A Foodie’s Dream: Detroit’s Hamtramck Offers a Plethora of Ethnic Dining Options

By Nicole Rupersburg
This article originally appeared in the 2014 spring/summer issue of experience MICHIGAN.

There was a moment in time that it seemed like Hamtramck was going to be Detroit’s first “It” neighborhood in decades. In 1997, UTNE Reader named Hamtramck one of the “15 Hippest Places to Live” in the United States and Canada. In 2003, Maxim Blender named it the second “Most Rock ‘N Roll City” in the country. With a gritty image and an undeniable coolness factor that attracts the very same artists, musicians and urban hipsters now seen as an integral part of the urban renewal equation, this tiny two-square-mile city-within-acity seemed to have the winning formula for fast redevelopment and, inevitably, the rising rents and dreaded “gentrification” that comes with it.


But despite all the buzz about it, Hamtramck has remained obstinately the same, eventually losing its “It”-ness to the more polished Midtown and the trend-driven hipster haven Corktown (aka, the “new Brooklyn”).

But Hamtramck remains stubbornly, wonderfully Hamtramck: gritty, dirty, dense and uniquely diverse. As Detroit’s population continued to plummet between 2000 and 2010, the last decade for which census data is available, Hamtramck’s population loss was negligible, and its various ethnic immigrant populations grew significantly. In this speck of a city, there are over 30 different languages spoken. The Muslim call to prayer is broadcast on speakers throughout the city.

The large Polish population that established Hamtramck as “Poletown” through most of the 20th century still has roots here, while the city has become the beating heart of cultural diversity with residents of Yemeni, Bangladeshi, Bosnian, Polish, Yugoslav, Ukrainian, Russian, Indian, Albanian, Pakistani, Iraqi, Macedonian and Lebanese descent, in addition to African and Caucasian Americans. Now Hamtramck, which even has its own Bengali business district, is jokingly referred to by locals as “Hamladesh.”

Hamtramck’s diversity is what makes it so interesting, and that diversity is reflected in the dozens of ethnic restaurants, cafes and grocery stores in the area. What the city lacks in refined aesthetics it more than makes up for in authenticity and personality, offering a singularly unique experience you won’t find anywhere else in the city, and probably country.

There are a few old guard family-owned Polish restaurants that are Hamtramck institutions. Polonia is one of them, featuring Polish specialties like czernina, or duck blood soup, which Anthony Bourdain featured on Travel Channel’s “No Reservations” in 2009.
Just down the street from Polonia is Polish Village Café, which promises “the finest food west of Warsaw.” It also has all the traditional Polish favorites – pierogi, kielbasa, stuffed cabbage, schnitzels – and it also has had its moment on national television with spots on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and Travel Channel’s “Food Paradise.”

Another Hamtramck restaurant that appeared on the Travel Channel is Palma Restaurant, the first Bosnian restaurant in Michigan, which Andrew Zimmern visited on an episode of Bizarre Foods. Zimmern also took camera crews to Sheeba Restaurant, a halal Arabic and Middle Eastern restaurant that serves lamb kidney subs; the iconic Polish and Eastern European deli and market Srodek’s Campau Quality Sausage Co. for some spicy headcheese and jellied pigs’ feet; and Amar Pizza, a halal pizzeria with a Bengali twist serving pizzas with toppings like tandoori chicken and dried fish (though they are perhaps best known for their unholy hot ghost pepper sauce).


Rock City Eatery

But not every noteworthy Hamtramck food destination has appeared on national television. The recently-opened Rock City Eatery, owned by Russian-born chef Nikita Santches, presents itself as the next generation of ethnic Hamtramck restaurants. With a beautifully-designed punk-rock-chic interior utilizing reclaimed materials, vintage items and custom-made pieces from local artists, Rock City lives up to its name, and so does the food. Menu items include duck confit poutine, porchetta, roasted lamb, a pork belly sandwich with hoisin sauce and a fried bologna sandwich with kimchi. The menu is worldly, rustic and wholly Hamtramck.

