Review: Faustina's offers a rare taste of creole in Northwest Detroit

May 10, 2017 at 1:00 am
Cajun wings, red beans and rice, and mac and cheese from Faustina’s Creole & Soulfood.
Cajun wings, red beans and rice, and mac and cheese from Faustina’s Creole & Soulfood. Tom Perkins.

The common sins that you encounter when it comes to cajun and creole cooking in the north are under-spiced dishes or one-dimensional, lazily prepared meals. There's a misconception that "creole" is Louisianian for "salt and cayenne bomb," and after the cuisine's heyday in the '80s and early '90s modern America's collective image of the cuisine developed into a Red Lobster caricature.

In reality, "ragin'" isn't common to the Louisiana lexicon and cajun and creole food is complex and full-flavored, rich from properly applied roux, and built layer by layer off a base of the "holy trinity" of aromatics — onion, celery, and bell peppers. For whatever reason, Detroit sees very little of that kind of cooking, but it can be found. The kitchen of chef Anthony Faustina in Faustina's, a small carryout spot on Wyoming Avenue just north of the Lodge, is one of the only places.

Even so, it should be clarified that Faustina's isn't a straight-up creole restaurant, as it also deals in cajun food. A common misconception is that the dishes are synonymous, but they're not. Creole recipes like jambalaya are tomato-based, while cajun dishes are traditionally thickened with roux (pronounced "roo"), a combination of cooked down fat and flour. Creole is found in the city, while cajun is typically country cuisine. Faustina's dishes are a crossover — you'll find elements of both, as well as plenty of Detroit soul food favorites.

But there's enough creole and cajun territory on the menu that you'll experience tastes that are otherwise hard to come by 1,200 miles north of the Delta, and that's what we focused on. Of course, the jambalaya is the best spot to start. Faustina's version is deep, with shifting flavors. It's built off the celery-onion-bell pepper base, and possesses a strong thyme and garlic presence that's assisted by the sweetness of tomatoes and a cayenne kick. Faustina also thickens the dish with the roux, and that alone takes four hours to prepare. The shrimp and crawfish are mixed in along with spicy beef sausage — no pork in this restaurant.

A lot of Faustina's cajun dishes are fried, which could be a bad thing in the wrong hands, but the restaurant actually achieves the right balance among batter, juicy meat, a cajun spice blend that radiates a little heat, and an acceptable level of sea salt.

The meaty chicken wings are a good example of that, as are the alligator bites, and not just because the latter is something exotic in Detroit. (Fishbone's is the only other spot that serves it.) The not-too-heavily-battered bites of moist, white fish-like meat hold a spice blend that doesn't over- or underwhelm. The wings and the bites aren't too greasy, and there's the interplay and balance that makes fried food worth eating.

It should be swabbed through the spicy cayenne sauce, as should the cajun fried catfish, which calls out for a little lemon and/or Crystal hot sauce. Fried okra is always a risk, as it's often slimy or its small-ish flavor is defeated by gobs of greasy batter, but it's done properly here. The acidic, smoky, vinegar-marinated green beans are some of Detroit's best, and, as they should be, Faustina's red beans and rice are outstanding.

Beyond that, the soul-cajun hybrids are also worth checking out. Order any dish with lobster in a Detroit restaurant and you're running a risk of leaving bummed, as even reputable kitchens are known to stoop to using imitation lobster meat, the hot dog of the sea. Faustina's is above that, and shreds of crustacean hang out in a rich mac and cheese driven by a mix of three gooey cheeses. It turns out the cajun wings make up the fried chicken portion of the chicken and waffles. They're balanced by super soft and sweet made-from-scratch waffles, and shouldn't be missed if sweet and savory is your thing.

The only mark against Faustina's occurred with the seafood gumbo. The base was solid, but, beyond that, its identity grew a little fuzzy. On a return trip, we got the chicken gumbo and the roux-thickened bowl was flavorful and rich. So we're assuming the first bowl was an off batch and giving Faustina's a mulligan.

Though the location only opened in 2013, the Faustina's name is one that's known in Detroit. Faustina is a fifth-generation cook, and his father, Leonardo Faustina III, was Mayor Coleman Young's personal chef. The late, elder Faustina also ran several northwest side restaurants, and both generations of Faustinas do catering (including ice carvings and fruit arrangements) for musicians at venues like Joe Louis Arena, Fox Theater, the Palace, Masonic Temple, and Music Hall. Faustina recently prepared food for Mike Epps, Babyface, and Erykah Badu, though he says his favorite group to cook for are classes of kids in Detroit Public Schools. Unless you're booked at the Fox, or in fifth grade, head to the Wyoming Avenue location.