Hot stuff

A shortlist of places serving thicker autumn stews, bisques, chowders, chilis, and gumbos

Oct 5, 2011 at 12:00 am

Yup, it's that time of year. We're moving away from the lighter stews, consommés and gazpachos of summer and into the thicker, heartier chowders, bisques, gumbos and chilis of the colder months. When it comes to soups, the addition of starchy ingredients and an extra hour of simmering is sometimes all it takes to thicken things. Chowders and stews often rely on a pinch of flour here or there for that pleasing creamy consistency. Gumbos use both the starch of their rices and the depth of a good roux. Japanese soups employ rich umami flavor and thick udon noodles. And those bowls of chili? They're surprisingly diverse, with convincingly smoky veggie versions, meatier types that pile on the beef tips, and even a few unexpectedly careful renditions in places you wouldn't expect them. We did the research. All you have to do is read on and learn how, sometimes, great meals come in small bowls.


Ajishin Sushi & Noodles 42270 Grand River Ave., Novi; 248-380-9850: Ajishin's udon soup is extraordinary. The base broth is developed from seaweed and fish and has so much umami flavor going on it's like a black hole for hangovers or the common cold. The namesake of the soup, the udon noodle, is a thick, wheat-based noodle; along with a bit of briny seaweed, imitation crab and green onion, it makes up the basic, or plain $5 soup. You can add all sorts of other tasty stuff for a heartier bowl.

Bastone Brewery 419 S. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-544-6250; When it comes to how our soups thicken as the weather chills, Chef Robert Young of Bastone knows his stuff. "Summer soups are generally a lot lighter," Young says. "You have your gazpachos and soups that are more broth-based, as well as also a lot of puréed soups, in the summertime. And then you notice that with the fall vegetables and things like that, soups generally get a lot heartier." He also notes that, though many soups are thickened with the addition of flour, sometimes natural starches in the ingredients can do the job, as with simmering rice in a gumbo, which imparts natural starches and absorbs liquid, adding to the thickness. Perhaps the cleverest thick soup at Bastone, however, is the "potato, leek and bacon" soup. Young explains: "It's a chicken-stock based soup, and the natural starch is in the potatoes, and certain gelatinous products are in the leek, to thicken the soup without the use of flour." This makes it a shoo-in for diners who've gone gluten-free, "because there isn't any flour used as a thickener in the soup." And the addition of shallots, onions and garlic only adds to the hearty fall flavor.

Big Fish 700 Town Center Dr., Dearborn; 313-336-6350; This Chuck Muer Restaurant, billed as a "high quality, moderately priced, casual seafood" restaurant, has two open dining rooms and what could be the largest cocktail bar in town. Among the fruit of the sea that fills their bill of fare, you'll find the "Big Fish Chowder," a pleasing mélange of smoked fish, salmon, Tasso ham and fresh diced tomatoes. 

Bookies Bar & Grille 2208 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-962-0319; A downtown fixture for more than seven years, a few years ago Bookies moved into a new spot on Cass Avenue, out among the tailgaters' lots on the west side of downtown. But don't let the remove fool you: On game days, it's right in the heart of things, sporting enough plasma screens to warm the heart of any sports fan. If you need more warming, you could do worse than their white chicken chili, chicken base made rich with chicken, red and green peppers, white beans and red onion. It's a Bookies staple, from the original menu, and going for just $2.50 a cup, $4 a bowl.

Cheli's Chili Bar 47 E. Adams Ave., Detroit; 313-961-1700; more locations at Owned by former Red Wings star Chris Chelios, hockey fans are likely to enjoy this place best, as "hockey agnostics" are immune to the psychological effect of red-and-white hockey-ness. The menu includes burgers, steaks, salads, soup, sandwiches and a host of fried appetizers: cheese, calamari, wings, chicken fingers, potato skins and coconut shrimp. Strangely, the chili isn't given top billing, but it's a mild, slightly soupy version, often served in bread bowls. Hours of operation are event-based: open for home Red Wings and Lions games, and Friday and Saturday night from 5 p.m. until midnight.

