Month: November 2021

534. Lettuce – November 22, 2021 – Rochester, MI

A recent trip to downtown Rochester (for cronuts from The Home Bakery, naturally!) gave me an excuse to lunch at Lettuce.

As if I needed an excuse to try a new-to-me place! I know I didn’t need an excuse to try one of Lettuce’s intriguing salads, grain bowls, or wraps.

The fast-casual restaurant opened in downtown Rochester this summer. Its bright interior was a welcoming refuge from the blustery-cold clime from which I walked in. Lacquered sage-green metal chairs and an accent wall of faux greenery provide pops of colors in a predominantly white landscape (complete with white laminate wood tables accented with white Mason jars spouting sprays of baby’s breath).

Previewing the menu before my visit to Lettuce, I was caught in indecision. Should I get the Mediterranean quinoa bowl topped with chicken, feta, spinach, chickpeas, cucumber, Kalamata olives, onion, tomato, pita chips, and Lettuce’s house-made Tangy Tahini Sauce? What about the Barbacoa rice bowl with it shredded beef, romaine, pinto beans, queso fresco, guacamole, Mexican crema, corn salsa, and crispy jalapeño chips? Or how about the Lettoush, Lettuce’s take on the fattoush salad?

So caught up in those tantalizing choices was I that I didn’t delve much into the wraps section of Lettuce’s menu, which holds its own enticing options (including the Turkey Club accented with avocado and arugula and the Caesar Wrap with its chicken, romaine, bacon, and Parmesan tossed in Caesar dressing).

Standing inside Lettuce, frigid outside air still clinging to me, I ordered on impulse . . . the Barbacoa! Its hearty ingredients sounded perfect in that moment.

They tasted perfect, too! How delicious that Barbacoa was! The beef was tender and flavorful, as were the ample drizzles of crema and guacamole. The romaine was fresh and crispy, and I loved the crunch the jalapeño chips provided. I gobbled that Barbacoa up! Protein-packed as it was with the barbacoa beef, pinto beans, and queso fresco, it left me feeling full for hours after.

Fresh, flavorful, filling ingredients . . . those are the makings of Lettuce. And those are the makings of a place worth revisiting!

121 S. Main St.

Rochester, MI 48307

(With an additional location in Shelby Township)

533. The Commons – November 6, 2021 – Detroit, MI

The Commons exudes community spirit! I experienced that firsthand during my visit to the East Side-based laundromat/coffee house.

The Commons is owned and operated by MACC Development, a nonprofit dedicated to serving the residents of Detroit’s 48214 zip code. It’s located on the ground floor of a pretty brown-brick building on Mack Avenue, below the MACC Development offices.

I opted to experience both the laundromat and café aspects of The Commons. I had a comforter that needed laundering, and I was excited by the prospect of sipping a cappuccino while I waited for it to be washed.

Walking into the place, I admittedly felt the nerves of a new kid walking into the first day of school. There was a lot I needed to learn. Where would I get change? What size washer would my bulky comforter fit in? Where should I put my laundry basket so it was out of the way? And where were the restrooms?

These questions were graciously answered by The Commons staff members. I could get change from the quarter machine just beyond the coffee counter. They thought my comforter would fit in a four-load washer (it did, but barely, so I opted for a six-load washer). I could put my laundry basket in one of the wheely laundry carts they provided and wheel it over to where I was sitting. And the restrooms were through the exit door at the back of the shop and required a key for entrance. (May knowing this information ease your new-kid jitters should you decide to visit!)

Those staff members were welcoming from the get-go. They greeted me right when I walked into The Commons, explaining how I got a free coffee or tea just for doing laundry (how cool is that?). If I preferred one of the specialty drinks instead, they explained, I’d receive a $2 discount on one of those.

In addition to offering a variety of coffee, tea, and espresso drinks, The Commons serves food, including delicious-looking cookies, pastries, ice creams, smoothies, and sandwiches. A drop-off laundry service is also offered.

