Menus that matter

Mar 14, 2001 at 12:00 am

Scaring cows for 60 years

Best Deli (Wayne)

Lou’s Deli

Lou’s menu brags: "We are turning back the hands of time to bring the reader ‘old-fashioned deli food.’" Truth be told, some of the traditional Jewish deli items (that original owner Lou Loewy must have loved) are missing now. There’s no lox and bagels, no chopped liver and no chicken soup. But new items have been added — 60 years ago, who in Lou’s University District clientele knew sweet potato pie? Current owner Marty Goodman started working at Lou’s as a busboy, when he was a Mumford High School junior. He thinks Lou would be pretty comfortable with the remodeled deli across from Marygrove College. He’s also expanded the business to three locations; two in the city and one in Southfield. All of them are open till 2 a.m. during the week and 4 a.m. on weekends for those with a late-night or early-morning hankering for "Morris’ Jewish Piano" (roast beef, corned beef and salami) or "Damon’s Delicious" (corned beef, Swiss cheese and liverwurst). Together, the three delis go through 8,000 pounds of corned beef a week. "Cows shiver when they see me," says Goodman. The two best-selling sandwiches are Dinty Moore (corned beef) and Roselawn (hot corned beef). "People are supposedly cutting down on meat," Goodman says, "but you couldn’t prove it by me." Popular demand has increased the dimensions of his sandwiches, and you can super-size one for an extra $1.25 or super-duper it for an extra $2.25. Other nontraditional changes: chili is on the bill of fare; so is peach cobbler. Goodman now opens up the knishes (explained on the menu as "meat pie with gravy"), so customers can see what’s inside. Apparently, they like what they’re finding. Lou’s is an institution — may it last another 60 years. —Jane Slaughter

Eat trad! Eat modern!

Best Deli (Macomb)

TIE: Kowalski Sausage Company/New York Deli

New York Deli and Kowalski Sausage Company did not tie for first place in this category for being so alike. Rather, they tied because they offer the best of two different styles of deli. You couldn't ask for a more classic example of traditional ways vs. today's modern, on-the-run lifestyle.

The traditional-style deli is represented by Kowalski. The Kowalskis, who emigrated from Poland, began offering homemade Polish kielbasa in the 1920s, at their grocery store on Chene in Detroit. The company has remained family-owned to this day, firmly holding onto to its original recipes and traditions while expanding its services and stores to keep up with the times.

Born of a different era, New York Deli was created as an answer to today's hectic, on-the-go lifestyle. It offers large, hearty sandwiches, quickly prepared to your specifications, that can be eaten on the run, or while relaxing in the dining area.

While Kowalski also offers carry-out sandwiches and soups for lunch, it remains more the place you go to purchase sliced meats, cheese and bread to make your own sandwiches at home. It's also become a tradition for many Detroit-area families to visit their local Kowalski deli around the holidays, to purchase their fresh (not frozen) sausage as well as ham and other treats.

Seeing that Kowalski and New York Deli both thrive while operating in the same area shows that metro Detroiters can’t choose between the traditional way and the new way of doing things. They like the best of both. —Nicole Jones

Pork chops and portobello

Best Soul Food (Oakland)

Beans & Cornbread

When one establishment is voted Best Soul Food Restaurant in Oakland County three years in a row, that’s some indication that the title is not an oxymoron. (Either that or the competition is weak.) Patrick Coleman’s Beans & Cornbread is popular for families after church on Sundays, for couples on a Saturday night, or for carry-out anytime. Native Detroiter Coleman, whose closest lineage from the South was his great-great-grandmother, packs them in for pork chops, pinto beans, peach cobbler and the occasional portobello. It’s soul food that stays true to its bloodlines, with a few concessions to Oakland County culinary leanings. The salmon croquettes, for example, are served with collards and portobellos, and drizzled with a roasted-red pepper butter.

B&C is a cloth napkin and candles kind of place, decorated with a tasteful dark-green and purple color scheme. Photos of African-American heroes — John Coltrane, Satchel Paige, Paul Robeson and Lena Horne — line the walls, and Sarah Vaughan croons in the background.

Look out for the Harlem burrito: a grilled tortilla stuffed with greens, diced tomatoes and hoppin’ John and served with "Spanish Harlem salsa" of fresh tomatoes and cilantro. Sweet and tangy barbecued pork chops are another good choice. Warm sweet-potato muffins and the eponymous cornbread keep you company until the main course arrives. Each entrée is served with three sides; take your pick from a list of 12.

Coleman has now created his own competition by opening Mo’ Beans & Cornbread a few miles away. It’s a diner with a shorter menu (no jerk chicken or potato-encrusted salmon) and somewhat lower prices. It appears there’s room for two good soul food joints in Southfield. Business at the original Beans & Cornbread, our readers’ favorite restaurant, has not suffered at all. —Jane Slaughter

Spicing up a strip mall

Best Thai (Washtenaw)

Siam Kitchen

Out of several Ann Arbor-area Thai restaurants, Siam Kitchen rose to the top. It’s likely that the atmosphere and service have something to do with this longtime Ann Arbor restaurant being chosen by readers as a favorite.

