Sundays just don’t get much better than yesterday. I started off the day with a greasy-spoon breakfast at the Steak Hut on Lafayette, where my friends and former band-mates Steve and James were playing an acoustic set of country classics… I even got to sit in on vocals on a few tunes. After that, I sat outside reading books in the record-breakingly warm sunshine. And to top it all off, I had dinner with the husband and friends at a pop-up German restaurant called Schnäck.
Our friends at Porktown Sausage set up Schnäck in Supino Pizza (temporarily closed while owner Dave Mancini takes a well-deserved vacation in Argentina), and it was just the right size for a first-time venture such as this. We got there shortly after it opened at 5pm and it was already over half full; it didn’t take long for a wait to form at the door. But the small number of seats (about 30) and limited menu allowed them to manage the flow and keep from getting too slammed.
Although I’m an adventurous eater and love all kinds of Asian foods, it hasn’t been until relatively recently (the last 5 years or so) that I discovered how much I love Vietnamese food. Sad, because out of all the types of Asian cuisines I’ve tried, Vietnamese cooking calls out to me the most, with its pungent flavors of fish sauce, chilies, lime and fresh herbs. It’s ironic because although I lived in France, where there is a large Vietnamese population, my experience was limited to snacking on the occasional nem (fresh roll), which you could buy at the counter in many Vietnamese-owned groceries.
Here in Metro Detroit, there is also a significant Vietnamese population in the Madison Heights area (see this post about some of the Asian specialty stores in that area). A couple years ago Marvin turned me on to a restaurant on John R just north of 11 Mile Rd. called Thang Long *insert immature jokes here… you know you want to* and I’ve been hooked ever since. It’s not much to look at when you walk in- the decor is all rose-colored and clearly hasn’t been updated since the early ’80s; the vinyl seats are torn in places. There’s a long table in the middle of the restaurant where the family congregates to do food prep, wrap silverware, etc. But none of that matters because when you go to Thang Long, you go for the food.
I’ve tried several dishes at Thang Long, but my favorite is the Duck & Cabbage salad. Cabbage is shredded and doused with a dressing of vinegar, fish sauce, chilies and garlic; there are slices of red bell pepper, mint and basil leaves, a sprinkling of peanuts, and best of all, pieces of shredded duck breast. Last year I acquired Andrea Nguyen’s book Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (check out this post for a great stuffed tofu recipe from that book), and happily it contained a recipe for a very similar salad that used poached chicken breast in place of the duck. I made a batch and was delighted to find that, with just a little tweaking, I could now make my beloved duck salad at home. Best of all, it’s an incredibly easy recipe AND super healthy- there’s not even any oil in the salad dressing. The salad is great when it’s first made, but I also like it after it “marinates” in the dressing and the cabbage softens a bit. Either way, you’ll be glad it makes a big batch because it’s addictive and easy to eat huge portions!
Photo notes: The first photo is of the salad I made at home with chicken, following the original recipe without any modifications. The photo of the salad with the herbs and red pepper is the actual duck salad at Thang Long (hence the crappy lighting). The things on the side of the plate are delicious fried shrimp chips.
If you’re looking for a more weekday version of this dish, this salad works just as well with chicken rather than duck. I’m not usually a fan of the rather flavorless white chicken breast meat available in most stores (use Amish or organic if possible!), but the salad has so much flavor of its own that it works out. For the chilies, in a pinch you can do what I did and use dried bird’s eye chilies; just pour a small amount of very hot water over them and let them soak a bit before using. The items marked “optional” are ingredients that Thang Long uses in their salad that were not included in Ms. Nguyen’s recipe.