Claddagh Irish Pub 17800 Haggerty Rd., Livonia; 734-542-8141; One of 15 Claddagh Irish Pubs in the Midwest, this is the only Detroit-area outpost of the Irish mini-chain. And it's not chain-standardized fare, as amply proved by the joint's "Claddagh Chowder." Made from Claddagh's own house recipe, it's a New England-style seafood chowder, loaded with clams, potatoes, onions and celery, thickened with wheat flour. It comes at $2.99 a cup or $4.99 a bowl.

Fishbone's Rhythm Kitchen Cafe 400 Monroe St., Detroit; 313-965-4600;; other locations in Southfield and St. Clair Shores: Fishbone's has earned its reputation for doing things in a big way. Belly up to one of the two bars for drinks and the sushi bar for "the freshest nigiri and sashimi dishes available in the city," or sit in the spacious main dining area. Its Cajun and Creole dishes go beyond jambalaya and fried catfish. But the main event is their huge Sunday brunch. And then there are those rich soup choices, including such specials as clam chowder (Fridays) and lobster bisque (Saturdays). But the Cajun choices naturally include that richest of soups, gumbo. The "Gumbo Ya Ya" fuses chicken, Andouille sausage and rice for $4 a cup, $6 a bowl. Even richer is the seafood gumbo, a five-star recipe gleaned from the Louisiana back roads where they still cook with cast iron, featuring "shrimp and crab meat simmered in a dark roux and served with rice," yours for $5 a cup, $7 a bowl.

Honest John's Bar & Grill 488 Selden St., Detroit; 313-832-5646; Serving up breakfast till noon on weekdays and till 5 on weekends, Honest John's is sure to keep you going, with Bloody Marys and Ghetto Blaster Ale and a full bar at any (legal) time of day. The badass jukebox plays funk and Motown, and can be heard out on the patio (if it's warm enough to hang out there). And there's a surprisingly strong group of soups, going well beyond simple New England-style clam chowder. Gumbo is on the regular menu, loaded with Andouille sausage, chicken, red and green peppers, onions, garlic, sassafras, gumbo filé powder, their very own Cajun roux and, of course, the rice. They also serve a popular vegetarian chili. This four-bean (kidney, pinto, black and white) creation skips the cilantro, but piles on the tomato strips, corn, tomato sauce, chunky tomatoes and garlic. Chef Mike Dakoske says, "The beans hold it up very well, and we use chunky tomato so it's very thick and chunky. It's real thick."

Hunter House 35075 Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-646-7121; What makes this place so noteworthy, even more so than the food, is likely its link to the old Birmingham before it got so chi-chi. Instead of the upscale shops and eateries along pedestrian-oriented Old Woodward, this place was meant for car traffic, with unmetered parking in the lot. True enough, it seems to draw lots of families bringing their kids in for a taste of the past. The white enamel steel, stainless steel counters, the black-and-white tile floor, old details like Pepsi-Cola signage and parking meters ("No Pennies") and old fuel dispensers give the joint a sense of history. And if that nostalgia doesn't get you warm and fuzzy, try their chili. Though the burgers carry the day here, you may be surprised to notice that secondary items show attention to detail. The chili doesn't have ground beef, but actual chunks of meat in it and a nice mix of beans. Chances are it's the best chili you'll ever eat with a plastic spoon!

Leo's Coney Island 110 S. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-336-8093; many more locations at Maybe some all-night spots treat chili as a mere condiment for the coney dog, but not Leo's. They lavish attention on the meaty meal, serving it in a cup, beans or not, onions optional. They also have a chili "special cup," made with chili, loose hamburger and onions. And that's nothing compared to Leo's "Super Chili," made with spaghetti and cheddar cheese, a chili fit for a manly meal. It's affordable and filling, and you know it's good because they sell it by the quart to go!

