Eight new restaurants where Metro Detroiters can taste cuisines from around the world, no passport required. Plus: Five spots to satisfy your Cajun cravings
By Markham Heid
Just over five years ago, Nadia Nijimbere and Hamissi Mamba arrived in the Detroit from their native Burundi, in East Africa. The couple had escaped ethnic persecution, but their new home came with other challenges: They lived in a shelter for refugees and struggled to find jobs to make money. “I couldn’t yet speak the language and there were not many opportunities here at that time,” says Mamba. “The only way was to start a business.”
Noticing the lack of African restaurants in Detroit, the husband-and-wife team decided to introduce their home country’s cuisine to the city. (Mamba’s family had owned a restaurant in Burundi, while Nijimbere had experience as a cook.) “We started doing pop-ups so people could know our food,” says Mamba. That includes crispy fried fish and chicken, slow-roasted goat and beef and a variety of flavorful vegetable dishes. “It was tough because this food takes time to cook — some things have to marinate for 24 hours — and we didn’t have our own kitchen. We were cooking in other people’s kitchens.”
However, the pop-ups were a hit, and in 2017 the couple won the $50,000 top prize in the Hatch Detroit contest, which awards grants and financial support to fledgling businesses. After three years of planning, they finally opened Baobob Fare this February in Detroit’s New Center neighborhood. (The name is a nod to a tree native to Africa.) The reception has been overwhelming: “The love and support we’ve had is incredible,” Mamba says. “We didn’t expect to be busy, especially in the middle of the pandemic.”
Indeed, while Covid-19 has battered Michigan’s hospitality industry (it’s estimated that 3,000 restaurants have closed statewide due to the pandemic), Baobob Fare is just one of several local eateries that have opened in the past year. And many of the new spots highlight cuisines from across the globe, something Mamba attributes to Detroiters’ sense of culinary adventure. “People here want to discover new things and they want to know about other cultures, which is amazing,” he says. “It brings people together, and I think it’s a good sign for the city and for the state.”
Here are some of the best new restaurants with international flair to open (or plan to do so this month) since the start of the pandemic.
The spot: Alma Kitchen, Grosse Pointe Park
Opening date: January 2021
The cuisine: A mix of Asian and Mexican (or what chef Gary Mui calls “borderless”)
The scoop: Chef Gary Mui, a first-generation Chinese American, grew up eating his ancestral country’s food on special occasions. That food still has a place in his heart — and on the menu at Alma Kitchen, which aims to explore the world’s culinary delights: The menu features a diverse, impressively crafted selection of dishes, from Korean BBQ wings and shrimp jambalaya to bibimbap and quesadillas. “We want to represent Metro Detroit’s cultural diversity,” says Mui, “and pay homage to everything.”
The spot: Isla, Sterling Heights
Opening date: January 2021
The cuisine: Filipino
The scoop: After its short (but popular) residency at Fort Street Galley — a multi-restaurant Detroit food hall that closed last year — Isla has relocated to new digs. And it hasn’t missed a beat. Owned and operated by chefs JP Garcia and Jacqueline Diño, Isla’s menu features classic Filipino fare like pancit (fried rice noodles) and rice bowls topped with chicken or pork belly. It’s a must-try for all Metro Detroit noodle junkies.
The spot: Aldana, Troy
Opening date: January 2021
The cuisine: Mexican
The scoop: Owned by Mexico native Maria Aldana and helmed by Kyle Schutte, former chef at downtown standout Besa, Aldana churns out authentic Mexican food with precise, balanced flavors. The menu is a mouth-watering medley of elevated favorites like fish tacos and pork burritos, along with can’t-miss house specialties: Try the sopes corn tortillas topped with refried beans, roasted mushrooms, and queso fresco, and be sure to grab a house made margarita.
The spot: Barda, Detroit
Opening date: Scheduled for April 15
The cuisine: Argentinian
The scoop: Barda isn’t slated to open until mid-month, but the buzz around the restaurant — set in the former Magnet space in the Core City neighborhood — is already deafening. Run by chef Javier Bardauil, a Buenos Aires native who trained under famed Argentine chef Francis Mallmann, Barda will feature Argentinian staples like wood-fired meat, vegetable and seafood dishes alongside wines that highlight Barda’s home country.
The spot: The French Lady, Birmingham
Opening date: September 2020
The cuisine: French
The scoop: In Claude Pellerin’s hometown in northern France, meals are often two-hour affairs. Considering the time and effort that goes into the food she prepares at her charming café and restaurant, a couple hours of savoring are appropriate. The lineup reads like a greatest-hits list of French cuisine, from flaky quiches and silky bisques to heartier dinner fare like cassoulet and beef bourguignon. “Our customers are excited to have an authentic French restaurant so close to them, where they can enjoy traditional French foods and try [my] family recipes,” says Pellerin.
The spot: Flavors of Jamaica, Pontiac
Opening date: March 2020
The cuisine: Jamaican
The scoop: After years building a reputation in Detroit’s pop-up scene, Jamaica-born chef Reniel Billups and her husband/business partner Charles Billups made the leap to a brick-and-mortar location just in time for the shutdown last March. (“Covid definitely wasn’t in our plans,” says Reniel.) One year later, she says, the restaurant is hosting customers eager to sample traditional Caribbean delicacies such as snapper, curried chicken, and callaloo (a flavorful vegan dish made with leafy green vegetables), as well as excellent Americanized favorites like jerk chicken wings. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘I always go to Jamaica and I can’t go this year, so I decided to come here,’” says Reniel. “We’ve got a waterfall and palm trees and we constantly keep reggae playing. It gives people a sense of being there.”
The spot: Metropolitan Variety, Detroit
Opening date: February 2021 (carryout service only; full service planned by June 1)
The cuisine: Latin-inspired local
The scoop: When neighborhood-favorite Craft Work shuttered abruptly early last year, residents of Detroit’s West Village hoped someone new would swoop in quickly to fill the absence — then the pandemic hit. But Metropolitan Variety seems to have been worth the wait. The space is split in two: One half will be a boutique market offering local produce, pantry staples and ready-to-eat items; the other half will be a cocktail bar and restaurant headed by former Gold Cash Gold chefs Hailey Enszer and Brendon Edwards. Early standouts on the Latin-influenced menu — inspired by Edwards’ former stint as a teacher in Mexico — included a delicious chipotle-lime brick chicken and fire-roasted corn chowder.
In the last year, a handful of Cajun-inspired eateries have landed on the local dining scene:
Love New Orleans but can’t visit just yet? Head to Bellflower, where the takeout counter serves up fried oyster sandwiches and the sit-down menu offers NOLA staples like peel & eat shrimp and pork collar with beignets.
Cajun Boiling Crab, Detroit
This takeout-only spot on the city’s west side is known for its seafood boil — that is, a bag filled with crab, lobster and/or shrimp and all the fixings (potatoes, corn, spices and sauce) and then heated to meld all the flavors.
Hook & Reel, Taylor
With a location in Taylor and three other openings on the way, Hook & Reel aims to recreate “the full backyard boil experience and flavor” in Metro Detroit.
Mad Crab, Oak Park
Make your own seafood combo (pick from snow crab, shrimp and lobster tail, or mix them all) and pair it with Southern classics from hushpuppies to fried okra.
Saucey Crab, Detroit
Spice levels go from “Light Foot Lion” to “Piping Pistons” at this takeout joint on the city’s Northwest side.