For the salad:
1 Tbs fish sauce
1 bone-in duck or chicken breast (both sides)
1 small red onion or two shallots, thinly sliced
½ to ¾ cup distilled white vinegar
1 small head green cabbage, about 1 lb, quartered through the stem end, cored, and cut crosswise into ¼-inch-wide ribbons
1 large carrot, peeled and shredded (I use the large holes of a box grater)
a good handful of cilantro, finely chopped (about 2-3 Tbs)
¼ of a red bell pepper, thinly sliced (optional)
2-3 sprigs mint leaves (optional)
2-3 sprigs basil (optional)
2-3 Tbs finely chopped unsalted peanuts (optional)
For the dressing:
1-2 Thai or serrano (red) chilies, chopped (see notes)
1 clove garlic, chopped
½ tsp sugar
pinch of salt
3 Tbs fish sauce
6 Tbs unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar
Choose a lidded saucepan just large enough to hold the meat. Fill half-full with water and the 1 Tbs fish sauce, and bring to a rolling boil. Drop in the duck or chicken breasts. When the water starts bubbling at the edges of the pan, remove the pan from the heat and cover tightly; let sit undisturbed for 30-40 minutes. If you’re at all nervous about undercooked meat, use a meat thermometer to ensure the meat has reached 160°. (Alternately, if time is not an issue, you can cook the meat in a slow cooker on low for a couple hours; folks on Serious Eats claim they get a moister result this way.)
Meanwhile, place the cabbage, carrot, cilantro and red bell pepper (if using) in a large bowl. Put the onion or shallots in a small bowl and add the white vinegar just to cover (the vinegar tames the onion’s bite). Let sit for 15 minutes. Drain well and add to the cabbage. When the meat is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and shred the meat by hand along the grain; when cool, add to the bowl of cabbage.
Using a mortar and pestle, mash the garlic, chilies, sugar and salt until they form a fragrant orange-red paste. Scrape the paste into a small bowl and add the rice vinegar and fish sauce, stirring to dissolve and combine.
Just before serving, pour the dressing over the salad and toss well to combine. Taste and adjust the flavors as needed, balancing the sour, salty, sweet and spicy. Transfer to a serving plate, leaving behind any unabsorbed dressing. Garnish with the herb sprigs and the peanuts, if using (or leave on the side for your guests to add as desired).
There’s a bumper sticker that reads “Ann Arbor: 25 square miles surrounded by reality”. For those of you who aren’t familiar with that fair city, allow me to explain the joke. Ann Arbor (or A2 as it’s known in shorthand), home to the University of Michigan, is a liberal enclave where people are SO like-minded that after spending some time there, you’re apt to be lulled into forgetting that other places aren’t as progressive. For someone coming from another city (especially Detroit), going to Ann Arbor is akin to going to Disneyland’s Epcot Center; like visiting a staged example of what a mid-sized Midwestern city could be if everyone shopped at a food co-op, recycled, volunteered, or was otherwise groovy. Everywhere you go, there is evidence of A2′s crunchy leanings: a yoga studio every other block; houses painted various shades of the rainbow; people biking and walking more than they drive. The city hosts an annual Hash Bash (they’re known for their lax marijuana laws), has a high school where kids aren’t given grades, and allows people to keep chickens in their backyards.
Saturday Scarlet Oaks had a show in A2: a fundraiser, held in an urban barn (see photos above & below), in which people were asked to donate art supplies as part of their admission. It was a gorgeous day out, so my friend Melissa and I decided to head out there early so we could wander around, get some food, and basically be tourists. Lest you get the impression by my comments above that I’m somehow hating on Ann Arbor, let me assure you that’s not the case- there are few better places a drive’s distance from my house to spend a sunny afternoon. The downtown area is eminently walkable, and features scads of cute shops, restaurants, cafes etc.
The city is as close as one can get to a food-lover’s paradise in the Midwest. In addition to many great restaurants (several in the budget category- this is a college town after all), A2 boasts a lovely farmers’ market and several gourmet shops. Most notably, it’s home to the nationally-known Zingerman’s mini-empire (deli, restaurant, dairy, and bakery), whose philosophy leads them to source and serve only the best quality slow and sustainable foods. Folks here are very active in the local and organic food movements- a blogging friend runs a business called Locavorious, selling local foods frozen at harvest to be eaten through the winter months; another blogger runs Preserving Traditions, a group that hosts workshops on canning and such. Not surprisingly, the largest concentration of Michigan Lady Food Bloggers is in Ann Arbor and its environs.
