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Belle Isle to 8 Mile, the Model D journey begins


Although the three of us are seventh-generation Detroit siblings born and raised in the Villages and now living in Midtown and Woodbridge--with roots in Virginia Park, Minock Park, North Rosedale Park, LaSalle College Park, and East English Village--it took us and a team of locals nearly two years to research and write Belle Isle to 8 Mile: An Insider's guide to Detroit. In our effort to leave no stone unturned, we found that the city has many, many, stones. That’s the thing about Detroit--in nearly every corner of the city’s 139 square miles is an opportunity for immersion, inquiry, indulgence, inebriation, and introspection.

After brainstorming over Stroh’s ("brainstrohing"), holding focus groups, talking with residents from throughout the city, soliciting suggestions at events like Detroit SOUP and the Marche du Nain Rouge and online, and reading hundreds of articles, we created a database of several thousand locations to investigate. Along with our three University of Michigan Semester in Detroit interns and 36 other local writers and researchers, we visited nearly 3,000 destinations over the course of a year filled with new art, new food, new drinks, new experiences, and new friends. 

During our research, some of our favorite discoveries were the reminders of different nationalities that have left their commercial mark on the city. These businesses, begun by current or past generations of immigrants from countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East, and South and Central America, create an oft-overlooked cultural richness that shapes the city. Alongside beloved favorites like the Dakota Inn Rathskeller, Cadieux Cafe, Polish Village, Los Galanes, and Roma Cafe, the city has many other outstanding restaurants offering food from faraway places.

The following is a selection of excerpted restaurant listings from Belle Isle to 8 Mile: An Insiders Guide to Detroit. Over the coming months, we’re excited to work with Model D to bring readers a glimpse of some of the more off-the-beaten-path destinations that we included in the book--as well as new discoveries we make as we prepare a second edition for release this Fall. 

El Rincon Taraxco - This hole-in-the-wall eatery serves some of the city’s best Mexican seafood, or "mariscos," as the aqua-inspired letters on the facade indicate. Forget chips and salsa, this is a fish joint, so look for a tuna and mayonnaise spread to greet you at your table. With a focus on palate, not aesthetics, house specialties include Chilaquiles de Camaron, Caldo de Siete Mares, and Ceviche. Though everything is in Spanish at this authentic restaurant, don’t be shy about asking your server for some translation assistance--the staff is happy to guide you. Seafood selections are best washed down with a fresh-squeezed lime margarita from the full bar. 1414 Junction St., 313-843-6595.

Giovanni's Ristorante - Part of a stalwart Italian enclave that has survived the encroachment of surrounding industry, the restaurant opened in 1967 and still oozes pride and tradition. Though the decor in the three dining rooms is reserved, the gentle accent lighting, black tablecloths, and light-hued walls are complemented by classy touches, such as photographs of Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra dining at the establishment--which are as good an endorsement as any. The cuisine is exceptional, evidenced in the preparation and subtlety of what is served. Of the many varied options, standouts are the house made pastas, the alfredo gnocchi, ricotta cannelloni, braciole, and flavorful tiramisu. Foodies looking to brush up on their Italiano will be pleased to know that Berlitz-style "learn Italian" dialogues are broadcast in the restrooms. Giovanni's Ristorante is at 330 Oakwood Blvd., 313-841-0122.

Ivanhoe Cafe / Polish Yacht Club - Run by Polish-American pub keeper Patti Galen, this cheerful, old-school Polish restaurant and neighborhood watering hole has been delighting east siders for generations. Open since 1909, the century-old Ivanhoe Cafe is in its original brick building, replete with a tin ceiling, hand-carved bar, walls decked with antique photos and newspaper clippings, and fresh flowers in the cozy dining rooms. In addition to the full bar, the restaurant offers a delectable Polish menu, including stuffed cabbage, kielbasa, homemade coleslaw, pan-fried perch, pierogi, and hearty potato pancakes, along with variety of classic bar fare sandwiches. The landlocked cafe plays host to the Polish Yacht Club, a good-natured social club and charitable organization with a tongue-in-cheek alias. Founded in 1961, the club’s landlubber "commodore" and members often sport sailor’s attire and love sharing stories and good cheer with guests. 5249 Joseph Campau St., 313-925-5335. 

Knudsen's Danish Bakery - A Detroit institution and Rosedale Park staple for more than 60 years, Knudsen’s is an adorable, incredibly affordable old-fashioned bakery that bakes a vast selection of classic sweets and other baked goods daily, including--of course--decadent Danishes, popularized in Denmark in the 19th century as a more-indulgent variant of a classic Austrian pastry. From the bakery’s pastries to delicious doughnuts, dense egg bread, bread pudding, pie by the slice, and coffee cakes, you can pick up a box crammed with goodies for less than $10. Although its prices are incredibly low to begin with, for the extra budget conscious, it offers day-old goods at a reduced price. 18601 W. McNichols Rd., 313-535-0323.

Pupusaría y Restaurante Salvedoreño - With eight booths and four tables for four, this gem is tiny, but festive with South and Central American, African, and Asian flags for decor. Pupusas are a traditional El Salvadoran empanada-like dish made of corn flour and filled with such delightful combinations as cheese/beans/loroco flowers, pork/beans/cheese, jalapenos/cheese, and chicken/squash/cheese. In addition to the pupusas, the tamales, pasteles, and the fried plantains with crema and frijoles are to die for. Be sure to make heavy use of the delicious salsa and curtido accompanying your order. There’s no booze, but there is a bountiful selection of non-alcoholic drinks, including a tasty horchata. To top it off, this joint is astonishingly cheap--you’ll be belt-looseningly full for well under $10, including drinks and sides. 3149 Livernois Ave., 313-899-4020.

Rono's Family Dining - Opened more than 30 years ago by Mama Rono, this Jamaican restaurant, which emphasizes flavor over decor, has become a destination for island specialties, such as oxtail, meat patties, curry goat and turkey, ackee and saltfish, and--of course--jerk chicken, authentically smoked on a wood-chip-burning grill. Any of the delicious dishes are best accompanied by a bottle of the exceptional house-made ginger beer and followed up with a desert, like the vegan-friendly Jamaican Coconut Drops: diced coconut drizzled in brown sugar and ginger and hardened into a perfect, crunchy clump! 14001 W. McNichols Rd., 313-862-1295.

Yemen Cafe - If you’ve never tried Yemeni cuisine but want to explore some of Detroit’s lesser-known culinary delights, stepping into Yemen Cafe is akin to being transported through a portal to a local dive on the outskirts of Sana’a. The interior and seating are hardly glamorous, and one can easily see into the back kitchen. But the smells coming from within are enticing, and they make up for any aesthetic deficiencies. Salta, the national dish of Yemen, is brown meat stew spiced with a healthy amount of fenugreek and served in a boiling clay pot. Vegetarian alternatives include fasolia--a white bean stew cooked with eggs and spices--or foul, mashed fava beans with garlic, tomatoes, and onions. Dipping the naan-like bread and sharing over the boiling pots is the custom in Yemen, so don’t expect any plates or cutlery unless you request them. 8735 Joseph Campau St., Hamtramck, 313-871-4349.

These entries were originally written for Belle Isle to 8 Mile by contributors Justin Ames, Cassie Basler, Andy Linn, Emily Linn, and Rob Linn.

Belle Isle to 8 Mile: An Insider’s Guide to Detroit includes more than 1,000 Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park attractions, sites, institutions, events, restaurants, bars, shops, and curiosities from the essential to the obscure described over 448 pages. The book is available at City Bird and Nest in Midtown and here, as well as at other online and brick-and-mortar retailers.   
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