Belle Isle to 8 Mile: Day of the Dead

Whether your Halloween celebration centers more around jack-o’-lanterns or Jack Daniels, Southwest Detroit offers a unique south-of-the-border Halloween experience with events and sights for visitors of all ages. To darken and deepen that experience, many residents also celebrate the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos -- Day of the Dead -- to honor those who have passed on.

In addition to a slew of seasonal Day of the Dead baked and confectionary treats -- including pan de muerto and sugar skulls -- available at the local bakeries, visitors should seek out the area’s ofrendas. These large and colorful altars and shrines honor friends, family, pets, or celebrities who have passed away. Erected throughout the neighborhoods, ofrendas typically feature artful, intricate displays of everything from religious statues, figurines, dolls, candles, flowers, and elaborate cut-paper art, to liquor, cigarettes, beer, and candy, and make for a lively walking tour between stops at bars, restaurants, and shops.

Southwest Detroit, however, is no one trick (or treat) pony. Those looking to get more mileage out of their costume can sign-up for the Run of the Dead, a Day of the Dead-themed 5k/10k race through historic Holy Cross and Woodmere cemeteries. Held on Nov. 2, this costume-optional run will greet runners with musicians, circus performers, and a few surprises as they progress through the course.

Although it is hard to visit the area during Day of the Dead celebrations -- which run from Oct. 31 through Nov. 2 -- and not bump into a handful of ofrendas, a few destinations are especially famous for their impressive displays. In addition to ofrenda stalwarts such as El Rancho restaurant, Algo Especial Supermercado, and La Jalisciense Tortillas, the following businesses make for especially notable stops on a Southwest Detroit Day of the Dead ofrenda tour.  

The following is a selection of excerpted listings from Belle Isle to 8 Mile: An Insiders Guide to Detroit

Café con Leche - A coffee-lover’s oasis, Café con Leche, which is Spanish for "coffee with milk," features a menu of well-crafted renditions of the usual suspects, as well as Mexican specialties like champurrado (a warm, rich and mellow chocolate/masa concoction with plenty of texture) and shots of chocolate a la taza or yerba mate served in traditional gourds. Patrons relax in an open, comfortable setting decorated with local artwork and a canopy of burlap coffee sackcloth. Regularly hosting concerts, community meetings, and other events, Café con Leche has become a nucleus of the neighborhood. Also offering some Mexican products (Jarritos!), delicious baked goods, and homemade sandwiches, Café con Leche is a favorite place to hunker down and make use of the free Wi-Fi or chat with a friend over a bite. 4200 W. Vernor Hwy., 313-554-1744.

Detroit Farm and Garden - With gardens and farms popping up all over the city, the need for quality supplies and gardening resources has bloomed. Opened by owner Jeff Klein in the former Detroit Police Department Third Precinct building, Detroit Farm and Garden supplies growers with everything needed for verdant greens from compost and soil to growing media and tools to organic fertilizers, feed, seeds, and hay. The shop is also a hub for resource sharing and education, with information and regular classes that help the food-growing community keep its gardens as local, sustainable, healthy, and tasty as possible. If you’re going big, there is plenty of space for loading bulk purchases in the entrance in the back off of 21st Street. 1759 20th St., 313-655-2344.

El Club Lounge & Mexicantown Fiesta Center - You might believe you’re in a divey Mexican cantina when standing in the spacious, charmingly overgrown grassy patio of this unique Southwest Detroit classic. Seated under a labyrinth of gazebos and party tents, guests are surrounded by pots of artificial flowers and live plants, picnic tables, and curious decorations as mariachi songs waft from inside the old building. Originally a Lithuanian social club, the interior features a skylight with original plaster molding. The friendly owner and hostess, Dolores Sanchez, will be glad to give you an ad-libbed history of the bar as she pours you a brewski or shot of bottom-shelf tequila. These days, the sometimes-sleepy bar is brought to life with occasional live punk and rock shows. The bar is usually open Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays and for special events, but patrons should call ahead. The large adjoining hall is also available for event and show rentals. 4114 W. Vernor Hwy., 313-841-0400.