Once I figured out how to use the washers (which was easier than I’d expected), I used the $2 discount to order that cappuccino I’d dreamed of. I sipped it in a seat at the end of the barista counter, reading as I did and listening to patrons I presumed were regulars chatting with the staff and each other. There was a convivial spirit to their interactions that I found heartwarming. According to its website, The Commons aims to act as a community space. It appears to be achieving that aim.

Did some of that community spirit rub off on me? Walking into The Commons with my laundry basket, I was stopped by a man driving by who asked if I’d like help carrying the load in. I was touched by his generosity. And a fellow patron chatted me up for several minutes while waiting for his drink. Who knows, maybe with another visit or two, I’ll be a part of the fold!

7900 Mack Ave.

Detroit, MI 48214

532. Ernie’s Market – October 30, 2021 – Oak Park, MI

Ernie’s Market! What a delight it was to finally experience this iconic Oak Park-based shop and its beloved sandwich.

The red-bricked convenience store/deli holds court on a corner in a residential neighborhood, looking like it’s straight out of the 1950s – because it is. Ernie’s Market opened in 1955 and is run today by the son of the original owners. He’s also named Ernie.

Maybe you’ve heard of Ernie and his big personality and big sandwiches. I was fortunate to encounter both during my visit.

The shop itself is tiny in stature, with a couple of rows of drinks, snacks, and other convenience items. At the back is the deli counter. Everywhere else is crowded with memorabilia: framed articles; Ernie’s-centric artwork; and accolades the market has won over the years (and it’s won MANY – including best-of nods from Hour Detroit and numerous WDIV Detroit Vote 4 the Best awards).

Ernie’s Market offers what it calls “Build It Your Way” sandwiches. There’s the Ernie’s Special, which includes one meat and your choice of toppings; the Ernie’s Double (which has two meats); and the Ernie’s Club with – you guessed it – three meats. And then there’s the Monster.

I think the main draw to Ernie’s Market is that Monster, which has received lots of press – and for good reason. It’s the seven-meat version of the Ernie’s Special, a compilation of turkey, ham, pastrami, pepperoni, salami, chicken, and corned beef. All that meat on a kaiser bun with cheese PLUS your choice of veggies and sauces. And that’s not all! The pièce de résistance of the sandwich is Ernie’s Love Spice, the shop’s proprietary blend of spices.

You know I had to try that Monster sandwich! The only modification I made was to nix the salami (since I don’t like it) and to add extra ham in its place. For veggies, I went with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, banana peppers, and jalapeños. I said yes to cheese, yes to mustard (but not mayo), and yes to the Love Spice (obvi!). All those ingredients were nestled in hefty layers between two halves of an uncut, onion-flecked kaiser bun.

When you’re a first-timer at Ernie’s and order the Monster, it’s requisite for them not to cut the sandwich in half for you. Initiation into the Ernie’s Market legion means taking that Monster head on!

It was such fun to be in the shop and orchestrate the build of that Monster sandwich. The staff members I interacted with were friendly and welcoming. I even got to interact with Ernie himself!

He said hi to me warmly – so warmly, I admit, that I felt sure he was confusing me with someone else he knew. Because of this, I’m embarrassed to admit, I didn’t say hi back at first. Then I realized it was him – Ernie himself!

I didn’t know that Ernie greets all of his customers so enthusiastically. According to the shop’s website, Ernie’s customary greeting to patrons is “Hey Baby!” because he wants people to know he cares about them – even if he doesn’t know their names.

That explains the “Hey Baby!” greeting Ernie gave a father and his young daughter while I was there. I’d assumed he knew them well. Maybe he did – or maybe he was displaying his customary warmth. Regardless, once I got past my initial confusion around his reception of me, it felt wonderful to be welcomed so congenially by Ernie – who, once he heard it was my first time trying his sandwich, said he hoped I liked it.

I hoped I liked the Monster, too!

My hopes were not to be dashed. The epic sandwich was epically delicious! What a kaleidoscope of flavors that Monster sandwich was.