Our singer Steve grew up around Ann Arbor and knows all the good spots, so at his suggestion we had lunch at a Japanese restaurant called Sadako. He and his wife had raved about how good it was, and how cheap (for sushi)- a rarity. (I realize “cheap” is not necessarily a word you want to associate with sushi, but trust me, the quality was not proportional to the low prices!) We ordered off the lunch specials menu, opting for bento rather than sushi rolls. For a mere $7.45, I got an incredible amount of food: miso soup, a small side salad, 2 gyoza, an assortment of tempura (including 2 shrimp), teriyaki-glazed salmon with vegetables, and 4 pieces of California roll. I was pretty much in awe of what a great deal this was, and felt a little guilty that I couldn’t finish everything. I made a valiant effort though, and finished most of my bento. Note to self: in the future, only eat half the miso; it’s good but fills valuable stomach space that could be better spent on tempura!
Happily sated, we continued across town to Kerrytown, the neighborhood which houses the farmers’ market, Zingerman’s deli, and some other shops. Melissa wanted to visit Hollander’s, a huge shop specializing in paper goods. (As I left, I happened to see that the entire upper level is devoted to kitchen/ housewares… a good thing I didn’t notice sooner, as I probably would have spent an entire paycheck and/ or browsed so long that I would’ve been late for our set!) I bought a set of postcards with illustrations of vegetables from old seed packets, which I’ll frame and use as kitchen decor.
After Hollander’s, we headed up the block to Zingerman’s where I was hoping to find verjus. The place was ridiculously packed; the line winding through the shop and several feet out onto the sidewalk. The helpful employee I asked told me that they didn’t currently carry verjus, because they hadn’t yet found a brand up to their standards! We geeked out on vinegars, and he gave me a few outstanding samples, but in the end I couldn’t bring myself to part with $20 for a bottle. Next visit I’ll save my pennies in anticipation of dropping some serious cash there. (Ahem, if you ever need a gift idea for me, they have gift cards!)
Our show was a lot of fun; it’s always a nice change of pace to play during the daytime and not in some smoky bar (19 more days!!!). Unfortunately for the fundraising effort there weren’t a ton of people there, but the sound was good and we got an enthusiastic reception. After our set, we grabbed some carry-out and beer and headed to a friend’s house to sit on the porch and enjoy the last few rays of sun before heading back to the reality of Detroit.
As you might expect, living in such an idyllic town does not come cheap. Although property values have taken a hit as they have everywhere, they are much higher in A2 than most MI cities, and ironically, economic and ethnic diversity is the casualty of this gentrification (lower-income folks who work in Ann Arbor mostly live in neighboring Ypsilanti).
When traveling, it’s nice to afford yourself one or two “luxurious” meals at a high-end restaurant, to be sure. But more and more, when I eat at those types of places, I find myself thinking how I could get the same kind of food in Detroit, and wishing I had opted instead for something more casual that offers the kind of experience unique to that city or area.
When visiting my mom in Bluffton, SC over the holidays, we spent a day walking around Savannah, just 30 minutes away. I had wanted to eat at the famous Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, but apparently you need to line up HOURS beforehand to get in, so that was scratched. We wandered around near the market trying to find somewhere decent to eat and it seemed that there was a wait everywhere. Then I spotted a little hole-in-the-wall diner serving burgers, hot dogs, and… beer! Just the thing after a morning’s walking. My mom looked a bit skeptical but everyone else was hungry enough to agree.
The diner, called Sweet Melissa’s, had a vibe that was sort of a cross between an arty dive bar and the Coneys in Detroit… maybe that’s what drew me in? I ordered a hot dog with sauerkraut and tomato, and Marvin and I shared a cup of chili. The dog was large and good-quality, but the chili was the real standout. I didn’t ask, but it definitely tasted like it was made in-house rather than chili from a can like some diners. Others ordered burgers and BBQ pork and everyone seemed pretty happy- especially Marvin, upon being told he could take his beer to go and drink it while walking.
