Food & Drink

How Detroit became a Caribbean food town

Tropical tastes

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(See photos of Southwest Detroit's weekly Caribbean softball game and party here.)

At two Southwest Detroit ball diamonds on a recent Sunday, Yala played Chapiadores, and Los Pandas faced Quisqueya in what at first glance appeared to be standard "beer-league" softball.

In the parking lot before the games, the players — many of whom are first-generation immigrants from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and other Caribbean nations — drank a few beers with car stereos cranked. Someone stashed a bottle of Jägermeister in the water bottle cooler on the bench. And in between all the joking and fun, some pretty good softball took place.

But the games are actually much more than a few beers and a ball game. The Sunday afternoon league is part of a larger celebration that brings together the city's growing Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Caribbean communities. There's now a "Dominican Corner" at McGraw and Tarnow in Southwest, and this is quietly becoming a "new Detroit" that's much different and more organic than the billionaire-built "new Detroit" in downtown.

Behind the Chapiadores' dugout, Puerto Rican fans — young and old, family and friends — gathered wearing Puerto Rican-flag green T-shirts with "CHAPIS FANS" in block letters across the front. They passed Coronas as someone's boombox pumped out Puerto Rican reggaeton, while on the fields' other bleachers, players' girlfriends, family, and friends hung out, talking and laughing, some taking puffs from hookahs as even more boomboxes pump out more reggaeton. Just beyond an outfield fence, a group of high school-age kids parked tricked-out cars with subwoofers planted on their roofs next to a pavilion, and their music mixed with the boomboxes in the bleachers near home plate.

And there's food. In the parking lot next to the diamonds, a griddle in a food truck called The Dominican Corner sizzled with chimi patties for "Dominican hamburgers." The patties are placed on soft buns with a crunchy, bright pickled cabbage salad, thin slices of tomato, and a few squirts of a ketchup-mayo mix. Those are washed down with bottles of Presidente — the Budweiser of the Dominican Republic, which isn't sold in stores in Michigan, but can be found in coolers at the ball diamonds.

Sunday at the ball diamonds in Southwest Detroit. - TOM PERKINS
  • Tom Perkins
  • Sunday at the ball diamonds in Southwest Detroit.

And while there's food, beer, and a festive atmosphere, the games are more serious than they seem on the surface. During a recent Sunday, the Puerto Rican Chapiadores mounted a come-from-behind win and stood on the field after the game taunting and pointing at the Domincan players on the Yala bench. It seemed funny until the faces of the Dominican players indicated that losing to Puerto Ricans isn't anything to laugh about.

As the Caribbean community here grows, so do the number of restaurants, and the plates at spots like the Domincan Asty Time, Puerto Rican Rincon Tropical, and Honduran El Catracho are some of the best and most underrated in Detroit. While Caribbean nations share the same corner of the world, there's a diversity in the region's food that's well-represented in Detroit. Much of it bears the prints of colonialism — Spanish colonizers' cuisine mixed with that of indigenous people and African slaves, producing what are now staples like mofongo. And what's served on the Venezuelan coast — namely, lots of arepas — is different than the sofrito-driven dishes of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic far to the north. On the other hand, there are some strong regional threads. While Jamaica has its own strong identity and is famous for a few culinary exports, it certainly isn't the only nation trading in jerk, for example.

Here are some of the highlights at each of Detroit's Caribbean restaurants:

Dominican

Asty Time

7340 McGraw Ave., Detroit; 313-285-9390; astytime.com

Co-owner/chef Asty Acosta plies his trade from a small Southwest Detroit shop on what Detroit's Dominicans now call the "Dominican Corner," an area that's filling with more and more Santo Domingo transplants.

Acosta arrived from the Dominican Republic by way of New York City. He says he needed to be in a more chill environment, so he followed a relative to Southwest Detroit, where he and wife Diedra started working in a factory. Before long, the pair began preparing and selling food to coworkers, and that evolved to an early version of Asty Time that ran out of a Southwest home. By 2017, the Acosta family launched their brick-and-mortar location.

Perhaps the best recipe in Acosta's repertoire is the salami con tostones, a dish of stir-fried salami and bell peppers in a piquant sauce. Also excellent is the carne de res guisada, a dish of stewed beef soaked in a small puddle of sofrito-based sauce that falls apart with the slightest nudge from your fork, and the camarones a la diabla, a spicy sofrito-based dish of shrimp in a tangle of sautéed bell pepper and onion with heat-radiating cayenne.

