We’ve been drowning in chili in Detroit, but you wouldn’t know it. We never call for help. We happily worship the Coney dog in this town, washing it down with a square piece of pizza like it’s some sacred ritual that has existed since time immemorial. But there are other essential Detroit foods that define this city and don’t get the love they deserve.
The commonality between the new and the old is our tendency to embrace foods that feel inherently tied to our blue-collar, factory-floor history. Their providers range from an array of Mexican restaurants to small holes-in-the-wall and the latest in contemporary dining. This is not a complete list. It’s a start to show what happens when you think beyond the bun and outside the pizza box.
The Boogaloo sandwich at Chef Greg’s Soul ’n the Wall
Let’s start with the saucy behemoth known as the Boogaloo sandwich, available exclusively at the southwest corner of Wyoming Avenue and Curtis Street in Detroit. It’s a simple dish that recalls a hoagie — seasoned ground beef, caramelized onions, and melted cheese on a toasted 8-inch bun (freshly made at Tringali’s Bakery), smothered in the signature Boogaloo sauce. It’s that sweet and tangy sauce that sets it apart. It’s a staple from the now-defunct Brother’s Bar-B-Que that chef Gregory Beard has kept alive at his Soul ’n the Wall since 2006. 10009 Curtis St., Detroit; 313-861-0331; facebook.com/Chef-Gregs-SOUL-N-The-Wall
Lamb fahsah at Yemen Cafe
There’s an abundance of food from the Arab world in and around Detroit. Even with such fierce competition, Yemen Cafe in Hamtramck stands out. I’ve never gone wrong ordering anything here, and it’s easy to lose yourself in the menu — the chicken lemon rice soup is the best around; the lamb agadah is a traditional Yemeni dish that’s perfectly spiced. It’s the lamb fahsah, however, that I’ve chosen as an essential Detroit dish.
This is one of the most popular items on the menu, a traditional Yemeni lamb stew with a bunch of spices and served in a superheated stone pot. Order with a side of Yemeni bread and labneh with fresh mint and garlic, and you’ve got yourself one of the best meals in the city. 8740 Joseph Campau Ave., Hamtramck; 313-871-4349; yemencaferestaurant.com
The döner benedict and khachapuri at Supergeil
This is the youngest restaurant of the bunch, but Supergeil makes the list for its unique approach to the lamb and beef döner kebab, a sandwich that’s popular throughout Berlin — the same city that influenced the rest of Supergeil’s menu.
Here, the staff breaks down the döner kebab and turns it into a benedict — only available during brunch on Sundays (for now). Another staple here on that same brunch menu is the variety of khachapuri, a yogurt and egg-based dough that is formed into a pide boat and baked with a mixture of mozzarella and cream cheese. 2442 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-462-4133; supergeildetroit.com
The Big Baby Burger at Food Exchange
Corned beef is a staple at our delis and on our homemade menus in spring. At Food Exchange Restaurant on the city’s east side, it’s the year-round centerpiece of the Big Baby Burger — a 10-ounce patty of ground beef topped with corned beef, cheese, and the usual suspects and served on a fresh onion roll (there’s a 5-ounce Junior Big Baby for the timid, but honestly, you want the original — it’s that good). Be patient — everything’s made to order and never frozen, so expect a 20-minute wait.
This is a no-frills, only-the-locals-know-about-it type of place that defines Detroit’s dining scene, and the Big Baby Burger deserves to be in the convo for the best burger in the city. 8451 Harper Ave., Detroit; 313-579-5616; foodexchangerestaurant.com
The original botana at Armando’s
Botana in Spanish simply means “appetizer” — it could be anything. In this case, it’s a slice of Tex-Mex from San Antonio that found its way to Detroit in 1975 courtesy of Armando Galan, the founder of Armando’s in southwest Detroit. His botana is a mix of chorizo and refried bean, topped with a hefty portion of green peppers, tomatoes, avocados, jalapenos, and an insane amount of Muenster cheese. The botana has become a staple at Mexican restaurants throughout metro Detroit, with each business putting its own twist on this crisp appetizer. 4242 Vernor Highway, Detroit; 313-554-0666; armandosmexicantown.com
This story is from the August 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.