Lily's Seafood 410 S. Washington Ave., Royal Oak; 248-591-5459; Lily's Seafood is a hot spot that offers not only a stunning interior and friendly service, but most importantly a kitchen that believes homemade is best. In keeping with this idea, even the beverage menu includes house-made root beer, and a variety of house-made beer. Both the entrées and desserts are special. Full of mixtures of both flavor and texture. They serve a traditional yet exceptionally thick New England clam chowder (Friday through Sunday only) that goes great with their "Strange Stout." Available daily, their signature Creole soup contains Andouille sausage, crawfish tails, and chicken breast "all set adrift in a hearty broth of chunky tomatoes and fresh garden vegetables." It goes down well with one of Lily's IPA brews.

Lunchtime Global 660 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-963-4871; This appealing get-and-go spot in downtown Detroit has a bevy of warming soups for fall, including a New England-style clam chowder and a chicken chili. But there are also vegetarian options, such as vegan spinach lentil soup, vegan black bean soup, even a vegan fall squash. Ask about their reasonably priced soup-and-sandwich combo, large-enough lunch. 

Mitchell's Fish Market 117 Willits St., Birmingham; 248-646-3663; 17600 Haggerty Rd., Livonia; 734-464-3663; 370 N. Adams St., Rochester Hills; 248-340-5900; With a large selection of fish (12 varieties at any given time) and menus reprinted over the course of the day to reflect changes in availability, you can be sure of freshness. And the hearty soups are less than $5 a cup, though you'll probably pay the extra dollar for a bowl. Among the choices are a Little Neck clam chowder, a New Orleans seafood gumbo and a Maine lobster bisque.

Motor City Brewing Works 470 W. Canfield St., Detroit;; 313-832-2700: This brewpub has a quirky tiled interior, affordable Wednesday-night art shows, and a sturdy menu of pizzas and small plates. For less than $10, you can get a pizza made with ingredients sourced as locally as possible, or a cheese, baguette and salametti plate. The beers are excellent, Octoberfest on tap, which they sometimes serve in Thor-sized 2-pint glasses. Their vegetarian chili is smoky, thick, and comes in a small ceramic bowl still bubbling hot, with a good bean variety, chunks of tomato, and little bits of garlic still intact that burst with flavor. The garnish of cilantro or dollop of sour cream are optional, a scattering of crunchy tortilla chips will help you get a taste while it's still boiling, and when it cools you'll be scouring the inside with your spoon to eat every bit.

Mudgie's 1300 Porter St., Detroit; 313-961-2000; The artisanal Corktown sandwich shop, uses only the freshest, highest-quality ingredients, local when possible. Soups are always fresh and change daily. Check their website or Twitter feed for what's on offer day-to-day. One recent offering was a French onion tweaked with apple juice and topped with cheddar and croutons. 

Plaka Cafe 535 Monroe St., Detroit; 313-962-4687: After the clubbin, Plaka packs 'em in. Not only because melted cheese and gyros absorb the booze and fortify the digestion, but because Monroe may be the last street in downtown that teems with life at night, with chatty crowds, and waiters flicking their Bics and crying "Opa!" As you'd expect, the chili at a coney joint is quality, coming with oyster crackers, filled with red beans, and beef ground into the very tiniest bits for fuller flavor. It's a great accompaniment for a lunch special, and as a choice to go, it comes in a heat-saving polystyrene container for a quick meal back in your cubicle.

PJ's Lager House 1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-961-4668; The Lager House, long a destination for shows and suds, not only has added food, but the new kitchen is aiming high and being creative. On a recent night, we were treated to a tasty potato-leek soup, with skin-on potato chunks and just enough thickness to coat a spoon. We'll be back for more.

