Is there a better burger out there than the one made at Motor City Sports Bar, the no-frills Hamtramck spot owned by two Albanian brothers who left the American Axle factory floor for the grill?
Certainly not in Michigan. Some come close, but nothing tops it, and there isn't really even a debate to be had on the topic. Motor City has received no small amount of praise from local outlets over the years, and it's made a name for itself on its half-pound, char-broiled patties.
Taking it a step further — if there's a better burger anywhere in the country, I have yet to find it. And with something of that caliber just $9 away, it's tough to order anything else in a visit to the bar. In fact, in 12 years of regular patronage, I've only occasionally broken from it to get the cevapi, an Albanian sausage.
But there's a full menu of bar staples at Motor City, and though I've frequently looked at it and felt deeply curious about some of the plates, I couldn't bring myself to order anything but the burger. I'm not alone — co-owner Nick Nuculaj says the burger accounts for about 60 percent of his food sales.
As it turns out, we've been missing some excellent bites down menu from the burger. This isn't the often-overrated "elevated bar food" that's common in gentrified parts of town — it's traditional bar fare 100-percent carried by an open flame and perfectly seasoned grill.
That's the magic up and down the menu, as is evidenced in the Motor City Chicken Sub, a jumble of smoky, lightly charred pieces of chicken breast, bacon, grilled green peppers, grilled onions, and a cheddar-Monterey Jack blend on a sesame bun. Similarly, the black char marks that criss-cross the big, garlicky chicken breast in the garlic-grilled chicken sandwich impart a whole other dimension. That's what carries the simple dish, which otherwise arrives with only mayo, iceberg lettuce, and tomato on an onion roll.
The cevapi, for the uninitiated, is an Albanian sausage made with veal and pork, and Hamtramck is where you go to find it around here. Normally, it's served with a few links, a tomato salad, a block of feta, and sport peppers. But it can also be found in sandwich form. Motor City takes a pita and wraps in cevapi crumbles, grilled onions, lettuce, tomato, and a Monterey Jack and cheddar blend. My only complaint: It seemed a little light on the cevapi.
There is, however, plenty of cevapi to go around in the breakfast sandwich stacked with the sausage. It arrives in Texas toast under a fried egg with a runny yolk, tomato, lettuce, and mayo. Tell me where else in town you're going to find an exceptional Albanian breakfast sandwich. There's also a secret burger not on the menu — the "704," named after the local sprinkler fitters union. It comes with a grilled cevapi patty, feta, and is otherwise made to order.
The pile of thin-sliced ribeye in the Philly cheesesteak sub benefits from its stay on the Motor City griddle. It comes with grilled onions, grilled green peppers, and Swiss cheese. While eating it, I thought to myself, "This is better than the last Philly cheesesteak sub I had in Philadelphia." A few minutes later, a co-diner opined the same thing. Similarly, while eating the classic Slim Jim, I thought to myself, "This sure is better than Big Boy's Slim Jim." (I would know — my career in food includes a several-month-stint as a server at the Ypsilanti Big Boy.) After a few bites, the co-diner again confirmed my thoughts: "This is way better than Big Boy's Slim Jim," he said.
Motor City's chicken finger pita contains crumbles of deep-fried chicken fingers with thick, tasty crag. Not too unlike a fried chicken sandwich, and it's solid, though it lives in the shadows of so many other Motor City sandwiches.
Among the sides, Motor City's waffle fries are king, though the cheesy potato skins, fried pickles, and onion rings are all worth checking out. Motor City recently added corned-beef egg rolls, and theirs is a solid version, packed full of gooey cheese and salty, moist corned beef.
Nuculaj and his brother opened the Hamtramck location around 2002, and went full-time after losing their jobs on the line at nearby American Axle in 2009. They established a second location in Warren near the former General Motors plant nine years ago, and didn't change up the formula. Nuculaj notes that formula includes more than just the open-flame grill. It's also the somewhat dive-y bar, which is filled with pool tables, dartboards, and an occasionally fun-but-rowdy crowd on weekend nights or during Lions games.
"What also makes it taste better is the environment," he says. "We have TVs and you can have a drink with it and you're mingling — that makes it taste better."
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