The sheer number of ingredients and jaw-defying height of the sandwich meant that each bite was different. My favorite bites included the hearty meat with that soft kaiser bun, those spicy jalapeños and bananas peppers, and an ample smattering of Love Spice. That’s no surprise, given that I’m a lover of all things spicy. In fact, I bought a bag of Better Made’s Hot ‘n Spicy Corn Chips from Ernie’s to accompany that Monster sandwich.

You may be wondering: did I finish that Monster in one sitting? [Drum Roll] I did not. I ate over half of it for lunch that day. That meant I got to enjoy the leftovers for dinner! They were delicious toasted in the oven.

I wonder if Ernie would find toasting his sandwich sacrilegious. I have to think he’d be all for it. “Whatever makes you happy, Baby!” I can imagine him saying.

Worth noting: Ernie’s is a cash-only establishment – but totally worth the trip to the ATM!

8500 Capital St.

Oak Park, MI 48237

531. Tivoli’s Pizzeria – October 26, 2021 – Utica, MI

Tivoli’s Pizzeria makes one EXCEPTIONAL pizza pie! I found that out on a Tuesday night in late October, when I met a friend at the Utica-based pizzeria.

Tivoli’s is bringing the ambiance, too. I’d admittedly expected a no-frills interior from this restaurant that’s been around since the mid-’70s. Instead, I walked into a cozy brick-walled dining area decorated with vintage movie posters, black-and-white photos, and glitzy chandeliers. Our table was near the wood-fired pizza oven, a driving force behind Tivoli’s delicious pies.

Pizza is of course the focus of Tivoli’s menu, but it showcases much more than that. There are appetizers such as Bruschetta Caprese and focaccia bread stuffed with prosciutto, mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, olive oil, and oregano. There are salads, including the classic Antipasto, and sandwiches such as the Meatball Parmigiano and Super Club. Dessert means cannolis and the glorious-sounding Nutella Pizza topped with chocolate-hazelnut spread, powdered sugar, and strawberries or bananas. Beer, wine, Italian sodas, and espresso drinks are also available.

From the non-pizza section of that menu, I chose the House Salad (sans mushrooms). It was loaded with fresh and flavorful ingredients: mixed greens tossed with tomato, red onion, roasted red pepper, green olives, and a house-made Italian vinaigrette.

Pondering the pizza offerings was a more laborious task. Tivoli’s offers many enticing options, from the iconic Margherita to the Pig & Pineapple (featuring both bacon and ham for the pig component) to the Sfiziosa topped with arugula, ham, sliced tomatoes, mozzarella, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Pizzas are available as wood-fired rounds (12-inch size only); Chicago-style; squares; and as what Tivoli’s characterizes as the New York Round.

Ultimately, it was the Lorenzo Special wood-fired pie that won out for my friend and me. Slathered with pesto, topped with grape tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, it was an absolute DREAM! Irresistibly rich and brimming with flavor, it was the kind of pizza pie I could sit and eat slice after slice of – until the entire thing was gone.

I reined myself in that night at Tivoli’s, though. There were leftover slices of that Lorenzo Special, which my friend graciously offered to me. Lucky me: I was able to enjoy Tivoli’s for another day!

45257 Van Dyke Ave.

Utica, MI 48317

530. Cafe Alto – October 24, 2021 – Detroit, MI

Beautiful Cafe Alto! What a delight – and déjà vu! – it was to visit you for the first time.

The downtown Detroit-based coffee shop is the former site of New Order Coffee, which I visited in 2018. Remnants of that place still exist: the multi-cubbied shelving units behind the barista counter and – pivotally – the window-fronting counter seats offering a view of Woodward Avenue.

Unlike New Order Coffee, this coffee shop is tiny, essentially composed of the barista counter and those window-facing counter seats. The rest of the shop has been converted to office space.

But what Cafe Alto lacks in size, it makes up for in ambiance. Its contemporary aesthetic is both welcoming and eye-catching with its gleaming white and sage green counters, leather-backed bucket chairs, and profusion of potted plants. Cute sky-blue tables and chairs line the outside of the building.

On the day of my visit, it was cold and rainy, so those cute café tables weren’t a feasible option. I went for a counter seat inside the cozy coffee house. I couldn’t stop myself, however, from ordering a drink inconducive to the weather: Cafe Alto’s nitro cold-brew iced coffee.

