Spice heaven

Today I rediscovered one of Detroit’s old gems, a well-kept secret from those who do not take time to venture into Eastern Market. Founded 44 years ago by Marty Rafal, the Rafal Spice Company is sure to ignite your olfactory sense before you even open the door. Then, the fun begins.

If you consider yourself any kind of foodie, cook or chef, gourmet or gourmand, you’ll love this place. Entering the 100-year-old building is like entering another epoch. The interior looks turn-of-the-century, and I do not mean the 21st. The wood floors are so worn they seem warped — in a nice way, that is. It’s part of the intrinsic charm that cannot be replicated in a new structure. It’s cluttered and organized at once. I can usually identify the components of food aromas and flavors, but the floors and walls of this place have absorbed nearly a half century of spices and coffees and herbal teas, smells that have blended to create a welcome tableau of gastronomic delight.

For starters, since it is, after all, a spice company, get into the spices. If you want to cook an ethnic dish from anywhere in the world, you are likely to find the spices you will need. Asian, Indian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Italian, African, and American — Southern, Eastern, and Southwestern — are all represented here. There are several hundred spices in jars on the shelves and in bags in stacked boxes. There is cardamom, ground and whole — white, black or green. There are 20 varieties of dried chili peppers: whole, crushed or ground. There are spice blends for fajitas, barbecue spices (hot and smoky, regular and sweet) and Bell’s Seasoning (salt-free) for poultry. There is minced garlic, garlic pepper blend, granulated garlic powder, plain or roasted, as well as garlic salt and garlic slices. Greek seasoning, garam masala (used in many Indian dishes), Jamaican jerk seasoning, French Herbes de Provence, more than a dozen varieties of dried mushrooms and paprika — hot, Hungarian, Spanish, plain, smoked sweet, smoked hot and smoked bittersweet. There is meatloaf seasoning, tandoori seasoning, pizza seasoning and steak seasoning. Wasabi powder is available by the pound only. Be forewarned! A pound of wasabi powder will likely last your family for two generations.

The list goes on and on. This place is hard to stump with exotic requests.

Another element that makes Rafal stand out is that nearly everything is sold in whatever quantity you need. Furthermore, the prices, in most cases, are way less than those charged at your local grocery store where you pay more for the packaging than you do for what’s inside. Buying by the ounce enables you to get a quantity that you are apt to use in a few months, rather than owning a one- or two-year supply that will lose its pungency long before you use it up. An available catalog lists prices on all of the company’s products.

There is some deference to products made in Detroit. Donald Rafal, who has succeeded his father at the helm, tells me he attempts to give local entrepreneurs an opportunity to sell their wares at his store. Salad dressings made by Garden Fresh Salsa Company, located in Ferndale, Clancy’s Fancy, a hot sauce made in Ann Arbor, and various spice rubs made in the area are featured here including a few made by the Detroit Spice Company and some of Chef Zachary’s blends.

Coffees from around the world are offered in big barrels in the back, including beans from Kona, Sumatra, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and the Blue Ridge Mountains, as well as flavored coffees such as Southern pecan, chocolate hazelnut, Kahlúa, sweet Michigan cherry and toasted macaroon. There are more than 100 black teas, several varieties of green teas and more than 50 herbal teas.

Additionally, there are cooking sauces and mixes such as Zatarain’s Cajun and Creole products, Patak’s Indian spice pastes (the “secret” stuff used by Indian friends to make tandoori chicken and biryanis). There are Kame-brand Asian noodles in various shapes and rice noodles that are frequently used in Thai dishes.

Rafal’s offers several kinds of rice that are hard to find locally — saffron rice, Arborio rice, purple sticky rice, red rice, Chinese black rice, and botan rice, used for sushi, as well as multiple types of grains and lentils. Hot sauces abound, using all types of peppers and having varied ethnic and regional origins. Barbecue sauces from the popular Open Pit to those made at some of the legendary Southern U.S. pits can be found on these shelves.

Ask for suggestions. The staff is knowledgeable, proud of what they know, and eager to help you. Oriole has been there for nearly 20 years, almost as long as Gary, whose demeanor suggests that he owns the place. I inquired about a Cajun Power brand barbecue baste that sounded interesting. He told me that it was pretty much a new name for another Cajun Power sauce, one that I was not that fond of. He recommended Cajun Power “Spicy” garlic sauce, a “kicked-up” version of the original product.

If you cook and want your food to be well-seasoned, you must get on down to Rafal Spice Company. Experiment with some new recipes. Make yourself a barbecue rub and see how it matches up to theirs. As always, trust your instincts, but begin with small quantities, just in case you are wrong.


Rafal Spice Company is located at 2521 Russell St., Detroit. Call 313-259-6373. Eastern Market is located just east of I-75 between Gratiot and Mack.

Jeff Broder is a chowhound for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]