By Nicole Rupersburg
This article originally appeared in the 2014 spring/summer issue of experience MICHIGAN.
There was a moment in time that it seemed like Hamtramck was going to be Detroit’s first “It” neighborhood in decades. In 1997, UTNE Reader named Hamtramck one of the “15 Hippest Places to Live” in the United States and Canada. In 2003, Maxim Blender named it the second “Most Rock ‘N Roll City” in the country. With a gritty image and an undeniable coolness factor that attracts the very same artists, musicians and urban hipsters now seen as an integral part of the urban renewal equation, this tiny two-square-mile city-within-acity seemed to have the winning formula for fast redevelopment and, inevitably, the rising rents and dreaded “gentrification” that comes with it.
But despite all the buzz about it, Hamtramck has remained obstinately the same, eventually losing its “It”-ness to the more polished Midtown and the trend-driven hipster haven Corktown (aka, the “new Brooklyn”).
But Hamtramck remains stubbornly, wonderfully Hamtramck: gritty, dirty, dense and uniquely diverse. As Detroit’s population continued to plummet between 2000 and 2010, the last decade for which census data is available, Hamtramck’s population loss was negligible, and its various ethnic immigrant populations grew significantly. In this speck of a city, there are over 30 different languages spoken. The Muslim call to prayer is broadcast on speakers throughout the city.
The large Polish population that established Hamtramck as “Poletown” through most of the 20th century still has roots here, while the city has become the beating heart of cultural diversity with residents of Yemeni, Bangladeshi, Bosnian, Polish, Yugoslav, Ukrainian, Russian, Indian, Albanian, Pakistani, Iraqi, Macedonian and Lebanese descent, in addition to African and Caucasian Americans. Now Hamtramck, which even has its own Bengali business district, is jokingly referred to by locals as “Hamladesh.”
Hamtramck’s diversity is what makes it so interesting, and that diversity is reflected in the dozens of ethnic restaurants, cafes and grocery stores in the area. What the city lacks in refined aesthetics it more than makes up for in authenticity and personality, offering a singularly unique experience you won’t find anywhere else in the city, and probably country.
There are a few old guard family-owned Polish restaurants that are Hamtramck institutions. Polonia is one of them, featuring Polish specialties like czernina, or duck blood soup, which Anthony Bourdain featured on Travel Channel’s “No Reservations” in 2009.
Just down the street from Polonia is Polish Village Café, which promises “the finest food west of Warsaw.” It also has all the traditional Polish favorites – pierogi, kielbasa, stuffed cabbage, schnitzels – and it also has had its moment on national television with spots on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and Travel Channel’s “Food Paradise.”
Another Hamtramck restaurant that appeared on the Travel Channel is Palma Restaurant, the first Bosnian restaurant in Michigan, which Andrew Zimmern visited on an episode of Bizarre Foods. Zimmern also took camera crews to Sheeba Restaurant, a halal Arabic and Middle Eastern restaurant that serves lamb kidney subs; the iconic Polish and Eastern European deli and market Srodek’s Campau Quality Sausage Co. for some spicy headcheese and jellied pigs’ feet; and Amar Pizza, a halal pizzeria with a Bengali twist serving pizzas with toppings like tandoori chicken and dried fish (though they are perhaps best known for their unholy hot ghost pepper sauce).But not every noteworthy Hamtramck food destination has appeared on national television. The recently-opened Rock City Eatery, owned by Russian-born chef Nikita Santches, presents itself as the next generation of ethnic Hamtramck restaurants. With a beautifully-designed punk-rock-chic interior utilizing reclaimed materials, vintage items and custom-made pieces from local artists, Rock City lives up to its name, and so does the food. Menu items include duck confit poutine, porchetta, roasted lamb, a pork belly sandwich with hoisin sauce and a fried bologna sandwich with kimchi. The menu is worldly, rustic and wholly Hamtramck.
Just a few blocks down Joseph Campau from Rock City, another new upstart known as (revolver), is making a name for itself with its revolving door of guest chefs, which have included some of the biggest names in metro Detroit’s culinary community, including occasional national food media stars James Rigato of The Root and Dave Mancini of Supino Pizzeria. The menu and the chef changes weekly and seatings are typically only on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets must be purchased in advance.
There are dozens of other worthwhile eateries, like Aladdin Sweets & Cafe, Bonoful Sweets & Café, Halal Desi Pizza, Yemen Café and ZamZam Restaurant. Pop into one of the dozens of ethnic markets to browse and pick up something to go, like Al Haramain International Foods, Bengal Spices, Bozek’s, Holbrook Market and Mesnica Mini Market.
If you love a good dive bar, there are none better than those in Hamtramck, including the Painted Lady Lounge, the Polish Yacht Club, Seven Brothers, the Two Way Inn and Whiskey in the Jar (many of these date back to before Prohibition).
And for something completely different, check out the Detroit Zen Center Café for fresh, organic, vegan foods prepared by monks and students of the Korean Buddhist center.
This article originally appeared in the 2014 spring/summer issue of experience MICHIGAN. Some of the written details may have changed since the article was published.
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