Located in a strip mall, nestled between a T.J. Maxx and a bookstore, Siam Kitchen somehow still creates an intimate ambience. Brightly accented Thai decor and several separate dining areas achieve a simple, peaceful feel, even during the busiest hours. A variety of traditionally rooted Thai dishes are sure to suit a wide range of tastes, and spiciness runs from mild to very hot, ranked accurately to assure you don’t order a more fiery option that you can handle.

With attentive service, budget-minded prices, and options for every eater, Siam Kitchen remains an local favorite, overcoming it’s hidden strip-mall location and pared-down hours. —Mariah Cherem

Nostalgia for Warsaw

Best Polish (Wayne)

The Fiddler

The Best Polish Restaurant wants you to know that it is a Russian Jewish restaurant. With specialties including veal Rasputin and Siberian pelimeni, how could Metro Times voters mistake it for anything else?

Well, owner Michael Kuchersky is proud to have cooks of eight or 10 nationalities working in his kitchen, including Hungarian, Czech, Ukrainian, and, yes, Polish. They make no paczki, but they produce Ukrainian borscht, Russian herring, Jewish-style knishes, gefilte fish, chopped liver, blini — plus hummus and a teriyaki-salmon burger.

Some Fiddler customers are regulars because the cooking reminds them of their grandmothers, but others, Kuchersky says, come just because the quality is so high. He imports his soup mushrooms from Italy, for example, and 99 percent of the food is made from scratch, "how it’s done in Russia a long time ago."

If a customer waxes nostalgic for his Hungarian (or substitute your favorite) mama, Kuchersky is willing to bring the Hungarian cook out from the kitchen to chat for a bit.

Weekends feature a Russian big band with two singers, and a violinist plays during the week. Last year the restaurant obtained a liquor license, so now "vodka is the major drink we got."

This is a restaurant for those unafraid of butter, meat and, especially, sour cream (think beef Stroganoff). Vareniki, for example, are Ukrainian dumplings filled with tart cherries and topped with your choice of sour cream or whipped cream.

Customers’ favorites include mushroom-barley soup and borscht, Pozharski chicken cutlet and veal Rasputin. The latter is rolled, stuffed with mushrooms and onions, and grilled. The menu boasts, "Once you try Leo’s version of this timeless classic, you will not be able to enjoy any other chopped liver anywhere — even in the most famous delis in New York."

And certainly not in Warsaw. —Jane Slaughter

No nukes

Best Polish (Macomb)


Polish food in Macomb County is generally limited to small, family-style restaurants. You know, the ones that are decorated with that harvest-gold color you thought died in the 1970's. And every one of those restaurants has a nearly identical menu, and serves the same, overprocessed frozen food that is obviously made to order by either frying or microwave nuking, while being presented as homemade.

But before you decide to just stay home and cook up a box of frozen pierogi, you should know there is at least one Polish restaurant in the Macomb County area that does stand out. Enzo's did what all those other Polish restaurants have failed to do. The interior is modern and classy, but still comfortable enough so you can walk in wearing jeans and not feel self-conscious. Enzo’s offers live entertainment at least one night a week, and karaoke two nights a week. And their claim to serve homemade food seems justified the second you take a bite into any of their entrées.

The folks at Enzo's have not limited themselves to Polish cuisine. They also serve homemade entrées such as vegetable lasagna. And if you aren’t familiar with Polish cuisine, and aren’t quite up to trying new foods, you may be at ease with Enzo's Italian menu.

Enzo's deserves acclaim for bringing elegant yet casual Polish dining to Macomb County. But perhaps the restaurant has one fault: it seems to be growing too big for its space inside a strip mall. Is there a larger space in the restaurant’s future? Or a second location in the area? We can only hope.—Nicole Jones

A chef’s night out

Best Vietnamese (Wayne)

Annam Restaurant Vietnamien

Lots of people appreciate Annam, but co-owner Andrew Nguyen has two fans that he particularly likes to mention: Takashi Yagihashi, head chef at Farmington Hills’ acclaimed Tribute, and Jimmy Schmidt of the Rattlesnake Club. According to a book just out that reveals where America’s 100 best chefs eat on their days off, these two superstars choose Annam.

They’re in lots of company. Lunch business comes mostly from Ford headquarters, but weekend traffic is from all over the metro area. The fans come first for chicken lemon grass and second for catfish baked in a clay pot with a caramelized sauce.

