Hamtramck's Campau Tower recaptures the heyday of the hole-in-the-wall

Out of the past

Nov 5, 2014 at 1:00 am

There’s a beautiful symmetry, perhaps irony, in the parking signs reading “Wendy’s Parking Only, others will be towed” above the cars parked to eat at Campau Tower. After all, the Wendy’s is closed, and the corner of Campau and Caniff needs some kind of an all-night institution. Once upon a time, you might hear, Campau Tower filled that role, a 24-hour neighborhood joint that seats a cozy 10 customers at once, but the business got overwhelming for the owners and, sadly, it closed.

Enter Nikita Sanches, Mister Rock City Pies and Rock City Eatery, Hamtramck devotée. Campau Tower once again hums with life and lights up the sidewalk late at night. Now, as before, it fills the stomach with a new menu of old-fashioned favorites with a new spirit.

The place is, as promised, largely unchanged: There’s a bit of decoration here and there, but it’s sparse. The walls are white, and written in dry-erase marker there’s a few special menu items and the ubiquitous “raw or undercooked” warning. Odd, perhaps, until you recall that there are no paper menus, since everything available other than those specials fits on two old letterboards mounted above the counter. A large TV hangs at the end of the counter; evidently, Twin Peaks is a staff favorite.

Food comes in baskets, lined in wax paper. Here are your options: burgers (replaced with a black bean burger, veggie burger, or mushroom cap at your request;) hot dogs (all beef, chicken, or veggie;) a Greek salad, or one of four sandwiches. Maybe five if there’s a special one on hand, maybe fewer if it’s been a busy day.

Stack the burgers up, two or three high, since they’re only a quarter-pound patty. They’re grilled “medium” according to the wall, but that’s a big promise with such a thin burger — then again, nobody expects a slider to be cooked rare. Build your own with a variety of toppings, multiple cheeses, whatever you like. House-made dill pickles aren’t the usual garlic-and-dill salt bombs found elsewhere, but are fresh, still tasting of cucumber with a well-calibrated sweet-and-sour, vinegar-sugar zip. You can’t go wrong with a fried egg, either.

The hot dogs, big ones, are split lengthwise and grilled on the flat-top, and served up on seeded rolls, topped to order. A few house offerings include a sublime Detroit Coney, and the cleverly named “The City That Blows,” a faithful if opinionated rendition of the Chicago Dog … if you like that sort of thing. The coney chili is made in-house, and is quite possibly the best coney chili you’ll find in Detroit. Too many people buy a frozen brick and call it a day; it’s refreshing and encouraging to see someone making such a basic, central item from scratch. The tomato flavor is rich and well-developed, and the spicing fresh and clean. Get it on fries or your burger too. Seriously.

Back in August, we published an article just as Campau Tower was opening where Sanches mentioned that bao, those steamed Chinese buns, would be on the menu; and so they are, the bread for three sandwiches. There’s a brisket, a pork, and a fried chicken, dressed and served up with appropriate garnishes. And they’re popular; on two visits, one of the three was sold out midway through the late-night shift.

If you want a side, grab tater tots or onion rings; the fries are on the thick side, and so if you want a salt-packed mouthful that matches up with the burger, the tots — texturally designed to hold salt — are a little more satisfying. Not that the fries are unsatisfying, mind you. All the portions are generous, more than enough to bring some home for a snack later.

It really is a little bit like stepping back a long ways into the heyday of the hole-in-the-wall. Late at night, there might be someone quietly drinking coffee for a couple hours, contemplating life, while friends attempt sobriety before strolling home; a cook sits slumped in chef whites next to a young, sharply dressed business type. It’s low-key, tasty, and unpretentious. Nobody waits to order at a counter, nobody hangs around too long after they’re done. (Even so, it’s a small place and gets crowded fast; signage does say you can take your food to Rock City to eat if you want.)

Maybe Nikita Sanches reopened Campau Tower just so he’d have someplace to go after work and get food. It’s certainly tasty, decidedly satisfying, and worth the visit — during the day, or late at night. mt