When it gets cold outside, we Detroiters have a tendency to kind of shut down. We stock up on rations in the pantry, prepare to hunker down inside for months on end and make a pact to not venture out into the wild unless it’s absolutely necessary. Luckily, we need to look no further than the many eateries that have come to define Detroit’s foodways to find that excuse to break up the monotony of cabin fever. You see, the region is home to a huge diaspora population and that’s reflected in the many dishes that we’ve come to flock to during winter’s brutal conditions. From Vietnamese pho, to hearty Polish and Italian-American dishes, flavor-popping soul food and piquant Louisiana gumbo, to filling bao soup dumplings just a short drive across the border in Windsor, there are plenty of reasons to love the comforts of winter in Detroit.
Metro Detroit has a sizeable Vietnamese population dating back to the 1970s when thousands of refugees began to call Michigan home. The community is most notably apparent in Madison Heights, where dozens of shops and restaurants that cater to the Vietnamese population are located. Outside of that general vicinity, Pho Lucky has made a name for itself as a go-to destination for pho, considered Vietnam’s national dish. The eatery started off with a location in Redford Township and soon spread to other suburban locations. In 2015, Pho Lucky opened its first Detroit location, just north of where the Little Caesar’s Arena is now located on Woodward. Pho Lucky is great for a quick, slurp-worthy bite and offers a variety of seating to accommodate large groups or folks dining solo on their lunch break.
Pho Tai Chin
Pho can be enjoyed in numerous ways, with a variety of proteins available. My personal favorite at Pho Lucky would have to be the pho tai chin, which consists of rare eye round steak and cooked beef, along with umami-rich beef broth, rice noodles, and a generous helping of lime, herbs and veggies like basil, cilantro, jalapenos, and bean sprouts served on the side so you can decide how much or how little you want to add to the bowl. For those looking for an extra kick on top of the cilantro and lime that linger off of every sip, it is great with sweet and salty hoisin or spicy Sriracha sauce. The popular street food makes for the perfect pick me up for a cold Michigan day.
This relaxed Japanese-inspired gem that started in a tiny space Corktown is a brothy paradise. Famous for its thick, slurpable udon noodles, rice bowls, and shrimp and scallion dumplings, Ima is especially known for its plentiful vegan options. The original noodle shop has since expanded to include a larger space in Madison Heights, and a new forthcoming spot in Midtown, ideal for broke college students looking to elevate their ramen game.
I had to go with the pho again on this (although the buttery lobster udon is a runner-up when I’m feeling like splurging). Ima’s pho is vegan and it’s unforgettable. The vegan broth isn’t lacking in flavor and comes with roasted tofu as the protein. This means all the taste but none of the feeling gross afterward and is a great dish to share.
Hamtramck has been known for encompassing “the world in two miles” for its myriad of ethnic and racial cultures who live side by side. Long ago, the community was mostly a Polish enclave and the one establishment that has been feeding Detroiters’ Polish food cravings for decades is Polish Village Cafe. It is a very casual atmosphere with stringing lights hanging along the walls and ceilings, a full bar, and familiar servers who tend to call you honey. Really, just about everything on the menu could be considered comfort, from its dill pickle soup, gargantuan kielbasa, to its stuffed cabbage, and potato pancakes.
Whenever I visit Polish Village, I make it a point to order a full serving of pierogi. Here, some 2,000 pierogi are produced a day, feeding an obvious demand for the pocket-sized snacks. The home-cooked doughy dumplings come with a range of fillings, from puffy potato, sauerkraut, potato and cheese, as well as in sweet cheese, blueberry and strawberry. The vessel’s texture when it is pan-fried melts the filling inside to a soft sweet mouth-watering bite.
Shanghai Bistro 上海小馆
2045 Wyandotte St W, Windsor, ON N9B 1J8, Canada
Windsor has long been a favorite for Detroiters with a hankering for Chinese food. That’s because the Canadian city’s tiny Chinatown has remained for generations, unlike in the Motor City, whose Chinese community has spread out throughout the region thanks to urban sprawl. Situated on a strip on the city’s west side, Shanghai Bistro is one classic example of the culinary excellence that abounds here.
Bao Crab and Pork Soup Dumplings
These soupy delicacies are cooked in a bamboo basket unlocking all the moisture to create a sweet broth inside every dumpling. I visited Shanghai Bistro recently with Detroit Free Press food critic Mark Kurlyandchik, who said adding a few drops of black vinegar into the dumpling after taking a first bite adds a nice acidity. It is a tantalizing dreamy snack and worth the drive through the tunnel.
For old-school Italian-American comfort food, we have to head to the eastside, where Italian families began to migrate to more than a century ago. In St. Clair Shores is where you’ll find Gaudino’s, which takes a traditional Italian market and combines it with a modern-looking, but casual dining experience. Founder Peter Gaudino who had immigrated to Michigan from the Italian town of Marsala in 1920 opened the market in the early ’40s on the corner of Mack and Drexel in Detroit and eventually settled in St. Clair Shores. The business is now its third generation, with ol’ Pete’s granddaughter and husband at the reigns. In 2015, the business underwent a dramatic relaunch and update to reflect the times, resulting in a modern-feeling space with all the old school food offerings. What makes this place stand out are the recipes, which have been passed down from generation after generation. This market is great for picking up fresh cold cuts and its delicious, mild and supple mozzarella, as well as any of its hearty “nonna approved” entrees.
