Hamtramck's dive bar-pop ups serve the best food you've yet to try

The Painted Lady Lounge in Hamtramck isn't exactly the kind of place that stirs one's appetite.

By most appraisals, the dimly lit bar with pink walls is a dive. On weekends, it can get rowdy as the clock nears midnight and the men's bathroom is a fascinating wreck. (Which isn't to put the Painted Lady down. It is, in my estimation, one of the best bars in Detroit.)

While it's got more character than most bars, it's not where you expect to be dazzled by craft pierogi. But that's exactly what patrons will find during a Tuesday night pop up, Pietrzyk Pierogi, hosted by former Painted Lady bartender Erica Pietrzyk.

And the Painted Lady's menu doesn't end there. On Wednesdays and Fridays, patrons are treated to small batch pot stickers during the Bomb-tons pop up. The Lady is also where Timmy Lampinen—a wild-man best known for his antics in the rock n roll scene—launched Timmy's Tacos, a Tuesday and Wednesday night Mexican pop up. A few years ago he took his tacos down the street to Kelly's, another local dive.

In fact, the dive bar-pop up concept is taking off in Hamtramck. At the end of 2016, nine pop ups are rolling in the 2-square mile city's neighborhood and dive bars. The fare typically exceeds the surroundings in sophistication, and there's a surprising level creativity, competence, and execution in each operation. The best part for customers, of course, is that it comes at a lower price than in traditional brick and mortar restaurants.

And it's even possible the trend will jumpstart the dining scene in Hamtramcka working class, immigrant enclave not known for its cuisine beyond some Bangladesh food, Polish Village, and pazckiwhile also benefiting it on other levels.

"It's great. A) You have tons of cheap food options with a variety that you're not going to see in Detroit proper," says chef Brian Krawczyk, who runs a Polish fusion pop up at his bar, Bumbo's. "And B) As they catch on, it brings in people who normally don't come to Hamtramck, and that's good for all the bars."

At Bumbo's: Bigos, Hungarian egg noodle soup, green potato salad

Beyond the aforementioned pop ups, one can find everything from lamb meatballs to ginger chicken quinoa bowls to Brussel's sprout slaw during
Gingersnap at the Baker Streetcar Bar. It's one of the city's oldest dives and mostly frequented by just-as-old Polish men. Baker's Friday prime rib night is perhaps the original Hamtown pop up, though it predates the term and doesn't label itself as such.

Aside from dinner, Boboville Brunch on weekends at Kelly's—with dishes like bacon benedict and cheesecake stuffed French toast—is already a force, while a new Sunday brunch just launched at the Metro Pub.

"The pop ups add diversity to the city and people are starting to know that, on any night, they can come to Hamtramck and get original food," Pietrzyk says. That originality is on display in her fall harvest pierogi, which is stuffed with sweet potato, Brussels sprouts, lemon, clove, and Parmesan. She fills the pulled pork taco pierogi with Peruvian-style pulled pork, onions, and avocado, then blends cornmeal in the dough for a taco-y texture.

While seemingly out of place at a gritty spot like The Painted Lady, the well-thought out pierogies are a more natural fit than one first might imagine.

"Pierogi is basically peasants' food or street food," says Pietrzyk. "It's something people in Poland eat late at night when they're drunk. So the idea of coming to a dive bar to eat keeps that alive."

One of the advantages to launching a pop up is that it requires less capital. Anyone with an original idea and talent, but not much money, can quickly be successful. And that fits Hamtramck, a city rich in ideas, if not money.

But not everyone's end game is the same. Pietrzyk Pierogis is a springboard to a wholesale company that Pietrzyk hopes will employ underprivileged people. Krawczyk originally planned to expand to full service at Bumbo's, but found two weekly pop ups is better on several levels. In addition, other restaurateurs and chefs who have seen his setup advised, "Don't change a thing."

Down at Kelly's, Timmy's Tacos, one of Ham's longest running pop ups, continues evolving from its Painted Lady days. Lampinen launched it after playing in New Orleans with his former band, Clone Defects, and finding all the rock and roll bars serving $4 bowls of gumbo or dumplings.

Timmy's Tacos

His service is more consistent now that he has access to Kelly's kitchen. But a full restaurant isn't in the cards anytime soon, since the model affords the freedom to pack up with his new band, Timmy's Organism, and tour the world.

While in town, Lampinen creates a weekly menu of four tacos for $2.50 each that's heavy on the traditional, slow-cooked meats, though he also includes a veggie option.

Last week's menu featured tacos including a turkey verde, fried egg over refried beans with salsa roja, fajita veggies with black bean, and—the showstopper—a fiery red al pastor crowned with crunchy, vibrant pickled red onions. Its preparation follows a common Timmy formula: a day ahead of time, he sets the pork butt in marinade, then roasts it for five hours, braising the meat with al pastor sauce until it's stewing in fat and slipping from the bone.

"I do traditional recipes and don't try to infuse anything into it," says Lampinen. "I don't want to mess with Mexican food—it's already amazing, why screw with it? I stick with an old world recipe that's like something from a Mexican grandma."

At Bumbo's, experimentation and fusion is the name of the game, with Krawczyk artfully building off a Polish base. The recent Polish-Hawaiian menu, for example, could've been a gimmicky wreck in the wrong hands, but Krawczyk is skilled enough to make spam pierogi topped with pineapple crème work. The beet-potato pierogi, or green potato salad (with spinach, peas, cucumber, scallions, dill, parsley, and a mustard vinaigrette) served last week were a little less adventurous, but still unlike anything in Detroit.

It's that kind of freedom from a set menu and the demands of daily service that Krawczyk appreciates.

"I can make it a little special and do a theme menu instead of doing the same thing every week," he says. "I don't repeat a lot of stuff, and that makes it fun for me, and hopefully keeps people interested. I think at this point people almost trust that whatever I do is going to be decent."

Krawczyk's weekly menu includes four items created with high quality ingredients that can usually all be purchased for under $20. Were Bumbo's a full service restaurant in Corktown, for example, dishes of this caliber would get pricey.

And making something special on a tight budget is a truly Hamtramck approach, says Mayor Karen Majewski.

"It speaks to Hamtramck's population, which may not have a lot of money to invest in a business or storefront, but has a lot of talent, imagination, creativity, and ideas," she says. "That's one of the strengths of our city."

Or, as Lampinen puts it: "People dig going to a dive bar, shootin' the shit, and getting out of their Hamtramck double wide to get some food."
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Tom Perkins is a freelance reporter and photographer based in Hamtramck.