What they like is the incredible lightness of Phuong Nguyen’s touch in the kitchen (she is Andrew’s wife and co-owner with his sister Paige Nguyen). Asked how Vietnamese differs from other Asian cuisines, Andrew says it’s neither spicy like Szechuan nor heavy or gravy-based like Cantonese. Only a few of Annam’s dishes use cornstarch.

What they mainly use is fresh cilantro and mint and delicate white vermicelli. Warm bean sprouts with shrimp, for example, is about the lightest salad you’ll ever eat. Soups, even beef soup, manage to be large and very full of goodies without seeming thick or heavy. You eat dessert, therefore, guilt-free, and still are able to leave the table without groaning.

What adds even more to the feeling of weightlessness is the spare elegance of the surroundings. Simple drawings of a few brush strokes, dark wood chopsticks, a single flower on each table and, best of all, a faint perfume of jasmine from the candles — someone here has instinctively understood how to create a serene feng shui.

The Nguyens are hoping to have their liquor license by the end of April. —Jane Slaughter

Tex-Mex and more

Best Mexican (Wayne)


It's hard to say just how many times Xochimilco's has won the Metro Times readers' poll for Best Mexican Restaurant in Wayne County. Hanging on the wall, right above the picture of the Virgin Mary, are plaques from 1988, ’90, ’91, ’94, ’96, ’97, ’98, and ’99. "But," says manager Emilio Botello, "there were a couple of years when we won but didn't get any plaque." Named after the famous floating gardens just south of Mexico City, the restaurant has a menu that mixes Tex-Mex border food with more traditional Mexican specialties. The botanas and super nachos, according to Botello, are the most popular items. The botana is a bed of corn chips topped with refried beans, cheese, avocado, tomatoes and jalapeños. It’s listed as an appetizer, but add beef or chicken for $2.50 more and it's a meal. If you are looking for something more authentic, there are traditional enchiladas and burritos on the menu, as well as menudo (a stew of tripe), chicken mole (a traditional Mexican sauce that includes chocolate), and chile rellenos (poblano peppers stuffed with cheese or ground beef, dressed in an egg batter and briefly fried). I stopped by on a Sunday afternoon and tried a Platillo Mexicano, a combination plate of carne de puerco (spicy pork stew), guizado de res (beef stew) and picadillo (spiced ground beef, like taco filling). Served with rice, beans and tortillas, with even a bit of salad tucked on the platter, it was a hearty meal for $7.75. Owned by Rudy and Sally Morales, Xochimilco's is a sprawling place that seats 250 on two levels. Botello began at the restaurant 15 years ago, working his way up from busboy. Botello admits that other restaurants on Detroit's southwest side have similar menus, but feels that it is the fresh food, good prices and friendly service that account for Xochimilco's popularity. —Elisa Karg

Muy bueno

Best Mexican restaurant and Best Carry-Out (Oakland)

Zumba Mexican Grille

I’m from Southern California, where there’s a taquería (taco stand) on every corner and bright yellow, prefabricated taco shells are a sacrilege. When I first visited Zumba last fall, I could smell the freshly steamed tortillas from across Main Street, and instantly knew my life in Michigan was about to take a turn for the better.

Zumba’s tacos are prepared with juicy grilled meats on hot, soft corn tortillas (flour tortillas and crispy fast-food shells are also available for ignorant infidels). The rice is peppery and fluffy, with bits of sautéed onion and tomato; the beans are thick and garlicky. Baja-style battered fish tacos are almost perfectly authentic (they need shredded cabbage to achieve full honors). Fresh cilantro, tomatillo salsa, guacamole with real chunks of avocado — if it weren’t 20 degrees outside, it would almost feel like San Diego. ¡Verdad, Zumba es el mejor! —Karen Fisher

Down-home or elegant

Best Mexican (Washtenaw)

Tio’s/Prickly Pear

Let’s be honest. Michigan is not usually known for its stand-out Mexican food. A run for the border here has more to do with Molson Canadian than it does with Corona. Still, there are a few spots that offer truly exceptional food. Our readers have chosen both Tio’s and the Prickly Pear as stand-outs, for distinctly different reasons.

Tio’s is a Mexican joint of the hole-in-the-wall variety: tasty, made to order, and to-the-point. It’s a student and late-night favorite, whether dining in the small space or ordering by phone. Delivery is a big appeal here, with speedy, cheap tacos, enchiladas, burritos and milkshakes — which don’t seem that Mexican, but are downright delicious — brought to your door day or night (open until 1 a.m. Monday-Saturday, and until midnight Sunday).

A new location on Washtenaw Avenue has been added to cater to Eastern Michigan University students and the Ypsilanti area. This new version of Tio’s has a large dining room, with waitstaff instead of the order-at-the-counter routine of the downtown location.

