If you’re a foodie on vacation, sometimes the place you travel to ends up being secondary to the food that’s eaten while you’re there. Sure there are pretty vistas, gorgeous wild life, interesting art to admire—but aaaah, the food! When vacations become culinary journeys, sometimes it’s difficult to take a detailed accounting of every great meal. If you were to witness the more than one thousand pictures of every meal I had on my Italian honeymoon, you’d get and idea of what I’m talking about.
After my trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan, I unpacked my bags, downloaded the hundreds of pictures of food I snapped, and perused the menus from all the restaurants I ate at. Originally I hoped for a few good stories out of the experience. But after the posts about Zingerman’s started piling up, I realized I had a bit more than just a few words to say. Because of this never ending rant, I thought it would be best for me to “step away from the mike”, as it were, and go back to my usual business of posting about Los Angeles food.
But when I saw this video by Go Remy, I realized I had missed an important opportunity to talk about an amazing cultural food experience I had in the Arab American capital of the United States: Dearborn, Michigan.
Granted, Go Remy isn’t the New Yorker. But he has a point. Dearborn Michigan really is a place worth traveling to for a foodie vacation.
Dearborn, Michigan is a thriving commercial and residential Middle Eastern community just minutes outside of Detroit, is said to have the highest Muslim and Middle-Eastern population outside of the Middle East (and Paris). Starting in the 1960’s when General Motors was recruiting engineers and technicians from all over the world, Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Yemenis, Jordanians, Egyptians, and North Africans began moving to the area in search of work and a different kind of life. Those first settlers to Dearborn quickly established a tight knit community as well as a diverse group of businesses that catered to the population’s cultural needs.
According to The New Yorker, the current Arab-American population of Dearborn measures two hundred and fifty thousand strong—making Dearborn a thriving home away from home.
For some Americans still reeling from 9/11, Dearborn Michigan represents a clear example of the tenuous relationship that America has with its Muslim neighbors. For food lovers, Dearborn Michigan is a culinary mecca.
During our visit to Michigan, I was lucky enough to be given a tour of Dearborn by a local, passionate foodie and Syrian/American, Ibrahim Youssef. Ibrahim, a long time friend of my Husband’s family, is a funny and opinionated man that is quick to tell a story full of grand gestures and facial expressions usually reserved for stage actors. Proud of his culinary heritage and happy to educate any curious visitor, Ibrahim was eager to give me a tour of his favorite Dearborn restaurants.
Topping his list, was Al-Ameer Middle Eastern and Lebanese Restaurant. Located on Warren Avenue, the main drag of Go Remy’s “Hummus-Ville”, Al-Ameer is a Middle Eastern and Lebanese restaurant that is popular with Arab-American residents, on-duty Detroit police officers and value seeking locals. Using only the freshest of ingredients, the restaurant offers reasonably priced dishes that represent the traditional flavors of the Middle East and Lebanon with an understated passion.
The restaurant is large, with a number of different dining areas that can accommodate large parties and single guests. Al-Ameer’s chairs and booths are upholstered in neon bright colors and brush stroke florals, showing a décor style unchanged from the day it opened in 1989. The restaurant owners’ focus clearly isn’t on updating their look to current aesthetics—what is supremely important is the authenticity of flavors and the freshness of the food.
Pitas are baked fresh and to order from the wood burning ovens. Delivered warm to the table in simple baskets, diners are quick to gobble down the bread dipped into creamy hummus and the velvety and tart baba ganoush—the best I’ve ever tasted. With ingredients this fresh, it’s hard not to understand what makes Middle Eastern such a pleasure to eat.
After the eight of us sat down at our long table, our host insisted he order for everyone. When the waiter approached Ibrahim confidently named two items and then closed his menu with a smile. When the waiter walked away, I did a double take.
“Did you just order appetizers?” I asked, as my stomach growled, ready for food.
“Oh no. That is everything. You will see.”
Two things off the menu for eight people? I smiled, graciously. Just wait till he sees how much food my husband and I can eat.
What I didn’t realize was that the two items Ibrahim ordered was a “side order” of hummus (read: gigantic)
The Family Tray 2: a $79 dollar sampler tray that included three large portions of tawook (marinated chicken in a spiced yogurt sauce), three 18 inch meat kabobs, a large dish of kafta (a Lebanese raw meat spread), Kibbeh,
Five perfectly cooked lamb chops, chicken cream chops, a pile of moist shawarma, a mound of fresh chickpea falafels, more hommous, baba ghanoush, rice, fattoush (a Lebanese herb and bread salad) and salad.
The food was delicious and abundant. Our guide smiled at us proudly as we helped ourselves to seconds and thirds, never seeming to make a dent in enormous Family Tray 2. As our glasses of water sweat in their plastic cups, Ibrahim pulled a coffee thermos from a bag he happily smuggled into the restaurant. In observance of Muslim laws, Al-Ameer doesn’t serve alcohol. In observance of Al-Ameer’s no alcohol policy, Ibrahim, with the help of his crafty and beautiful Spanish wife, Marie Carmen, snuck in wine-filled thermos and paper cups.
With only two menu items ordered, our table had more than enough to eat and still had plenty of leftovers to go around. As we wrapped up our dishes to go, I took a quick peak at the check. My jaw dropped when I saw the total. The bill our party of eight’s meal cost less than $100.
Al-Ameer: 12710 W. Warren Ave., Dearborn, MI; (313) 582-8185
Super Greenland, Shopping Center
After we wrapped up multiple to go containers, we walked across the street to an amazing Middle East grocery store to see how local Dearborn residents shop. The aisles were packed with unfamiliar products with colorful labels and cursive Arabic. Ibrahim lead me past the large bins of pistachio nuts to an aisle lined with hundreds of different kinds of canned fava and garbanzo beans, explaining that Arabs are the biggest consumers of beans in the world.
After our walk through the market, Ibrahim was visibly excited for our next stop to Shatila, a French/Arab patisserie just a few blocks away. The eight of us piled into our two cars and zipped down Warren street to our sugary destination.
Once inside, I could see why Ibrahim was so enthusiastic. At Shatilla, the eyes were arrested by vibrant colors. Bright green pistachios, Rudolph red cherries, and angelic white of creamy puff pastry enticed customers with their colors. A rainbow of gelato flavors had young children pressed up against the glass for a closer look.
With the last treat polished off, and several hours of eating behind us, we congratulated Ibrahim on his delicious tour.
I can’t wait to go back.
Shatila: 12710 W. Warren Ave., Dearborn, MI; 313-582-8185.