Just a few blocks down Joseph Campau from Rock City, another new upstart known as (revolver), is making a name for itself with its revolving door of guest chefs, which have included some of the biggest names in metro Detroit’s culinary community, including occasional national food media stars James Rigato of The Root and Dave Mancini of Supino Pizzeria. The menu and the chef changes weekly and seatings are typically only on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets must be purchased in advance.

There are dozens of other worthwhile eateries, like Aladdin Sweets & Cafe, Bonoful Sweets & Café, Halal Desi Pizza, Yemen Café and ZamZam Restaurant. Pop into one of the dozens of ethnic markets to browse and pick up something to go, like Al Haramain International Foods, Bengal Spices, Bozek’s, Holbrook Market and Mesnica Mini Market.

If you love a good dive bar, there are none better than those in Hamtramck, including the Painted Lady Lounge, the Polish Yacht Club, Seven Brothers, the Two Way Inn and Whiskey in the Jar (many of these date back to before Prohibition).

And for something completely different, check out the Detroit Zen Center Café for fresh, organic, vegan foods prepared by monks and students of the Korean Buddhist center.

This article originally appeared in the 2014 spring/summer issue of experience MICHIGAN. Some of the written details may have changed since the article was published.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.

A Taste of Heritage: Meat Pies, Miners and Memories

By Kim Schneider

This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of experience MICHIGAN.

I eat my Cornish pasties with a fork and on a plate (generally, the largest one I can find), oven-crisped to a golden brown and flavored with a generous side of ketchup. But every time I bite into one of those flaky, whole meals in a crust, I’m transported a bit to a chillingly damp, upper Peninsula mine, to a picture of miners on a hard-earned break eating their pasties wrapped in the day’s newspaper, heated over a hiss of steam or candle on a headlamp.


Photo by Kath Usitalo

I’ve never toted lunch into a mine myself, mind you. My first taste of pasty was in my grandparents’ cozy Michigan kitchen, that homey smell of baking pie crust accompanied by tales of the way my Cornish great-grandfather would head into Painesdale’s Champion no. 4 mine with that one filling reminder of home.

Pasties (pass-tees) were introduced to Michigan in the mid1800s by miners like the young Fred Jose, who came to Michigan at age 29 in the heart of the region’s massive copper boom, toting experience from a nation rich in tin mines, rocky cliffs, legends and practical comfort food. literary references to a hot pocket-style dish of meat, potatoes and root vegetables in a crust date back to the Arthurian legends of 1100, Robin Hood stories of the 1300s and even Chaucer’s  Canterbury Tales, completed in the year 1400. And if today’s vacationers are not necessarily writing ballads about the dish, they’re still eating plenty.

Toni’s Pasties in the old mining community of Laurium sells about 500 a day in mid-summer, sending some customers home with 30 or more at a time. It’s the same recipe calling for quality beef and wafer-thin slices of rutabaga and potato used when the restaurant opened 60 years ago, says current owner Eric Frimodig. And that the dish is so timeless is not surprising, says Michigan author and food historian Priscilla Massey, because it’s not just tasty; it’s as practical as a food comes.

“The Cornish called it Tiddy Oggie; they’d put them in a bucket, where they would stay warm with their coffee the whole day so they’d have a warm meal in those mines, which were horrible, dark, damp places,” says Massey.

For a particularly vivid picture of mine life, tour Quincy Mine in Hancock, where the reality of the chilling conditions starts with the blast of 45-degree air that hits you as your trolley rolls into the dark of the mine. Hazards of the miners’ routine require little imagination as guides shut out the lights and have you touch the wall and imagine feeling your way back to the entrance — often the only option since the mine was open for 50 years before getting electric lights.


Photo by Kim Schneider

Pasties are specifically mentioned via some whimsical-sounding but particularly practical superstitions, like a belief that the first corner of the pasty crust should be dropped on the floor for the mine’s “little people,” lest the tiny gremlins cause a mining accident — all too common at the time. The practice was actually lifesaving in Cornwall, our guide tells us, where arsenic from the mine might get on the hands, so it made sense to discard the potentially poisonous piece that a miner held.

Today, it’s just a fun way to give nod to the legends surrounding a food quite worthy of one.

