavors to an extreme, the yams were super sweet. "It's like eating a yam-flavored Jolly Rancher," a dining partner observed. I liked them, but the peach cobbler and the green beans were probably the only items that weren't worth finishing. Both tasted too out-of-the-can, and just not worth filling precious belly space with everything else tasting so good.

Prisoners, of course, aren't the only ones who love Motor City. It's been featured on Andrew Zimmerman's Travel Channel show, Bizarre Foods, and has won numerous local awards for its cooking.

George and Martha Clay opened the Seven and Meyers store about 15 years ago, and demand brought a second location at 10 Mile and Greenfield Road in Oak Park in 2013. The prices are a little high, as some entrees top $16, but it should be noted the Clays are benevolent in their portions. The only other complaint is the parking situation at Seven and Meyers, and more than a few Yelpers voiced their concern about parking on the street. My advice: If you are really scared to walk the 12 feet from the street to the entrance, order and carry out a turkey wing. They're that intimidating.

More by Stephen Katz

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