For the crowd with a little more cash for una cena, there’s the Prickly Pear, a cozy spot with a more cultivated charm. This menu extends well beyond simple taco standbys. Appetizer choices include heaping salads and appetizers such as Navajo fry bread. Vegetarians will be pleased to note meatless options that do not rely solely on beans

Specials often include wild game and such distinct meats as buffalo. Seafood lovers and those who appreciate a good tequila should also find what they’re looking for here. The key idea at the Prickly Pear is freshness, and everything from guacamole to sauces to desserts, is made on-site. It shows, and makes the Prickly Pear a prime choice for those craving hearty portions of good food, Mexican or otherwise.—Mariah Cherem

1,000-plus wines

Best Wine List (Oakland)

The Lark

Restaurateur Jim Lark knows wine. He reads an untold number of wine publications. Travels to France yearly ("at least") to visit vineyards. Meets with wholesale distributors. Goes to trade tastings. He is a master sommelier of French wines. But the last thing Jim Lark wants is for customers to feel uncomfortable in his restaurant. The Lark is a top-rated European-style country inn located in West Bloomfield. It has a national and international reputation. Jim Lark says, "We know that many people come for special occasions. A birthday, an anniversary. The last thing we want is for them to feel intimidated by a big fat book of wine." Believing that the wine list should be a part of the menu, Jim Lark lists 100 wines on the back of the restaurant's fixed-price menu, which changes every other month. The list emphasizes Californian and French wines, equally split between white and red, with most under $75 per bottle, and 10 available by the glass. The reserve list of another 910 wines is enumerated in one of those big, fat, intimidating books. But Jim Lark, who is the restaurant's maitre d' as well as its sommelier, prides himself on knowing his customers. "I talk to my patrons," he says. "I get a sense of who might like to see the reserve list." One of The Lark's innovations is a "wine bouquet" — four glasses of different wines to accompany each course. This package enables diners to get appropriate wines for four courses at a reasonable price. For $27.50, diners begin with Roederer Brut Champagne ("top rated," says Lark), then a choice of any of 10 wines available by the glass with the appetizer and another with the main course, and finally a choice of two dessert wines.

Familiar with a twist

Best Dessert Menu (Oakland)

Sweet Lorraine’s

Not too many people skip dessert when dining at Sweet Lorraine's. Lorraine Platman, the restaurant's co-owner and namesake, likes to have fun with desserts. She eschews the current trend of high-tech "plated desserts" in favor of creations that bring a new twist to familiar treats. A brownie isn't just a brownie. It's an "adult" brownie, X-rated because it is drizzled with a Kahlua-chocolate syrup and topped with White Russian ice cream. Platman cooks with seasonal ingredients and enjoys inventing new desserts. But she finds that if she tries to take any of her standards off the menu, customers revolt. "Someone will say, 'I've driven all this way for the Scottish pudding,'" Platman laughs. Other popular standards are apple brown betty, carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, cheesecake du jour, and a rich chocolate cake with raspberry filling. Platman loves to cook ("I go to sleep thinking about food"), and holidays of all sorts give her a chance to get even more creative. Leprechaun bread pudding for St Patrick's Day, coconut-ginger rice pudding for Chinese New Year, crème brûlée napoleon for Valentine's Day. "Fancy desserts that look better than they taste is not what we're going for. We try to be very real, our desserts are closer to comfort food, " says Platman. Everything at Sweet Lorraine's is made from scratch from the finest ingredients. "We don't cut corners," says Gary Sussman who is the restaurant's co-owner, Platman's spouse, and chief taster. "We use real butter, real eggs. We whip our own cream, no stabilizers, just cream and sugar. We make our own caramel." You might think Platman goes to extremes she describes a special she did one summer: S'mores made of chocolate ganache on a cookie, topped with homemade (!) marshmallow. Sweet Lorraine's has locations in Southfield, Madison Heights and Livonia. —Elisa Karg

Eat around the clock

Best restaurant for a 3 a.m. meal/Best Funky Hole-in-the-Wall (Washtenaw)

Fleetwood Diner

Up late? Hungry? Got five or 10 bucks? Why not hop on down to the Fleetwood? The best and funkiest of all funky holes-in-the-wall is also Washtenaw County’s pick for favorite 3 a.m. meal. Downtown Ann Arbor holds a dense population of broke college students who struggle to stay awake all day during class and all night for their study routines. For them, Fleetwood is next to a godsend in the wee hours of the morning. Open 24 hours a day, 7 a week, students (as well as locals who know a good place to eat when they see one) can pop in for a late meal or snack; perhaps a cup of coffee, a burger and Coke, a quick serving of fries, or even a little something to satisfy a craving for Greek food. Fleetwood is one of Ann Arbor’s most unusual locations to grab a bite to eat. It’s a trailer-style diner with a hint of innocence from the 1950s. It’s also a perfect spot to do the quick, meet-a-friend-for-lunch thing or just relax and chat. In warmer weather, outdoor seating is available — students love to relax and people watch. —David Welper