On the long block of Caniff between Jos. Campau and Gallagher streets in Hamtramck, a tiny storefront has been brought back to life. Inside, everything looks clean and fresh: the walls are painted white, yellow, and orange, and new wood floors shine underfoot. A chess board and other games are strewn about the room.
Mohammad Rahman, owner of the Chai House (3004 Caniff), stands behind a little bar topped with pecan pie, chocolate cakes, and cookies. He reaches for one of many containers behind the bar, opens it, and puts it under your nose. The fragrance of fruit, herbs, and spices fills your nostrils.
"How much is a cup?" you ask.
"It's free," Rahman says. "Everything here is free."
Free is better than awesome, we say. But how do you make it work as a business?
"I wanted this to be a place for my friends to meet and hang out," Rahman says. "But it's an open place for everyone who wants some tea and cake. Everyone is welcome here." He says he makes his money in real estate and just hopes to break even here.
There is a row of cups where you can stuff bills and coins. We have some bills, they get stuffed into the cup that asks "feeling tipsy?"
Rahman, 26, says he started his business in a building he sold to a friend, who now leases it back to him at a low price. He grew up at the corner of Lawley and Klinger, just north of Hamtramck. His father came from Bangladesh at age 17 and bought the building that the family later sold to Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, the pair behind the real-life-meets-art-and-design project Power House Productions
"They did it, man. They helped that neighborhood so much," Rahman says. "I want to do the same with what I do."
Mohammed Rahman, owner of Chai House
This block of Caniff has long been a multi-cultural hub. Closer to Jos. Campau is Paycheck's Lounge
, a legendary punk club where John Cale of the Velvet Underground performed in 1984
, and Jack and Meg White played the once unmissable Blowout in 1999
Michigan's only full service Bosnian cuisine restaurant, Palma
(3028 Caniff) is about five storefronts away walking east on Caniff, though some Bosnian food can be had at the B&H (as in Bosnia & Herzegovina) Bar and Grill on Caniff closer to Conant.
Anchoring the corner of Gallagher and Caniff is Royal Kabob
(3236 Caniff), a Yemeni-American restaurant serving Middle Eastern food. On the opposite corner is Al Haramain, the city's premier green market (in a town filled with outstanding markets), with Public Pool
art space (3309 Caniff) and Bozek's Polish Market (3317 Caniff) directly across on the north side of Caniff.
Walking back toward Jos. Campau on the same side of the street is Delite Cafe & Deli
(3135 Caniff), which serves sandwiches made with Boar's Head
products and coffee from Great Lakes Roasting Company
. That's quality stuff. There is a sizable area in the back with tables and comfy chairs, perfect for reading, studying, conversation, and meetings.
Jamal Jawany owner of Delite Cafe and Deli
The newest kid on the block is Ali Baba (3124 Caniff), which made a bit of a media splash last month by promising to give away 1,000 shawarmas
to its first 1,000 customers. We missed the promotion, but went in last week with a camera to meet the guys in the kitchen chopping parsley, tomato, onion into tabbouli and shaving lamb off the spit.
At the table in the corner of the dining room a platter awaits. On it are various meats (chicken and lamb), cut into cubes, shavings or tube-like shapes, tomatoes and onions in halves, all atop a mound of bright yellow rice. A platter of hummus was added, then a plate filled with a cabbage salad.
Waiel Shalall, Rocky Hanosh, and Lahib Shallal at Ali Baba
The owners, brothers Larry and Wally Shallal take a seat around the table, in the middle is salad maker Rocky Hanosh.
"This is the guy I want people to know," says Larry pointing to Rocky. "We are vegetarian friendly, and he is our master with vegetables."
All the guys were born in Iraq, of Chaldean ethnic heritage. The brothers once lived in the Chaldean Town neighborhood along Seven Mile east of Woodward before the family moved to Macomb County.
"We feel at home here," Larry says of Hamtramck. "We love what it was and we love what it can be in the future. This place is for everybody."
Walter Wasacz is former managing editor of Model D and was born, lives and writes in Hamtramck. He was at that John Cale show in 1984.