Mofongo (top) and camarones a la diabla - TOM PERKINS
  • Tom Perkins
  • Mofongo (top) and camarones a la diabla
El Caribeno

El Caribeno announced on Facebook in October that it's temporarily closed "for the foreseeable future." Let's hope it's preparing its comeback, because Caribeno's short-but-tasty menu offered several awesome dishes, like chicken served in a puddle of Dominican sofrito. The restaurant's mofongo — an Afro-Caribbean dish with direct lineage to West African foo foo that's popular in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean nations — holds mashed, fried plantains that are heavy on fresh garlic. It arrives in what looks like a turret filled with your choice of meat — the nubs of fried chicken are the best. Douse the package with a cup of melted butter Caribeno serves on the side, and enjoy a garlicky, salty, buttery fried chicken and plantain mash. Order that with the yaroas, which is a bed of fried sweet plantains covered in flavorful and moist ground beef that's blanketed with a layer of gooey cheese that's topped with ketchup and mayo.

Puerto Rican

Rincon Tropical

6538 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-334-8526

Rincon Tropical is a nightclub at which the hip-hop and reggaeton is often played loud, so keep that in mind if you're craving bistecca con chimichurri, a sheet-thin strip of slightly fatty, chewy, griddle-charred skirt steak that's salty and acidic from adobo and sofrito. The steak is served next to a mound of rice with gandules and acidic punches from green olives, and it should be dipped covered in Rincon's chimichurri, which is composed of vinegar, parsley, oregano, garlic, salt, pepper, and more. There's little rolling out of Detroit's kitchens that beats this plate.

Also awesome is the chicken fricassee with tender, fall-off-the-bone bird in a flavorful, orange sofrito-based sauce. Rincon gives the dish extra depth by first boiling the chicken in beer and water, and it's served with rice, salty green olives, and chunks of potato. The guisado de cerdo is stew-like and comes with big hunks of salty pig in a puddle of sofrito-based sauce.

Owners Rick and Lizaida Moreno opened Rincon in 2014. Lizaida always had a passion for cooking, Rick says, so she began preparing meals for their friends. The hobby started to turn into a business as she began making and selling dishes to her coworkers, and the couple eventually opened a brick-and-mortar space near Michigan and Livernois avenues. Rick took a couple weeks off from the auto shop he owned to help Lizaida get started and never returned to the garage.

Rincon is the only Puerto Rican game in town after Angel's, a small, no-frills spot just down Michigan Avenue, closed when Angel retired early this year.

Venezuelan

El Rey De Las Arepas

7701 McGraw Ave., Detroit; 313-307-2210

Arepas are essentially the "bread" component of a grilled Venezuelan sandwich that's made with masarepa, or dehydrated cooked cornmeal. They're shaped into patties, griddle-grilled, and are — as MT's Jane Slaughter put it — "sort of like a huge English muffin, but with flavor." Venezuelans and Colombians stuff them with combinations of cheeses, Spam, and/or meats. Perhaps the best at El Rey De Las Arepas (The Arepa King) is the Reina Pepiada Arepa (Curvy Arepa Queen). It's a sandwich of super flavorful chicken mixed with avocado, garlic sauce, mayo, lime, cilantro, and other spices. Sort of like a Venezuelan chicken salad, but that seems like an understatement.

While arepas are excellent, arguably the best item at El Rey is the pabellon, a popular Venezuelan dish of super tender, stewed skirt steak built off bell peppers, onions, and garlic. The beef is slow-cooked in tomatoes, then served next to a pile of black beans, rice, and slightly sweet plantains. My introduction to the dish a few years ago came in the kitchen of a Venezuelan grandmother, and El Rey De Las Arepas' version hangs with that — no small feat.

Venezuelan immigrant Ray Gugierez opened the small shop on McGraw in Southwest Detroit. It's just down the street from Asty Time, in a part of the neighborhood that's less traversed by the suburban tourist crowd, but offers some of the city's best eating.

Arepa from Detroit’s El Rey de las Arepas. - ROB WIDDIS
  • Rob Widdis
  • Arepa from Detroit’s El Rey de las Arepas.

Caribbean/Trinidadian

Norma G's

14628 E. Jefferson Ave., Detroit; 313-290-2938; normagscuisine.com

Norma G's owner Lester Gouvia was born in Trinidad and some of his recipes are out of his mother's recipe rolodex, but he's clear that Norma G's is about Caribbean cooking, not just Trinidadian fare. The Jefferson-Chalmers restaurant is also unique in that it's "casual upscale," which sets it apart from the city's other more informal Caribbean spots. Gouvia's focus is on comfort food, and his jerk chicken is smoky and moist with a good mix of thyme, garlic, and other spices. Order the bird in entree or slider form. Moving down the menu, Norma's chicken pelau is a tasty jumble of rice, pigeon peas, and small hunks of chicken that's all built off a base of sautéed garlic, onion, and bell pepper that Gouvia hits with his pepper sauce, which is more about flavor than heat.

