City Guide 2021: Tour Asia Right Here in Metro Detroit

With this year’s City Guide, we’re traveling the globe without leaving home. The next stop on our itinerary is Asia.

Only a few architectural remnants of Detroit’s long-gone Chinatown in the Cass Corridor remain. A duo of monuments mark what once was, while new businesses, including a craft beer store and tattoo shop, let you know how much has changed in the transformed Midtown area. 

That transition from the gritty Cass Corridor to the cleaned-up Midtown matches the story of the former working-class neighborhood at the intersection of Cass Avenue and Peterboro Street that once anchored the Chinese American presence in Detroit. 

Chinese American roots in metro Detroit date back to the 1880s. Lively Lunar New Year celebrations happened in the Cass Corridor into the early 1960s before the uprising of 1967 spurred many Chinese Americans to leave for the suburbs. Today, decades later, those suburbs have turned into Pan-Asian hubs of cuisine and culture. 

Madison Heights has turned its sea of strip malls, with their parking lot moats, into a dynamically diverse and delicious landscape. The vast offerings of cuisines plucked from the Asian diaspora are often served in humble settings that reflect the no-frills, blue-collar ZIP code where these immigrant-owned and -operated businesses have found ways to thrive. 

There are more than 200 Asian-owned businesses in mighty Madison Heights alone, which has a population of about 30,000 people, according to census data from 2018. For anyone navigating this Pan-Asian wonderland, be warned — a lot of the restaurants here are cash-only, and finding their menus online can be a task.

Here’s a brief itinerary for a whirlwind tour of Asia without an all-day flight.

For cultural immersion, visit the Detroit Institute of Arts to view masterpieces like “Manuscript of the ‘Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Verses,’” dating from about 1160. // Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts

Don’t Miss

Like the sweeping range of cuisines in Madison Heights, the Robert & Katherine Jacobs Asian Wing at the Detroit Institute of Arts presents a wide range of mediums — textiles, calligraphy, pottery, painting, and more — representing Chinese, Korean, Indian, and Southeast Asian art. Artwork gets cycled through every six months in the Asian wing, so there’s often something new to see, even for folks who visit the DIA frequently.

Back in 2018, the Detroit Institute of Arts expanded its Asian collection from a humble single gallery into a massive, 6,500-square-foot wing. It’s only the second permanent addition to the museum in the past 14 years, representing a large commitment by the DIA to feature Asian art.

168 Asian market stocks brands that will be familiar to immigrants from all across Asia. // Photograph by Ryan Patrick Hooper

The Real Deal

For anyone looking to cook authentic Asian cuisine of any style, 168 Asian Market on John R in Madison Heights — one of the largest Asian markets in the Midwest — is a must. (The number “168” is considered lucky in Chinese culture.) The place is owned by first-generation Chinese immigrant and entrepreneur Ricky Dong, who turned the economic downturn of 2008 into a small empire of real estate in Madison Heights by buying space that big box retailers left behind. Remember Mervyn’s? It’s now home to 168 Asian
Market, and we’re better off for it.

The 38,000-square-foot market prides itself on carrying particular, country-specific brands, often of the same item, for immigrants looking for that sense of home. The store stocks more than 25,000 products drawn from Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean cultures and beyond. There are varieties of fish sauce and red curry paste that most Americans probably don’t even know exist. 

Bonus: You can even buy items in the market, which boasts an incredible selection of seafood, and they’ll cook them up for you. The food court is small but mighty, offering more than 40 dishes from various regions and countries — think dumplings of all sorts and rich, deep-flavored sauces. These are not Americanized versions of Cantonese classics.

Chao Zhou makes some of the best Chinese take-out in Madison Heights. // Photograph by Ryan Patrick Hooper

Tastes

Dubbed “Little Vietnam,” this stretch of John R and Dequindre in Madison Heights gained its moniker because of its high concentration of Vietnamese and Vietnamese American residents — and its must-visit restaurants, such as Pho Que Huong, Thang Long, as well as the specialty grocery store Saigon Market.

But its range of cuisine is certainly not limited to steaming bowls of pho. Thai, Filipino, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Korean delicacies are all represented here. (There’s even an Arabic grocery store called Family Market.) The variety of restaurants from last year’s citywide restaurant week reads as if a tornado picked up cuisines from around the globe and plopped them down in Madison Heights in no particular order — Shawarma Castle, Irish Tavern, Augie’s Bar and Grill, Lao Pot, 168 Asian Market. The BBQ pork from Zhang B-B-Q is not to be missed. Grab a half pound and you won’t regret it. The meat hanging in the front display resembles something out of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Next door is Chao Zhou, a tiny Chinese restaurant that offers some of the best carry-out in town, which is a crazy thing to say in a city like Madison Heights, with so much to choose from. The ginger scallion beef, beef with bitter melon, wide rice noodle, and stir-fried Chinese broccoli with minced garlic are must-trys. The folks at Chao Zhou will actually cook what you bring in from the China Town Market next door, which carries a range of seafood and cooking essentials for anyone bringing these Pan-Asian flavors home. 

Don’t leave town without stopping by QQ Bakery on Dequindre Road. The BBQ pork bun is a staple of Chinese baking, and the ones at QQ Bakery are massive and decadent. The buns with dried pork floss on top are made with a mayonnaise that’s whipped together in-house, making it light and sweet with a dash of salt. The steam buns are full meals in a compact package, filled with pork, chicken, Chinese sausage, and half an egg. 

“It caters more to our clientele, which is more Southeast Asian. A veggie bun wouldn’t fly here versus a meat bun,” says  Will Chai — who runs the bakery with his parents, who are Malaysian Chinese — with a laugh. His mom, Yow, learned from a Taiwanese baker, further blurring the lines of what-comes-from-where. “We do a Cantonese twist on a Taiwanese style of baking. It’s similar, but it’s a little bit different,” says Chai. The prices are quite reasonable, so grab a few cream cakes on your way out. It’s a super-light sponge cake with a buttercream filling in the middle. 

The simple rice cakes, meanwhile, are delicious and reflect the diversity of the bakery’s clientele. “This is a steamed rice cake that Filipinos love. It’s fermented rice flour, water, and sugar. It’s a spongy, honeycomb-like material,” says Chai. “Filipinos call it puto; Chinese people call it white sugar cake. Everyone has their own name for the exact same thing.”

Did You Know?

The closest Chinatown to Detroit — like the one that once existed downtown or in the Cass Corridor — is just across the border in Windsor, Ontario.

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