La Terraza - La Terraza has built a well-deserved reputation as a destination for tasty Mexican seafood. Patrons who make their way to the one-story brick building will find a pleasant but understated interior with dark hardwood tables and booths that afford guests a direct view of the action in the kitchen. Though traditional Mexican food is available, the house specialty is seafood. Offerings include a variety of fish and seafood soups, with highlights being a pre-Columbian pozole, unique fish and shrimp tostadas such as a Marlin tostada served in smoky Mazatlan sauce and garnished with avocado slices, and an incredible fish cocktail. La Terraza doesn’t serve alcohol, but Jarritos, Mexican Coke, and delectable homemade agua fresca are a solid substitute. 8445 W. Vernor Hwy., 313-843-1433.

Ste. Anne de Detroit - Considering its heritage as the second-oldest continuously operating Roman Catholic parish in the United States, it’s appropriate that a church named for the grandmother of Jesus has provided sanctuary to Detroiters as long as the city has existed. Construction of the first church began just two days after the city's founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, arrived in 1701, though the parish was forced to rebuild eight times over three centuries because of urban renewal and fires, including a scuttling by the Fort Pontchartrain settlers themselves during the First Fox War. The current edifice was completed in 1887, and boasts elegant Victorian Gothic features, including some uncommon for American churches -- soaring flying buttresses, spired wood pews, and an ornate carved wood elevated pulpit. The church also has a shrine of the patroness saint (worshipped at special Novena services) and still retains the wood altar from the church constructed in 1818 in its chapel, where the renowned local 19th century priest Gabriel Richard is interred. There are also two majestic organs -- one 26-rank organ above the entrance to the sanctuary, and another in the chapel. Detroit’s history can be traced from the church’s comprehensive historical records, which trace the city’s evolution from a French colony to U.S. metropolis. Spanish mass offered. 1000 St. Anne St., 313-496-1701 

Taqueria Mi Pueblo - Mi Pueblo stands out among the many Southwest Detroit Mexican eateries as a spacious, cheery, and inviting restaurant, with broad appeal for various palates on a budget. It has all the Mexican staples in its many-page colorful, laminated menu -- try the chorizo tacos, carnitas, and tamales -- and that includes Mexican staples like menudo, beef head, and tongue tacos. The complimentary chips and salsa are plentiful and delicious, and there are plenty of vegetarian options. Flavors are bright and products are fresh, and did we mention that it’s really, really cheap? 7278 Dix St., 313-841-3315.

Xochi’s Gift Shop - The word  "xochi" means "flower" in Nahuatl, and there couldn’t be a more perfect name for this blossoming depot of Mexican imports located in the heart of Mexicantown. Owned by the Rosas family since 1985, Xochi's stocks its space with a wide assortment of gifts and souvenirs from the floor to the ceiling. Get outfitted with multicolored sombreros, traditional ponchos, authentic Wrangler embroidered shirts, silver jewelry, and leather boots. Then deck out your home with classic margarita glasses, pottery, tapestries, canvas paintings of Frida Kahlo, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Pancho Villa, and more. Heading to a fiesta? Bring a bouquet of the large, vibrant paper flowers (made by Xochi’s) and a piñata (Xochi’s makes those, too!). 3437 Bagley St., 313-841-6410.

These entries were originally written for Belle Isle to 8 Mile by contributors Cassie Basler, Ryan Healy, Anna Hipsman-Springer, Matt Lewis, Andy Linn, Emily Linn, Robbie Linn, Matt McIntyre, Glen Morren, Nicole Rupersburg, and Angela Wisniewski.

Illustration of Ste. Anne de Detroit by Emily Linn for Belle Isle to 8 Mile.

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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