Why Detroit-Area Dive Bars Are Serving Some of the Best Food Around
The pop-ups in the bars of Hamtramck—a tiny, dense, and poor immigrant enclave physically surrounded by Detroit—offer real eating at a low price in a city otherwise short on culinary variety and cash.
Bumbo's pierogi stuffed with sesame-potato and charred scallion.
Last weekend's Boboville Brunch might have marked the first time the words "croque madame" and "béchamel" were uttered in Hamtramck, a tiny, dense, and poor immigrant enclave physically surrounded by Detroit.
The Polish ruled our city for 100 years before the Bangladeshis and Yemenis arrived in recent decades, and those groups' dishes dominate our eateries: We fry paczki and placki. We take our Chicken 65 and chotpoti spicy. We share plenty of salattah. We've never dabbled in pot-au-feu and potée.
However, Boboville's introduction of the simple-but-iconic French plate impressed: It arrives with pieces of grilled Milano Bakery farm bread holding slices of salty, smoked Canadian maple ham. Strong Gruyère and mild mozzarella oozes from the bread. The béchamel sauce—rich and nutty with a light cayenne heat—keeps the plate moist, and the small stack sits under an over easy egg that's crowned with black pepper.
But the wormhole to a quaint French farmhouse ends at the plate's edge, where the not-so-totally clean Wal-Mart folding tables with no cloth begin. Beyond that, garish lights reflect out of Budweiser mirrors to illuminate a wood panel-clad, packed little bar. Patrons down beers and bloody marys on a Sunday afternoon, and the smell of decades worth of wild nights mixes in with brunch.
That's the world of Kelly's, a well-loved Hamtramck (pronounced ham-tram-ick) bar that hosts the Boboville pop-up, and holds its dive status with pride. It's an odd marriage, but the high-and-low, Boboville-Kelly's dichotomy isn't unique here—our best food is served on paper plates and sticky bartops in the town's dive bars, and the chefs are turning out some of the best dishes in the Detroit area.
The fare often exceeds the surroundings in sophistication, and there's a surprising level of creativity and competence in each of the nine pop-ups now rolling. On any almost any night, head to Hamtramck's shot and beer bars to find dishes like garlic potato and spam pierogi topped with pineapple cream, chicken Florentine panini, slow roasted tinga tacos, craft wontons, Mexican spiced chocolate brownies, and so on.
While it's an unusual format for finer food, it's a fitting way to dine in Hamtramck, a semi-damaged city of irregular beauty and patched-up everything that can feel like a vast, living surrealist museum. The odd beat is the result of larger forces, like the Rust Belt decline and shifting immigrant groups, pushing on the city over the last few decades, and that directly determines what we eat in 2017.
It should also be noted that these pop-ups aren't a novelty where chefs only go to do stunts with exotic ingredients—they're a pillar of our food system, and the people behind them offer real eating at a low price in a city otherwise short on culinary variety and cash.
And there's an enormous benefit to the chefs, some of whom earn their living solely from their ventures. Thankfully, the gentrification wave that hit Detroit neighborhoods like Corktown and Midtown crested and crashed just south of our border. That means less money floating around town, yet the neighborhood bars and pop-ups managed to create a scene that stands next to the hyped "food mecca" to the south.
"There's a lack of food options in the immediate area," says Boboville chef Blair Wills. "There are a ton of bars and a food culture here, but all the restaurants are more 'ethnic' food. The pop-ups are diversifying it, and there's a lot of opportunity for the owners. People here are also a little more savvy about being able to work with nothing."
But the city didn't always need pop-ups. For generations, paychecks from the Poletown auto plant and other nearby factories funded a strong Polish middle class that kept Hamtramck awash in dill pickle soup. Then, during the 1990s, the Polish bolted for wealthier suburbs to the north, just as the auto industry sent its jobs south. The local economy tanked, and the Polish markets and restaurants dropped. Now, only two remain. But the neighborhood bars all survived.
That also left the city with a cheap, empty housing stock and commercial district—an opportunity that off-the-boat Yemenis, Bosnians, and Bangladeshis jumped on. So many moved here that Hamtramck elected the nation's first Muslim-majority city council in 2015. Ever since, we've been sharing plates of chicken tikka masala with visiting reporters who come to write about life under an Islamic-led city government.
We tell them, "It's fine." About the only downside is that, with few exceptions, they're the only groups opening new restaurants. Over the last few years, deciding where to eat out in Hamtramck began to feel like looking in a fridge that's empty except for a few Tupperware containers filled with leftovers.
The pop-ups saved us from that. In 2015, chef Brian Krawczyk at Bumbo's bought the old drop-ceilinged and scuzz-carpeted Hank's, then renovated it into a laid-back bar with the intention of starting a Polish fusion restaurant. But he found a Wednesday pop-up worked better for the creative freedom and economics—no kitchen, fewer employees, and a simpler operation means lower costs, thus Bumbo's menu items rarely exceed $6. That price point is important here.
"I think our pop-up crowd is diverse enough that if the prices were higher, then people would still come in, but I want to make it something for our regulars," Krawczyk says.
Locals drink a lot of high-profit margin booze, so it makes sense to pull them in with the chance to spend a few bucks on caraway pulled pork served over celeriac puree and pickled salad; kishka fried rice; venison, rutabaga, and caraway-stuffed pierogi topped with red currant cream; or chicken liver pate with fig and apple relish. One could order everything off Bumbo's always-changing menu, plus a cheap beer, for $20.
Ditto for Gingersnap, a Sunday pop-up trading in comfort-y food at Baker Streetcar, a bar at which the younger generation mingles with old Polish men. Check out, for example, the cornmeal crusted Michigan pasty (the cornmeal provides a sweet contrast to the beef and curried veggies packaged inside) served with a side salad of roasted cauliflower, spinach, and cinnamon pecans. That arrives with a slice of butterscotch pie and rich red wine hot chocolate topped with bourbon marshmallow. It's simply not possible to find that caliber of meal for $14 in the bougie 'burbs up Woodward Avenue.
Chef Summer Radtke, who develops a new menu each week, explained the math: "I'd have to spend at least $20 for a meal, and drinks are another $10, and I'm over $40 after tip. You can order everything on my menu and a beer for $20 … and that's important to me," she says. "There are now a lot of good food options with the pop-ups and it's all affordable. It's important to have that in Hamtramck, and a lot of these bars were previously underutilized, in a sense."
At Timmy's Tacos, one of the longest running pop-ups on Tuesday and Wednesday nights at Kelly's, chef Timmy Lampinen rolls out taco menus heavy on traditional, slow-cooked meats—all for $2.50. His fiery red al pastor topped with crunchy, vibrant pickled red onions is done in a style uncommon for the Detroit area, and hard to beat. And on Tuesdays, a few dollars will get you pierogi and Polish bread bowl soups at Pietrzyk Pierogi in the Painted Lady Lounge.
While the bars' clientele was once exclusively Hamtramckans, more adventurous diners from the suburbs are rediscovering the city because of the pop-ups. Rocky Radtke (no relation to Summer) bought Baker Streetcar 20 years ago, at a time when Hamtramck got a lot of tourist traffic. That declined, but he's starting to see more out-of-towners at his Friday grilled steak night now that word is getting out. He cooks off of a grill he pulls into the alley behind his bar—or what he calls his "porch"—and his operation predates the term "pop-up," though he's thrilled to see it turn into something larger.
"This is a great thing for Hamtramck," he says. "They're letting people showcase their cooking skills, and it's helping people through the door, so that helps everyone."