Most chowhounds at one time or another fantasize about opening a restaurant, either because we think our cooking is so good that people will beat the doors down for the opportunity to get a table or because we have this romantic notion that we can hang out with our (paying) friends, enjoying the accolades they will bestow upon us. I have thought about it daily for about 30 years. Every time I get close, someone in the business — or formerly in the business — dissuades me. For the restaurant business is one of the most difficult there is. You are manufacturing perishable products to be consumed by customers who usually think, “Mom can make it better.” You are dealing with the health department, the state liquor commission, a staff that is not always loyal, and, frequently, a temperamental kitchen crew. The hours are long. You work day and night, weekends and holidays, in sickness and in health. If this is beginning to sound like a marriage, that’s what it is.
Fortunately for all of us, not everyone is as wary of the consequences as I am. A good case in point is Doña Lola, an Ecuadoran seafood restaurant located in southwest Detroit. Lola De Suttles is the energetic, warm, happy woman who proudly runs this fine place with the help of her charming daughter, Guisu, who shares her mother’s pride.
Lola and Guisu are extraordinary chefs. I have been dazzled by the food, which is as good as its ingredients are fresh.
Doña Lola specializes in fresh seafood. Her soup, such as the caldo de cameron (shrimp soup) is a meal for one person or an appetizer for more. Four of us raved about it so much that we nearly canceled the rest of our order so that we could have more. Yet each dish was better than the last. The garlic shrimp resembles New Orleans-style barbecued shrimp, floating in a garlic butter sauce that begs for bread or noodles or rice to absorb it all.
I do not eat seviche, but Robert Linkner, who considers himself a connoisseur of this citrus-marinated seafood cocktail, says that Doña Lola’s is the best he’s had anywhere. The grilled red snapper, served whole and smothered with vegetable sauce, was delicious. But Lola’s Seafood Rice is the dish that I love. As a friendly customer told me, “It resembles paella, at half the price.” For $15 we had a huge portion of saffron rice cooked with fish, shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari and some other fresh seafood and vegetables, all seasoned with “Lola’s Secret Spices.” This is a succulent dish, representative of Ecuador’s fine cuisine and Lola’s expertise.
Although her business card says Latino Seafood Cookin’, Lola also serves beef, pork and poultry. Central and South American specialties are featured. One dish that is new to the menu is fricasseed chicken curry. Now that the weather permits, there will be parrillada — South American barbecue. Several different types of meat will be available on Saturdays and Sundays. A new lunch menu will be added any day. I have seen what is hopefully the final draft of that menu. It includes many of the regular menu items for the bargain price of $6.50 or less.
This restaurant should be busier than it has been on the few occasions that I have dined there. Yes, it’s out of the way for many of the people who will be reading this, but, believe me, it is well worth the drive.
It’s a neighborhood restaurant, the antithesis of the chains that have attempted to seize our palates. Don’t allow it! Seek out and support the people who help us stay in touch with our culinary feelings. These small places are abundant, just not as visible as the suburban theme restaurants that charge high prices to pay the high rent.
On a recent visit to Doña Lola, a few other customers approached us to recommend dishes. These were people from the neighborhood who perhaps sensed that we were newcomers and wanted to make us feel welcome. They succeeded.
Several months ago, I arranged a menu with Lola and took over the restaurant one night with about 60 other people. What a feast! We were able to sample many of the restaurant’s specialties, all at bargain prices.
For something a little different, on Michigan Avenue in Canton, about a quarter of a mile west of I-275, is Vinnie’s Italian Submarines. This is the real deal. Their subs start at “5 Layers Meat, 1 Layer cheese” for $3.45 and go to “12 Layers Meat, 3 Layers Cheese” for $6.95. Your choice of hard or soft crusted Italian Bun. Try a side of the Sicilian olives. They are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays, but they’ll be closed for the summer on Saturdays starting in June. The place is about five minutes out of the way when you are going to the airport, although for me it’s worth the ride from Oakland County when you’re in the mood for a good sub.
The new issue of Chile Pepper Magazine is the Annual Barbecue Edition. Published six times a year, this is an excellent rag, which features various ethnic and regional cuisines with emphasis on spicy foods. They also have a great Web site, www.chilepepper.com.
Doña Lola is located at 1312 Springwells in Detroit (across the street from Vince’s, the Italian restaurant that has been there forever). Take I-75 south to Springwells, and head north on Springwells for one mile. Call 313-843-4129.
Vinnie’s Italian Submarines is located at 42030 Michigan Ave. Call 734-394-SUBS.Jeff Broder is a chowhound for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]