I'm impatient when I'm hungry, so it took three attempts before I made it into O.W.L., the hot-but-tiny new spot at Woodward Avenue and 11 Mile Road that marries American diner and Mexican cuisine. When cars are lined up to get into a restaurant's parking lot, I'll motor over to the nearest bagel shop.
But customers' willingness to wait in cars before waiting on foot is an indication of what they believe awaits inside. And that's the sort of following O.W.L. quickly developed since opening in July.
Part of that is attributable to its concept, which is original in the area. The architects and owners behind it include Kristin, Joe, and Larry Bongiovanni, the restaurateurs who opened Market North End, LUXE, and Salvatore Scaloppini. They enlisted Market North chef Pedro Nunez to help develop the menu and run O.W.L.'s kitchen.
While the list of options is fairly short, it's one of those menus that makes deciding difficult. Friends who made it before me unanimously praised O.W.L.'s fried chicken, but I went in skeptical because fried chicken in Detroit is usually a disappointment. As a battered bird snob who developed his taste while living in Deliverance-country in the southern Appalachian foothills, I'm usually bummed by the grease, batter, and salt bombs that pass for acceptable in Michigan.
Who would've guessed one only had to turn to the nearest Mexican diner for quality fried chicken?
For lunch, I ordered the chicken fried chicken sandwich. It comes with a breast fried to a perfect golden brown, and O.W.L. nails the fried chicken fundamentals — a crispy, greaseless thin crust that encases juicy white meat. The bird is brined in buttermilk and Frank's, providing for some background heat. Its condiments — vinegar-y, crunchy pickles, and a slick of mayo — balance well with the chicken. The package is tucked between crusty cemita buns, which are Mexican sesame seed rolls common in street dishes. I didn't love the American cheese as it distracts more than adds, but others seem to enjoy the touch; Chihuahua or pepper jack are also available.
If you're in the mood for breakfast, order the chicken and gravy, which includes breasts with a pile of crispy cilantro-fried potatoes. Nunez ladles on a healthy coating of poblano cheese "gravy" and dots the dish with peas.
O.W.L.'s avian wizardry isn't limited to breasts. Jump-start the meal with the macha wings that are marinated in olive oil, ancho peppers, and garlic. These aren't thick-battered sports bar wings deep fried half to death. Instead, Nunez cooks them shatter crisp with a complexity of flavors not typically encountered in a chicken wing.
Off the breakfast menu, we also tried the avocado, which comes with a thick lather of crushed avocado mixed with a hard-boiled egg on top of grilled sesame toast. Thin sliced carrots, radishes, and cilantro sprigs laid across the smear provide a crunchy contrast. One friend said they love avocado but O.W.L. laid it on too thick. Another argued that isn't so, or even possible. I side with the latter.
If one seeks a nacho-esque breakfast plate, go for the chilaquiles, a dish built off a double layer of house-fried tortilla chips that are wetted with tomatillo salsa, yet remain crunchy. We got ours topped with two fried eggs, and O.W.L. jumbles in fresh chopped cilantro, red onion, crunchy jalapenos, and thin-sliced radish. Add chili for $2, and the mound is crowned with a dusting of salty Mexican cotija cheese.
Breakfast options are served 24 hours and include several sandwiches that pair perfectly with the cilantro-fried potatoes. I ordered the spicy chorizo sandwich. The puck-sized chorizo patty arrives under a blanket of white, mild Chihuahua cheese, and between cemita rolls. Adding the habanero bacon to any breakfast dish is a wise idea.
We watched six burgers roll out of the kitchen one afternoon, so they seem to be well-loved. Expect O.W.L.'s take on a standard issue diner burger — two thin patties on sesame buns with pickles and mayo. It's got that classic greasy spoon flavor, and was definitely good, though it's sharing the stage with better choices.
O.W.L. offers plenty of drink options, like horchatas or Jarritos, but no booze. The roughly 30-seat restaurant holds a chrome diner vibe mixed with mid-century elements, exposed ductwork, and slick wood design that's de rigueur for hip, modern American eateries. It's operating out of the former Onion Roll Deli, and I didn't think that I cared too much that it's open 24 hours until discovering it's unquestionably the best thing going in that corner of metro Detroit after 10 p.m.
Overall, there's little to complain about, though I've heard folks say the food's price is on the high end for a diner. But I dismiss that as people in the Midwest still failing to understand that — as with everything under the sun — one has to pay a little more for well-designed plates and new flavors. Most of the menu is under $10, and it sure beats whatever your neighborhood Sysco peddler is offering for $2 less. So pay the extra couple bucks. It's worth the wait to get into the parking lot.