This respect for tradition is probably best illustrated in their lasagna. It’s available in two styles, but we love the bolognese recipe. Using a white sauce — or Béchamel — base, the bolognese is both rich and meaty, complementing the mozzarella and ricotta filling. There’s a light crunch on the noodles from the baking pan at the bottom. The lasagna is perfectly portioned to more than satisfy one person. Noodles are made in their neighboring facility for optimum freshness.
17337 Lahser Rd, Detroit, MI 48219
Right across from the iconic Redford Theatre lies a gem famous for breakfast food and sweet potato pie. Launched 1976 by newlyweds at the time, Jeffery and Cassandra Thomas, the menu started off with a focus on Thanksgiving fare. Over the years, the bakery became famous not just for sweet baked goods but more recently for its savory menu where sweet potatoes also play heavily in the dishes. I recommend making reservations to get a seat at this small establishment, and whatever you order, make sure to top it off with a scoop of sweet potato ice cream on your way out.
Sweet Potato Pancakes
Upon first glance at this breakfast favorite, I was a bit intimidated to try the sweet potato pancakes, my mind couldn’t fathom the two things together. That doubt melted away after my first bite. The sweet potato is balanced with the spice of nutmeg and cinnamon and manages not to come out overwhelmingly sweet. This dish is rounded out nicely with a healthy side of crispy salmon croquettes (or wings), and grits (available in regular or sweet potato). The dish is also available with sweet potato waffles instead of pancakes.
One of Southwest Detroit’s newest Mexican places has taken a modern twist to its menu and bar. Colorful LED lighting on the ceiling, a widescreen projector, vintage Mexican Olympics posters, and a bar covered in actual pesos collected by the spot’s founders make for a cool, sleek but still laid back vibe that’s a far cry from its aging neighbor, Mexican Village, across the street (though respect has to be paid to that restaurant too, being the oldest continually operating Mexican eatery in Michigan). Entrees are served up three ways: as a torta, burrito, or a platter and the margarita menu could take ages to try in its entirety (and many have tried).
Birria de res
Birria is considered the official dish for the Mexican state of Jalisco, where a huge number of Detroit Mexicanos are from. It consists of meat (usually goat or beef) simmered in a blend of chiles and citrus, creating deep red, tender and flavorful stew-like dish that wipes away the winter blues. Order it as an entree and scoop it up with a side of corn tortillas or order it as an appetizer in the tacos doraditos — hard shell tacos doused in crema and queso fresco.
In 1970, Joseph Stafford and his wife, Margarine, introduced Detroit to what would become one of the most familiar restaurants in the city on the edge of Eastern Market. Louisiana Creole Gumbo (Luzianne Creole Gumbo) was based on family recipes from Stafford’s home near Thibodaux, Louisiana. The restaurant eventually changed hands when a group led by Joe Spencer took over in the early 1980s. Since then, the restaurant has expanded to include two locations that have established themselves as a staple in the Motor City. Today, you will see the same recipes Stafford had when he opened the doors.
If you’re looking for Creole-inspired gumbo close to downtown or in northwest Detroit this is your spot. Their shrimp gumbo is filled with cut okra, celery, tomatoes, a blend of gumbo seasoning, rice and broth. It is rich in seasoning and earthy yet not overwhelming with spice. It just tickles your throat. Its house-made cornbread muffins are the perfecting soup dunking material. The muffins are crisp on the outside and buttery and soft on the inside.
Through the diverse cultures of Hamtramck lies an authentic Middle Eastern restaurant where you’ll find customers conversing in Yemeni and colleagues on lunch break in search of a more lively dining option than burgers or coneys. It is a simple atmosphere that shows that the real focus is on the food. Their menu is full of traditional options like the flavorful chicken fahsah (a to-die-for stew served in a bubbling clay pot) or the wide, light and crisp Yemen flat bread, typically used as a utensil for scooping up food. All diners are invited to sip on complimentary Yemeni tea while they wait for their orders.
The halal beef gallaba is an excellent example of this spot’s delicious offerings. The beef is stewed in a melody of red peppers, celery, and onions all julienned into a chopped mix that moistens, releasing flavorful notes of the cumin. The portion is large and can be served on a bed of basmati yellow rice or hummus. You can either eat this pile of goodness by itself or serve yourself it with the Yemeni bread, garlic sauce and zhug, a spicy Zemeni specialty sauce.
There are obviously so many more dishes that we could add to this guide. Tell us, what’s your go-to winter comfort food in Metro Detroit?
This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.
Author: Grace Reyes
Grace Reyes is a freshman at Wayne State University in the Journalism Institute for Media Diversity. Grace’s love for food has spurred her entire life and now she is able to portray her love for journalism and food into one.