This coffee was SO good. What a deliciously rich brew! Whether it’s 80 or -80 degrees outside, I’m all about Cafe Alto’s nitro cold brew coffee.

Besides its selection of classic coffee and tea drinks such as espressos, cappuccinos, chai lattes, and cortados, Cafe Alto offers bottled drinks, including the locally made Casamara Club leisure sodas. I was excited to find these in stock at Cafe Alto because I’d been wanting to try the low-in-sugar, herbal-infused carbonated beverages billed as a satisfying alternative to alcohol. The Alta soda did not disappoint!

The service at Cafe Alto didn’t disappoint, either. The barista working that day was lovely, very friendly and welcoming. What a beacon of warmth – and warming (or iced!) brews this place was on a gloomy day!

3100 Woodward Ave.

Detroit, MI 48201

529. 27th Letter Books – October 17, 2021 – Detroit, MI

Books make my heart sing! So it was exciting to visit 27th Letter Books, a Detroit-based, indie-owned bookstore.

27th Letter Books started as a pop-up but opened a permanent location on Michigan Avenue this summer. Its offerings include adult fiction and nonfiction, kid’s books, YA novels, graphic novels, and books in Spanish. Works by authors of color are well represented.

One thing I adore about visiting bookstores is seeing the staff recommendations. 27th Letter Books has those in spades. The two books I left with, Kindred by Octavia E. Butler and Scorpionfish by Natalie Bakopoulos, were because of the recommendation-card write-ups that accompanied them.

I also love when a bookstore feels like its own space, a unique personality. 27th Letter Books feels like that. Its design elements are a mix of contemporary (industrial elements, including peeling paint and exposed brick) and cozy (colorfully patterned rugs, wood-plank floors, and plush antique chairs). It’s an aesthetically pleasing place that has a welcoming vibe – in large part because of the friendly, eager-to-help booksellers at its helm.

Having experienced those inviting vibes, it’s no surprise to me that 27th Letter Books regularly holds community events, including writing meet-ups, artist talks, children’s story times, and its monthly Ampersand Book Club. Check out the Events section of its website for its latest offerings. And check out its shelves the next time your heart sings for a new book.

3546 Michigan Ave.

Detroit, MI 48216

528. Willis Show Bar – October 9, 2021 – Detroit, MI

To be at Willis Show Bar on a Saturday night, savoring live music!

The experience felt singular: not only because it was my first pandemic-times excursion to see live music, but because it happened at this wonderfully one-of-a-kind bar in the Cass Corridor neighborhood of Detroit.

As with many Detroit buildings, the Willis Show Bar venue has a storied past. It was in operation for nearly 30 years as a jazz club of the same name, from 1949-78. Forty years later, the current owners restored and reopened the property as a sleek tribute to its former self.

Stepping into Willis Show Bar is like stepping into a gorgeously glam portal. It’s intimate, dimly lit by candlelight and neon-purple and blue lights. Seating is offered along the sleek bar, via cozy two-top tables and wrap-around booths. The two elevated stage areas are uniquely positioned: one is tucked behind the bar; the other, near the front door. Open floor space beyond the bar leaves plenty of room for dancing.

As of the writing of this post, Willis Show Bar is open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. It offers two nightly sets of live music: from 8-9 and 10-11 p.m. Admission is typically $10 when purchased in advance on Willis Show Bar’s website and $15 the day of the show. Select acts can cost more.

On the night of our visit, my friends and I sat in a booth positioned in a corner near the front door. We were right across from the singer/guitarist and keyboardist playing on the stage near the door. We attended the 10 p.m. set. Willis Show Bar’s house band, The At Will Band, was playing. They were phenomenal! They kicked out exuberant covers of funk, hip hop, R&B, and soul favorites varying from Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” to Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” (my personal favorite of the night). The male and female singers sharing lead duties that night were both talented, but I found the male singer to be especially fantastic. He had incredible range, adeptly hitting the high notes on a Justin Timberlake cover and bringing the house down with the closer, Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It.”

