Eating sloppy joes at Hazel Park Raceway with Jimmy Doom

Dec 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

Local actor and spoken word performer Jimmy Doom is, to say the least, an interesting guy. I remember him from my teenage years in the 1980s, back when he was a punk with a 12-inch mohawk and a shit-eating grin. I ran into him years later at Gusoline Alley, when he was channeling Don Rickles and making me deeply uncomfortable on a date night. These days, he's probably best known as an actor, and his grizzled good looks and raspy voice make him a cinch for some good roles.

He looks sort of like an aged crust punk, with longish, kind of rockabilly hair, and a ragged mustache and goatee, probably roughly shaped with a razor some time last week. He wears a battered VFW jacket. His style might be called "crust casual." His voice is gravelly, and his insights are funny and edgy. But there's something more to Doom. When you look into his eyes, there's something warm and sparkly, and maybe even a twinge of pathos.

Anyway, he loves food, and we have long talked about getting together to break bread. He had this idea that we should do something on the culinary tip, but not too highbrow. As Doom puts it: "There's all these little diners that I've driven past but I don't know anything about. They're there, and they've survived for the 20 years I've driven by them, so they must have something going on.

"Or I wonder about the bars that probably have their own little special, crazy thing, but you wouldn't know it unless you were a regular. Shot-and-a-beer bars in Allen Park might have something like, 'Oh, Cassie makes a great turkey mac.' Or, 'Come here on Thursdays, Cybil is gonna bust out the buffalo stuffed tomato.' You know what I'm saying? They don't trumpet it on a sign outside. They see the same faces day in and day out. They've got guys that work first shift, guys who work second shift, and they come into the bar and somehow something on the menu has evolved into their special thing."

It's a fair point. That's why we decided to enjoy the lunch special at the Hazel Park Raceway. Why? Because the sloppy joes were on special, partly. Also, given the trend of eateries offering games as well as food (Punch Bowl Social, anyone?), we figured we could bet the ponies and be right on top of the latest trends.

We met up in the clubhouse, perched on the top floor, with all the ambience of a bus terminal. But it's where you can dine on food from the lunch counter while betting the horses that run on the 24 big screens. The lunch counter is the least pretentious place to buy food in metro Detroit that doesn't have Plexiglas. It looks like the cantina at some 1970s rec center. I pay $4.50 for two sloppy joes and a cup of coleslaw. And that's on special. I also get a few $2 beers for us, as well as a $7.50 racing form. Everything is a little more expensive in horse-racing land. (We would stay a few hours and go through about $10 in bets, all losers, and $12 in beer, all winners.)

Turns out Doom has been reading up. He gives me his quick history on the sloppy joe, involving New Orleans, Miami, Havana, Cuba, Oriental Park, a racetrack owned by Meyer Lansky, Ted Williams, Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway, and more. I'm not sure I understand it all, but he argues that the sloppy joe is actually a sandwich form of the dish ropa vieja, which was a way to use the acidity of tomatoes to bring tougher meat to the table.

Doom nods in a sagelike manner. "Sloppy joes are intriguing," he says. "You know it's got to be the oldest hamburger in the joint. It doesn't even stay together. It's like the meat that they cut off the moldy parts of the patty. It completely fell apart and they threw some ketchup on it, some pepper and — boom."

I postulate that there may be some conveyer belt for rejected patties or some chute they go down.

Doom says, "There you go: Lucille Ball couldn't catch the chunks of meat. Everything that went off the conveyer belt on the end is now going in your mouth. And the sauce will mask any stench."

"But it should be a spicy sauce to get in there and retard the growth of the bad bacteria. These sloppy joes are too sweet. And speaking of getting rid of tough meat, wasn't pizza originally a way to get rid of old meat?"

Feeling philosophical, Doom says, "I feel like the theme of my life is getting rid of old meat."

The subject brings us back to the horses, and the names they get. Doom recalls, "I was at Ye Olde Saloon. There was a regular there that had them put the race channel on. The name of the horse was 'Don't Start Fast.' Why would you fucking name your horse that? 'Don't Start Fast'? Somebody is gonna look at that and go, 'No, I'm not betting on that.' We used to say, sitting around out here, that it seemed if a horse had anything Irish in its name that people would overbet it for that lucky bet. 'Shamrock something' or whatever."

I remind him, "For a while, wasn't that a way to increase your odds in getting elected to Detroit City Council? Having a name like Kelly?"

Doom replies: "I'm of Irish descent and grew up on the west side. We used to say, when in doubt, just go for O'Donahue. Or pick all the Irish judges and just vote for them."

Doom is not overly impressed with the recent changes at the track since it went thoroughbred. "It was the old ratty place where the pigeons would shit on you, with the steel girder grandstand — it's amazing. They threw a little bit of money at it, and it lost a lot of its charm."

