July 12, 2008

Travelogue: Detroit Rocks -- and Eats!

Frank standing under one of the massive tigers at Detroit's Comerica Park

Home of Elmore Leonard and Kid Rock. Francis Ford Coppola and Toi Derricotte. Leonard still lives here. People are moving downtown. I thought I'd be cowering in my room waiting for the zombied homeless and cracked-up gangs to break the door down (sort of, really I had kind of an open mind, but I was ready for the worst given the press coverage and my boss's assertion that I should "take a firearm").

Comerica Park. Our hotel is the very narrow red brick building directly left of the upper tip of the left tower behind the scoreboard. You can see how gorgeous is the skyline. And that's Canada in the background.

What I found instead was that I was cool about walking around by myself (just like Mexico!), even at night, sort of (there's no where I really feel totally safe walking around at night -- that's just me). Tons of fun. Character. Don't forget the current Stanley Cup Champions; those pesky Tigers, who almost robbed our Cardinals of the MLB World Championship in 2006; and well, I think they have a football team, too.

Plenty of good food in Detroit. The best? A little snacking we did at Vincente's Cuban Cuisine. The best mojito I've ever had, no kidding (matching price at $8 -- I had one), and a small plate of Cuban sandwiches and omelets, compliments of the tour company with whom we finished our three hours of purposeful downtown Detroit walking at Vincetne's. In retrospect I wish I'd gone ahead and had dinner there, even if it isn't native (to Detroit) cuisine.

Detroit Beer Company. Yum. My favorite?
The one on the left: People Mover, named after their mass transit train.
Ya, which I rode.

From there I took off on my own (Frank went to the ballpark, of course) for further adventures. After walking the floridly post-apocalyptic city streets for a bit in the dusty light of the fading sun I settled on trying some local beers, rather than the small plates place next door to it (called Small Plates). You know, I've had a lot of small plates lately and the menu looked pretty standard. And at $12.95 on apparent average for a small plate, I thought my money'd be better used sampling several small beers! I was right, and really too full to want much more to eat right then, anyway. I think I'd gone a little farther with the Cubans than I'd first realized.

In the Detroit Beer Company I ordered a flight, though it wasn't on the menu. The bartender forgot, and after 15 minutes I reminded her. It was quite busy, and I think (hope) she was new. By then I'd met a gaggle of local business men who'd gone to high school together (one had come in from Chicago) all of whom reminded me of my brother, on their way to the Tigers game. They were every bit as polite and fun as every other Detroitite we met on the trip. Just really gentlemanly. The beers on the flight, once I got them, were delicious. The glasses were a little larger than the usual flight-sized jumbo shot glass size, and there wasn't a key (like I'm going to remember what the bartender told me as she set them in front of me). But that was ok, because I got help from up and down the bar -- everyone wanted to know what I thought of the stout (yum, Guiness-y) or the cloudy wheat (fruity, sharp, hops coming up as an after thought). So that was cool, too. I was there to dig the local color, after all, and this was it.

(Side bar: I have really been way more into good beer lately than wine. I'm just liking how it sits in my tummy and makes me feel nourished. Plus, there's something very fresh-born and living about a good beer, brewed right there where your drinking it. In the STL I'm constantly craving Square One Brewery's Spicy Blond, with its ginger and creamy foam.)

Comerica Park is just a couple of blocks from the hotel we stayed in -- a basic Hilton. It's a pleasant walk. Detroit has a definite Bladerunner feel about it, gritty and gorgeous. Major pre-Depression, Gilded Age, and Art Deco architecture from Gordon Llyod and Louis Kamper. But some of the most important buildings are vacant, the windows blown out, story after story of broken glass. How many vandals does it take to break out 33 floors of windows? Or was it some unnaturally strong wind that blew through, then was forgotten?

Of course, Detroit is a water town. The name comes from French Rivière du Détroit, i.e. "River of the Strait." Standing high inside the Book-Cadillac building on our architectural-of-sorts tour, Canada was clearly taunting from the other side, all health-carded up and non-violent. It's kind of like a reverse-Juarez/El Paso situation, only no one seems to realize it. On the other hand, the city dwellers I met were passionate about the revitalization of their downtown. There is a new central plaza at Campus Martius Park -- yes, that's Latin for Field of Mars. And yes, it was, in 1788, a military drill ground. There are restaurants and coffee shops and music at noon and festivals.

Lafayette's, Our Coney Dog Tasting Winner

And there are scads and scads of (oddly cheerful) homeless people, everywhere. One downtown business keeps it's doors locked -- has to let you in to eat -- to keep the homeless people out. A Coney dog stand. Not a swanky joint at all.

But the homeless people I encountered seemed somehow to be taking themselves with a grain of salt. They were sort of laughing as they asked for a dollar, and if you declined they'd just offer an optimistic sports prediction (like, after a losing Tigers game, "We'll get 'em next time!")
Back to the ball park, here are Coney dogs. Tons. As well there should be, and prominently, since they are THE native food of Detroit. Sure, there's fried ravioli in my home town's Busch stadium, but you can hardly find it. And when you do it's not the real thing! It's some sort of cross between a fried rav and a Fig Newton. But you can get a Coney dog lots of places in the Tiger's den.

And local ice cream. And local soda. Local microbrews! And freshly made elephant ears! These things were fantastic! I don't know if they're native, but they sure beat the pants off the frozen-then-fried funnel cake they feed you at Busch. An elephant ear is a lot like a funnel cake, in principle: both are made from a basic batter of flour and water, then dropped into a hot deep fat and fried until they're golden brown, then sprinkle them with powdered sugar so that it melts into the surface. But the key to tasty in both instances is that you eat them immediately after they come out of the frier. Frozen then fried, they're ok, but there is nothing sublime about them. And sublime is, after all, what we're going for, right? The fresh elephant ear -- a large misshapen disk of half-inch thick, hot fried dough, topped with sugar and cinnamon, is really, really sublime. Comerica also offers cherry and apple topping. But I opted for the sugar-cinnamon so I could eat it with my fingers. Yum!

Yip, that's it, the Coney Dog
Now, apparently the question of deep food related importance to Detroit dwellers and visitors is the relative merit of Coney Dog offerings. A true, traditional Coney has a hot dog on a bun covered in chili, onions, and mustard (the mustard goes on top of the chili). There are loyalists for both American and Lafayette's, the two oldest venders in town. The stores are neighbors and once were owned by the same family. Naturally we had a tasting, and Frank and I agreed, Lafayette's is the best, in spite of being the younger pretender. The dog itself had a more "homey" look, with its hand crimped ends, and a bit more bite-back. There was more chili, and the chili itself was just slightly spicier -- though beyond that feature it really did seem like the same recipe. Also, more plentiful onions and mustard. And maybe I dig the smaller, stranger space, too.
So why go to San Fran or Maui and blow your carbon footprint out of the water? Why, when there are undiscovered crazy-interesting places near-ish to home. Like Detroit. I feel a little bit like a maverick, having vacationed there. And that makes me happy.

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