Speaking of incredible: Willis Show Bar’s craft cocktail menu is just that. Such an intriguing menu of offerings! I selected one of the seasonal drinks, the Flannel. The melding of chai tea-infused bourbon, dry curacao, lemon, maple, nutmeg, and salt was so delicious. And it went down so easy!

Enraptured by the music and those Flannel cocktails, I was wholly surprised when the At Will’s hour-long set came to an end. It went by so quickly!

My friends and I lingered a bit after the set, listening to the then DJ-spun tunes and dreaming up our next visit to Willis Show Bar. It’s a visit that can’t come quickly enough!

4156 Third St.

Detroit, MI 48201

527. Aldana Mexican Bar & Grill – October 6, 2021 – Troy, MI

Aldana is special-occasion special any day of the week!

October 6 wasn’t just another Wednesday for me. It was my birthday! But even if it was just another Wednesday, it would’ve been made spectacular by my visit to this Troy-based Mexican restaurant.

Aldana’s dining room is striking, a kaleidoscope of color. The ceiling blooms with chandeliers featuring vibrant, flower-shaped light fixtures. There’s a large mural behind the bar that – aptly – depicts a scene of agave being harvested. Chairs are hand-painted with beautiful illustrations of scenes of Mexican life. What ambiance! Obvious care and attention to detail have been put into Aldana’s dining room. A cute outdoor patio strung with twinkle lights offers additional seating.

I toasted all of this beauty with Aldana’s Classic margarita. With its blanco tequila, Cointreau, fresh lime juice, and agave nectar, it was fresh and flavorful – SO much better than the pre-mix margaritas offered at too many restaurants. Aldana’s drink menu offers several margaritas, plus craft cocktails, beer, and wine (including sangria).

And the food! Aldana’s menu features a plethora of Mexican favorites, including enchiladas, burritos, chiles rellenos, and a variety of street tacos. The Al Pastor tacos I ordered were utterly delicious. The pork was tender, and I loved the peppery-sweet marinade. The appetizer our table shared was good, too. We ordered the Trio, a platter that includes tortilla chips and three salsas/dips of your choice. We opted for the mild salsa, queso, and guacamole. The white, creamy queso was especially tasty!

A cool feature of Aldana is that it serves breakfast until 3 p.m. A.m. offerings include a breakfast burrito, huevos rancheros, and chilaquiles.

All this excellent ambiance, food, and drink . . . not to mention the great service. Aldana is obviously a place that values quality, whatever the day of week or occasion!

2896 W. Maple Rd.

Troy, MI 48084

526. Culantro – October 2, 2021 – Ferndale, MI

Culantro is a win-win-win kind of place. It’s serving up food that’s 1) delicious, 2) affordable, and 3) not-your-usual fare – at least, not for Metro Detroit.

The Ferndale-based fast-casual restaurant serves Peruvian food. I’d never had Peruvian food before I went to Peru this September. Because of that trip, I was especially intrigued by Culantro.

I’d loved the food in Peru. The meals I’d eaten there featured lots of rice, meat, and veggies. So it was no surprise to be attracted to the Culantro Bowl, a rice bowl laden with chicken, corn, black beans, peppers, tomato, red onion, and cilantro and drizzled in lime juice, aji verde sauce, and garlic sauce. It was fresh, flavorful, and utterly delicious!

I also said yes to a side of Yucas Fritas. The slices of yuca – similar in taste and starchiness to potatoes – were prepared like fries, lightly fried on the outside. They came with a delightfully spicy dipping sauce.

And how could I resist the magnetic pull of Culantro’s Dulce de Leche cake? Its layers of rich frosting, fluffy cake, and creamy caramel made giving in to temptation wholly worthwhile.

Those are three items from Culantro’s menu, which showcases popular Peruvian dishes such as ceviche, lomo saltado (a stir fry of steak and veggies), and pollo a la brasa (chicken slow-roasted over charcoals). It’s a menu most definitely worth exploring!

22939 Woodward Ave.

Ferndale, MI 48220