The conversation moves on to the psychology of race fans, and Doom points out, "Sometimes, when there's a favorite horse, there's a lot of these guys who will shout at it. And in the last turn, multiple people will start shouting out. You rarely, if ever, hear somebody exult over a victory. You'll hear them calling the one horse — 'Come on 1, come on 1!' — and then, when 1 wins, they just kind of quietly get up and go over to the cashier, and very low-key. By the way, how's the coleslaw?"

"Very finely chopped," I say. "Which is interesting. Those are not hand cut. Those are machine shredded. Almost minced. Creamy and, again, sweet. I kinda like my coleslaw on the vinegar side, almost like a relish."

I decide to raise a subject that might be touchy, that one of Detroit's main restaurant reviewers is part of his immediate family. "So did you wind up going to a lot of restaurants when you were a kid as a result of the reviewing thing? You got some refined tastes?"

"No," Doom says. "When I would come along to review a restaurant, nobody ever tried to change my palate. The joke goes that I was ordering escargot when I was the age of 3. I think I just liked how it was brought to the table in a silvery, steaming thing. It looked like something Ace Frehley would eat off of. Also, back in those days, the menus were always the size of as roadmap and they were red leather covers with the plastic. My job would be — because I was this innocent-looking little kid — to pull the menus out of the plastic, very subtly, and fold them up. Back then, there was no Internet to check what the menus were, so you'd have to have a menu to reference. I would take this thing, fold it up, shove it in my pants, and tell the waitress I wanted frog legs and hand her back the red menu cover, closed. And they would never be any the wiser."

"Aha," I say, "So that's where your career in crime began."

"Stealing menus," Doom says, "and shoving things in my pants. Came in handy when I was down in Schoolcraft ripping off issues of Penthouse from Ashton Drugs."

We're interrupted by a guy standing off to the side urging, "Come on, baby! Come on. I got $200 win on this one. Come on, come on ..." The horse comes down the stretch ahead and wins. Just as Doom predicted, the man clenches his fist silently as the horse wins, smiling in silence, then turns to walk toward the windows and walks smack into somebody else who catches him. He's quiet, but clearly in a kind of shock.

"See, he just won big," I say. "But you know how the casinos have that high-end place to blow it? Not here. There are only so many $4.50 trays of sloppy joes you can buy. You would think they would have something ritzier here."

Doom laughs. "Is there some hidden place I don't know about where the guys spend their money? I think they just buy extra tickets for Keno. The guys here have very simple tastes. Even down in the clubhouses, you don't see a lot of Rolexes."

"No braised leg of lamb? No phyllo pastry?"

"You ask these guys where they're going to eat and they're gonna say the Salty Dog."

"Is that the bar where the serving girls wear swimsuits?"

"When you can't afford the topless bar, it's the next best thing."

Another guys starts yelling as horses come down the stretch, then silence.

"See," Doom says. "Here's another thing about eating here. I see the guys got the sloppy joes on special, the Italian subs, and the chili. But these guys are ordering the premade egg sandwiches a few hours after they've been made. Obviously eggs can carry more illness than a lot of other shit but think that the wrapped-up egg salad sandwiches might give you some dysentery."

"Everything seemed very efficient to me," I say. "If I were to write a review, I would say I saw her put the plastic gloves on. She offered me everything: the tray, even the little cup with the mustard if I so desired."

Doom cuts in with a sudden memory: "Did you know I was Orbit's restaurant critic?"

"Oh, wow. What did you review for them? Probably a lot of them are gone now."

"Copper Canyon was one I remember, because Jerry Peterson had something to do with it. Somebody dumped a ton of money in there. It had the cheesecloth over the lemon with the fish — that kind of detail. Little chalices of various sauces. That was in Farmington, overlooking some golf course. Robert St. Mary is actually reprinting two of my restaurant columns in the Orbit book as an example of the kind of gonzo shit I was writing about. Lots of pop culture references and weird shit. It was definitely not a straightforward restaurant review. It was a lot of fun. Most reviewers take notes on the décor and stuff. If there's something interesting, something that stood out to me, I would mention it. But No. 1 is the food, and then service, and then atmosphere. But it doesn't matter how good the atmosphere is if the service sucks. There's no atmosphere in the fucking world that's gonna make up for waiting 45 minutes for your club sammich."

"I got my sloppy joe here right away. Hell, you know this place is good and the food is fresh: It's wrapped in cellophane! You see how thick it is on one end, here? That means those apples and oranges are wrapped in a lot of cellophane."

Doom follows my reasoning, saying, "So any fresh bacteria or coughed-up chunks of Skoal can't get on the food. All the bacteria originated in the kitchen. Maybe the sweetness in the sloppy joe is from Windex."

"No, Windex has a particular tang that I've learned to recognize. It's sharp and sort of astringent."

Doom sips on another beer and can't resist joking. He jerks his head at the lady serving the food at the counter and says with a sly smile, "I think you should ask her what wine cooler she would pair with the sloppy joe."