Red Coat Tavern 31542 Woodward Ave., Royal Oak; 248-549-0300: Red Coat is just so well-known as a burger joint that it's easy to forget that the tavern keeps a full menu, and serves excellent renditions of classics. So why should the chili be anything less than top-notch?

R.P. McMurphy's 2922 Biddle Ave., Wyandotte; 734-285-4885: One of our co-workers was raving about this place's Northeast Clam Chowder, biscuits and lobster gravy, and other treats, calling it "Maine meets Downriver!" We haven't been there, but, with rants like that, it sounds like it could be worth a try.

Sweet Lorraine's 29101 Greenfield Rd., Southfield; 248-559-5985; For more than a decade, metro Detroiters have been grateful to count on the moderately priced pleasure of Lorraine Platman's casual but sophisticated cuisine. Though they only serve two soups at a time, call ahead to find out if they're serving their spicy Thai corn chowder. It's thicker than your usual soups, sort of like a cream of corn soup, but rich with corn, onions, lemon grass, coconut milk, red curry paste, lime juice, Hungarian paprika and tomato paste, all on a base of mushroom and vegetable stock. At 2.75 a cup, $3.95 a bowl, this sounds like one of the more innovative treats of the season.

Tap Room 201 W. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti; 734-482-5320; Established in 1941, the Tap Room enjoys a quaint existence on the corner of one of downtown Ypsilanti's main drags. The narrow bar remains clear of intense crowds, providing a perfect venue for student types to 40-plus folks to talk and hear music. But it's not all just beer and song, there's a full menu of bar fare, including warm soups and homemade hearty chilis that get a bit of extra attention from the chef in the kitchen, as a former Tap Room chef told us that the chili comes from "an old recipe, handed down to me from the owner. It's very basic — your normal chili — but you put a little bit of love into it. It could be the way I sautée the vegetables, meat and spices together before I start adding stuff. But mostly it just takes a little bit of extra care and love. You have to pay attention and make sure it doesn't burn. Nobody likes burned chili!"

Tom's Oyster Bar 519 E. Jefferson Ave., Detroit; 313-964-4010; find other locations at With its tin ceiling, dark paneling and blue-and-white checkered tablecloths, the restaurant creates the feel of an authentic New England chowder house. The large, U-shaped bar is accented with brass railings and is surrounded by tables; there's plenty of room for socializing with friends and colleagues. The well-stocked bar offers an extensive wine list and a fine assortment of microbrews. Check the blackboard for a list of the daily specials; they include six ever-changing varieties of raw oysters. The oyster bar also serves several other hot and cold appetizers, from Maryland crab cakes to smoked whitefish to Tom's famous clam chowder; the main menu features a large selection of entrées with an emphasis on seafood — up to 20 fresh items daily. And then there are those satisfying and warm soups, including seafood chowder, crawfish bisque or seafood chili.

Union Street 4145 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-831-3965; Hearty bowls abound at this stylish Midtown fixture. There's a seafood chowder, New England-style, with bay scallops, shrimp, clams and even fresh hickory-smoked salmon ($4 a cup, $5 a bowl). Then there's the chili, with genuine Black Angus steak tips "simmered in red Mexican chili beans, assorted herbs and spices, delicious and full-bodied." Hotter than most, it can be topped with sour cream, scallions and cheddar cheese.

Wasabi 15 E. Kirby St., enter on Woodward side, Detroit; 313-638-1272; Japanese cuisine isn't known for rich, thick soups, but the comfort factor of some soups really soars. The nabeyaki udon comes in a hot pot, a potent broth in which swirls mushrooms, shrimp tempura, and even egg. But best of all are the thick udon noodles, which can be piled into a Japanese soup spoon and consumed by the mouthful. Spice-loving diners may shake a bit of shichimi powder over everything for a bit of extra heat.

See any inaccuracies in our listings? We try to get everything right, but if you see anything that needs a tweak, let us know. E-mail Short Order at [email protected] or call 313-202-8043.