This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of experience MICHIGAN. Some of the written details may have changed since the article was published.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.

The Power of Pie

By Susan R. Pollack

This article originally appeared in the 2014 fall/winter issue of experience MICHIGAN.

P1000441Pies equal love for Linda Hundt.

She learned that lesson early on when the Easy-Bake oven she got for Christmas won her brothers’ affection. “It was the only time my brothers liked me,” she says of the goodies she started creating at age five with her favorite childhood toy.

Fulfilling a longtime dream, Hundt continues to spread the love — while striving to “change the world one pie at a time” — at Sweetie-Licious Bakery café, a pretty little pie shop she opened nine years ago in the mid-Michigan community of DeWitt, near Lansing.
With a red-and-white-striped awning out front and piles of pink boxes, vintage cookbooks and nostalgia-inducing decor inside, the cheery little bakery on the looking glass river is a detour-worthy stop or a destination in itself. It’s open daily except Sunday.

Clad in old-fashioned aprons and in full view of customers, the effervescent entrepreneur and her crew roll out dough and crimp perfect crusts for more than 40 different kinds of pies — some of them prize-winning. From Pink lemonade and Peach rhubarb to Browned Butter coconut chess, many are refined from treasured family recipes hundt learned at the aprons of her mother, aunts and grandmother, who collectively stoked her lifelong passion for pie-baking. And each of the pies has a sweet story behind it, all detailed in script on her website.

On busy summer weeks, the bakery turns out as many as 400 pies, and customers scoop up about three times that many — 1,200 — in just 24 hours at Christmas time, Hundt says. Other made-from-scratch comfort foods and childhood favorites include plump muffins and cupcakes, chewy cookies and brownies, and tasty quiche, soups, salads and sandwiches.

“People love the throwback atmosphere — that sweet Pollyanna world i like to live in and share with others,” says Hundt, a self-described Donna Reed wannabe who wears retro dresses and, for special events, pearls. “this whole shop — eating pie and making pies — takes you back to a simpler, bygone time… People relate to that, they want more of that in their lives.”

Over the years, Hundt has won a devoted following and numerous accolades and has appeared on national television, including The Today Show. Among her 17 Crisco national Pie championships are the 100th anniversary innovation award in 2011 and Best of show 2009. Food and Wine magazine named her sticky toffee Pudding caramel apple Pie among the nation’s best pies, and she also won The Food Network’s “amazing Pie challenge.”


Intent on spreading her joy-of-pie gospel, Hundt recently opened two shops in Grand Rapids, one at the new Downtown Market, and signed an agreement that will make her pies available to a national audience through the Williams Sonoma website and catalog. Expect to see a dozen different mail order flavors starting this fall.

Hundt, a mother of two grown daughters who worked as a substitute teacher and former appointment scheduler for a Michigan governor, recalls being inspired by a shop, Pie in the sky, that she and her husband visited while honeymooning on cape cod in 1985. But it took nearly 20 years before she could put her own dream into action.

Hundt started peddling fresh-baked pies to local farm markets and restaurants in 2002. she also sold them off the back porch of her century-old farmhouse, where customers would drop money in a bucket after helping themselves to her pie safe.

Finally, in 2005, Hundt opened her bakery-cafe in the downtown DeWitt building where she once went for haircuts. calling it “the cutest little pie shop in the whole world,” she filled it with sweet aromas, kitschy decor and the sounds of vintage crooners such as Frank Sinatra.
For Hundt, who has battled depression since her 20s, baking helps banish the blues. “Being at the shop, baking pies, it definitely helps me,” she says, pointing to a sign that proclaims, “Pie Fixes everything.”

When she’s not baking or demonstrating pie-making on a local TV lifestyle show, Hundt is busy touring Michigan libraries sharing both her personal and pie stories and promoting her new book: “Sweetielicious Pies: eat Pie, love life.” it was named one of 20 “Michigan Notable Books” for 2014.


For information, check sweetie-liscious.com or call (517) 669-9300.

This article originally appeared in the 2014 fall/winter issue of experience MICHIGAN. Some of the written details have changed since the article was published.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.