My quest for regional food also led me to Sgt. White’s Diner in Beaufort (pronounced “Buford”, not “Bow-forr”, much to the chagrin of my French-speaking brain). I read about this gem in Jane & Michael Stern’s book Roadfood, and I’m glad I did because it’s a mile or so outside the downtown area and I don’t think we would have run across it by chance alone. We got there late (they close at 3:00 and we arrived at about 2:45) so many of the side dishes were depleted, but we managed to do just fine. For $7.99, you get a plate heaped with your choice of meat and two sides- I had BBQ pork with collards and okra gumbo (okra stewed with tomatoes and corn), and my mom had fried chicken with fried okra and huge, creamy butter beans. The food was as good as barbecue gets, and I especially liked the condiments on each table- a spicy and slightly sweet hot sauce, and a bottle of white vinegar filled with peppers and other vegetables.
After we ate, I chatted with the Sarge (that’s him in my masthead photo) and snapped a few shots of the restaurant, which is decorated with lots of colorful pig paraphernalia as well as military memorabilia. Sarge is obviously deeply patriotic and proud of his military service! He and his cook were both very friendly and amenable to my picture-taking and questions. I can’t wait to get back down South and try some more regional specialties, and will definitely head back to Sgt. White’s next time we’re in Beaufort. Cheers, y’all!
In Ferndale, my hands-down favorite breakfast place is the Fly Trap. Problem is, it’s the favorite breakfast place of many people, and on the weekends, the line usually spills out onto the sidewalk. Unfortunately, there aren’t many other good breakfast options in Ferndale worth mentioning. And please don’t say, “But what about Toast?” Sure, they have cute décor, but mediocre food, abominable service and high prices, and after my last experience there (it was a Monday and the Fly Trap was closed), I don’t think I’ll ever go back.
So what’s a gal to do on a weekend morning when she doesn’t feel like cooking and is too hungry to wait in line? Two words: Café Habana.
Café Habana is in downtown Royal Oak and is part of the Bastone/Vinotecca complex on the corner of 5th and Main. It’s relatively small, yet is never full on weekends despite its tasty (and cheap!) brunch menu. They score points over the Fly Trap and other breakfast places for ambiance- they have Cuban music on the stereo, and sitting amongst the exposed brick and wrought-iron chandeliers, it is a pretty pleasant place to relax and read the Sunday paper. The service is laid-back and friendly, not frantic, and you never get the impression they are trying to turn a table.
If you’re more the type to seek a “standard” breakfast menu with pancakes, eggs, bacon and the like, this probably isn’t the place for you. But for the more adventurous eater, Café Habana has some exciting offerings. Marvin and I have eaten here several times and our favorite dish is the Huevos a la Flamenca. The eggs are served in a tomato-based sauce that has little pieces of carrot and peas as well as ham and sausage. It’s served with a potato croquette that is browned and crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. Another dish I like is the Huevos Habana, two eggs with a pork and plantain hash and poblano hollandaise. If I’m not in an eggy mood, I go for the Arepas (cornmeal pancakes), which you can either get sweet, with cream cheese and fruit, or savory, with herbed goat cheese, sautéed spinach and pico de gallo. Coffee is above average here, but if you’re not a coffee drinker, they have a good freshly-squeezed limeade, or you can order drinks from the bar at the adjacent restaurant, Bastone.
Café Habana can also be recommended for lunch and dinner- I’ve had the Flank Steak with Chimichurri and it was pretty darn good- but for some reason when we end up there, it’s usually for breakfast. Fly Trap, we still love ya, but on the days we sleep too late to beat the crowds, you can find us in a booth at Café Habana, divvying up sections of the New York Times and enjoying a leisurely meal.