I took a March break trip with my daughter and was excited to see that the timing was right allowing me visit the pop-up called Flowers of Vietnam which opens every Sunday night in the Vernor Coney Island location in Southwest Detroit. Starting at 630 pm, after the restaurant closes, the diner is transformed into a makeshift Asian eatery with tables complete with jars of hoison, garlic chili and fish sauce beside a bottle of sriracha, a lantern and a jar of utensils.
I got there around 8 pm and the place was buzzing. We were seated at a communal table with a quiet couple as a trio of DJs (one who looked like Ashton Kutcher with a porn stash) bobbed their heads up and down to some sort of hip-hop my daughter understood much more than I did. Our waitress reminded me of the authenticity of Detroit. Hipsters in this city are naturals; an appropriate mix of angst and oddness that other cities only try and mimic with whatever recipe they read in “Hipsters for Dummies”. She called me darling while at the same time leaving me with my bill to head outside and chain smoke in the rain.
The booze free joint (in fact I think water is your only option) features a small menu with traditional Vietnamese dishes ranging from pho to a fresh mango salad to fried fish as well as a few spins on snack food like caramel chicken wings.
Let’s start with the salad. The fruit and vegetables were fresh and crisp and I appreciated the ability to use my discretion and add the amount of nuoc mam I wanted and mix the salad myself. The liberal use of fresh herbs added to both authenticity and flavour of this excellent starter.
The noodle bowl,although good, had a flavour profile almost exactly the same as the salad. That said, the pork was beautifully seasoned and I hoped for a little more of it. It has the same nuoc mam sauce which they should bottle and sell on the way out. The spring roll hidden within the bowl of noodles and vegetables was a gem and I almost wished I could get an order of them on their own.
The wings were fried and coated with a sweet caramel sauce (not abnormal in Vietnamese cuisine). I’m not normally a fan of sweet wing sauces or wings served whole, but there was something about tearing them apart on the side of the Vernor highway while listening to Kelso spin vinyl that was the perfect package. The sauce, when combined with accompanying herbal condiment created a new flavour which I will certainly crave on occasion moving forward.
I’m not normally big on Asian desserts but was intrigued by the trio offered at FoV. In the end, I opted for the Ca Phe Trung and the Yum Yums B cua Rob. The first was a twist on a Vietnamese coffee which I was hoping had a bit more of the condensed milk (which I consider nectar of the gods) taste than it did. The second was a dessert which looked like it could be served at a number of fancy places with candles and white table clothes. The plate as a whole contained a number of South Asian flavours which were great individually but lacked a bit of a togetherness. The sesame crisps were surreal.
Green Dot Stables needs no introduction to any Detroiter. This iconic eatery is on every “Things to do in the D” list and has been visited by an entourage of the rich and famous. As with Flowers of Vietnam, it is quintessential Detroit. It’s always busy, non-apologetic, economical (no food on the menu is more that $3) and filled with a mosaic of patrons that reminds you that there is a fantastic diversity in America’s most misunderstood city.
I’ve been a few times and my favorite sliders are the Korean (peanut butter and kimchi) and the Hot Brown (chicken, mornay and bacon). Any of the sides, whether it’s the cucumber, kale, fries or mac and cheese are all well worth a couple of bucks. The booze is dirt cheap and they carry a small but nice array of craft beer in bottles and on tap.
It’s no coincidence that Anthony Bourdain ended Season 2 of Parts Unknown with a visit to Detroit. People look at me funny when I suggest that Detroit is among the top 10 dining destinations in the U.S but hear me out. First, people don’t pretend to be cool in Detroit. Unlike other cities, their “hipsters” are authentic and not the ridiculous rip-offs that exist in every other city. This makes for a unique and real experience as opposed to feeling like you’re an extra in the Broadway version of “Angst”. Second, there is a good diversity of cuisine in the D. The two restaurants featured in this blog are a testament to this. Separated by the I-75, one is a brand new Vietnamese pop-up while the other is a well-established iconic eatery which is as recognized as Vernor’s ginger ale or McClure’s pickles and there are many along the spectrum in between. Dearborn serves some of the best middle eastern food in North America. Ferndale is a breakfast haven. The Eastern market has everything from killer pizza to fantastic BBQ and entertainment at Bert’s. Even if you want fine dining, you have a plethora of choice including TV celebrity chef Michael Symon’s Roast or Joe Muer’s seafood haven. Third, the restaurant scene is economical. As a rust belt city, Detroit has not lost it’s appreciation of value. You can still get a $1.50 Coney dog at many places in town. Mexicantown almost gives away authentic and delicious food.
In the end, I never just drive through Detroit to get to my destination…I stop every time. It is the perfect place to stop to get everything from a taco to a shawarma. You can go to Slow’s BBQ for some ribs or grab a pint of one of the many craft brewhouses that have opened in recent months. Both the patrons and the staff of the city’s eateries are fun, authentic and refreshing so I encourage you to go and smell the flowers and see for yourself that the stables are in fact greener on the other side (of the Detroit river that is).