Detroit is a crossroads of cultural experiences. Hamtramck, near Midtown, for instance, is a Detroit community dominated first by Polish immigrants – who now hear the Muslim “Call to Prayer” wafting through their town five times each day. Detroit’s Greektown area is well known by tourists and borders Corktown, and area settled more than 150 years ago by Irish immigrants, adjacent to Mexicantown. “Eastside Italians” have long been a staple of the multinational makeup of Motown, which shares in international border with Canada.
One can traverse years of history and continents of cuisine in Detroit’s ethnic restaurants. Here are two authentic eateries which will take you a world away:
They come to the table piled high and hot – virtually still sizzling from the fryer. The basket full of golden-colored, thick corn tortilla chips are so flavorful they don’t need any seasoning, but the hint of hot grease coating the chips helps salt stick. Two small dishes of salsa arrive with the chips – the darker of which is the spicier. This savory ritual is how diners are greeted immediately at Xochimilco Restaurant, before any of the Mexican waiters or waitresses even say, “Hola, amigo!”
Xochimilco translated from Aztec means “Gardens of Flowers” – in reference to an ancient agricultural area just south of Mexico City. The namesake restaurant, pronounced “So-she-mee-co,” is Detroit’s favorite Mexican eatery. The unremarkable, two-story hideout belies a festive, themed interior, anchoring the “Mexicantown” area of Southwest Detroit in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge. Without the glitz and casinos of Greektown, the restaurants and markets of Mexicantown rely on friendly service and casual, quality food – and plenty of cold Corona, Carta Blanca and Dos Equis to chill palates spiced by a wide range of authentic menu choices.
Singed, golden cheese smothers the chicken or beef enchiladas, burritos, flautas, tacos, tostados, and chimichangas scored with refried beans, guacamole, and seasoned rice you expect from a South-of-the-Border eatery staffed entirely by servers of Mexican descent, but Xochimilco offers more adventure than a Clint Eastwood movie starring Cheech Marin. Flaming cheese, cactus with onions, a nine-layer botana, sausage, huevos rancheros, and corn-husk wrapped tamales, like every dish, arrive very quickly and at little expense.
Xochimilko does not gleam and sparkle – it’s actually dated and tired – but it delivers – hot and fast – and has become a Detroit tradition. It’s especially busy on nights the Red Wings or Tigers are playing.
Xochimilco, 3409 Bagley Street, Detroit, 48216 (313) 843-0179
Roma Café is the oldest restaurant in Detroit. Having served as a boarding house in 1888 for workers from nearby Eastern Market, the building retains its well-worn, old shoe, creaky floorboard comfort while bustling with the excitement of a destination, special-event restaurant. Tuxedoed waiters, occasionally swigging from their own glasses of wine, shrug off formality by remembering the names and tastes of regular customers – who make up 80-percent of Roma’s business, according to Janet Sossi-Belcoure, the second-generation descendent of the Fiat Motors executive who emigrated to Detroit, drawn by the auto industry, but bearing classic Italian recipes (he was a friend of Hector Boyardee). Now, Sossi-Belcoure returns to Italy each year to visit vintners (eight Chiantis and a Barolo, Marchesi di Barolo from the Piedmonte Region have emerged as Roma’s house favorites) and take cooking classes in Tuscany in order to return with her own culinary creations.
“Our customers don’t want the menu changed, so I offer the new dishes as specials,” explains Sossi-Belcoure. “At the same time, we’re seeing young, urban professionals with modern tastes discovering Roma Café and they want their own new traditions.”
Johnny Georgas has been tending to diners on red table cloths at Roma Café for 33 years. “The diners have become more casual, but the food has not changed one bit. We’ve served the same sauce recipe for 80 years, and the Veal Parmigiana has always been our most popular dish, accompanied, of course, with a side dish of Casa Linga, our homemade “Pasta of the House,” says Georgas, who has served the likes of Bob Segar and the Detroit Red Wing hockey players who carbo-load at Roma. The marinara, meat and cream sauces swirl through the heaping, fresh dishes with as much richness as the atmosphere through the upper and lower dining rooms.
And one magical night, Rat Pack members Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Liza Minnelli dropped into Roma for a couple of hours after a Fox Theatre show. “Sammy went into the kitchen and thanked everyone for staying late, and the next night they sent their limousine drive over to pick up pasta and meatballs to enjoy backstage,” Sossi-Belcoure recalls.
Paglia and Fieno (“straw and hay”), a dish of green and white shoe string noodles with prosciutto and peas, is a house favorite as are the homemade Canolli.
Roma Café, 3401 Via Roma (Riopelle), Detroit (313) 831-5940. www.romacafe.com Closed Sundays.
Michael Patrick Shiels, a Michigan native and author, has visited more that 34 counties to write travel articles. MShiels@aol.com