The doubles come with fried, semi-sweet dough holding soft curried patties of mashed chickpeas and onions. In the coo coo and callaloo, a thin, deep-green sauce of purified spinach and okra is served over a cube of Caribbean polenta (coo coo) that Gouvia says was "my Sunday dinner growing up." On the side, the mac-and-cheese and Trinidadian potato salad with Yukon gold potatoes, peas, carrots, capers, and mayo are both excellent.

Jerk chicken at Norma G's. - TOM PERKINS
  • Tom Perkins
  • Jerk chicken at Norma G's.

Gouvia moved to Brooklyn from Trinidad as a boy before a corporate job led him to Detroit a few years ago. After his company downsized, he switched careers to follow his passion, first launching the Norma G's food truck, then going all in on the concept with the brick-and-mortar space that he opened in 2018.

Honduran

Antojitos El Catracho Restaurant

4627 W. Vernor Hwy., Detroit; 313-784-9361

Are there any nation's dishes that are more underrated than those of Honduras? I don't think so. El Catracho is one of the region's few options for the tiny Caribbean nation's version of tacos and enchiladas, which are different and crunchier than those of its Mexican neighbors to the north. The soft, cheesy pupusas are among Detroit's best, and everything should be covered in El Catracho's incredible pickled cabbage salad. In the wintertime, there's no better bowl of soup than the caldo de res, which comes with huge hunks of yuca, whole carrot, a piece of corn on the cob, potato, sprigs of cilantro, and zucchini in a rich, delicious stock.

Caldo de res from El Catracho - TOM PERKINS
  • Tom Perkins
  • Caldo de res from El Catracho

Caribbean Fusion

Yum Village

6500 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-686-2839; yumvillage.com

If you were to wrap a blindfold around my head and put 10 plates of jerk chicken on a table, I could pick out Godwin Ihentuge's version. It stands apart, and Ihentuge was kind enough to share why. His jerk includes scotch bonnet, habanero, cinnamon, sage, nutmeg, allspice, and other spices that are typically found in the seasoning, but he adds cloves, cardamom, agave, and African spices like Cameroonian pepper. It rules.

Ihentuge bills Yum Village as "Afro Caribbean eats" and blends and interchanges flavors of West Africa and the Caribbean with those of the U.S. and other nations. One of the more interesting recent specials was a deep-fried curried chicken wonton. His love of mixing multiple cuisine's elements is again on display in the fried chickpea salad, in with dehydrated ginger with salt and pepper, and a house-made curry blend that includes turmeric, coriander, tarragon, sage, and celery — it's spicy, but not hot. That's mixed up with a fresh, acidic, cumin-coriander pico. Another excellent plate is the sweet pepper salad, in which a blanket of Caribbean peppers pickled with pineapple juice are arranged over a bed of greens.

Ihentuge — one of the more energetic and ambitious chefs in town — started Yum Village several years ago as a food truck, which led to his brick-and-mortar shop in New Center that opened earlier this year. He pays his employees well, offers help with insurance, and keeps the shop functioning as an incubator for Black-owned food businesses, so the awesome dishes aren't the only reason to support him. Yum Village will be serving beer, cocktails, and adding breakfast in the not too distant future, as well as preparing new lunch/dinner dishes.

Godwin Ihentuge - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Godwin Ihentuge
River Bistro

18456 Grand River Ave., Detroit; 313-855-6108; riverbistrodetroit.com

Coop

474 Peterboro St., Detroit; 313-462-4973; detroitshippingcompany.com

Chef Maxcel Hardy's fare isn't specific to one Caribbean nation, and he pulls from and is inspired by the region's range of flavors, combining them with the cuisine of Detroit and the South. That's how he does it at Coop in the Cass Corridor's Detroit Shipping Co. food hall and River Bistro on Grand River in Northwest Detroit.

River Bistro is now a brunch- and weekend-only spot, and that's when you'll want to head there for the killer jerk ribs, meatloaf, and short rib, though the latter has sadly been recently removed from the menu. At Coop, the grilled whole chicken with jerk essence is the centerpiece, garnished with mandarin orange sections and lime wedges. The Caribbean corn is a sizable ear rolled in or topped with tamarind aioli, soft, white queso fresco, toasted coconut, and fresh cilantro. And the jerk chicken wings "soar," arriving drenched in a sauce of guava purée, ginger, garlic, thyme, and a Scotch bonnet. 

Cuban

Vicente's

1250 Library St., Detroit; 313-962-8800; vicentesdetroit.com

Vicente's is a downtown Detroit mainstay for Latin food that needs little introduction. Its menu offers Cuban-focused tapas, epic paella, and some of the city's best tostones. Arguably the most flavorful dish is the ropa vieja (old clothes) with super tender beef cooked with red wine, tomato sauce, bell peppers, and green olives.

Jamaican


Detroit's small-but-mighty Jamaican food community in Northwest Detroit doesn't get quite the attention it deserves. Jamaica Jamaica, Caribbean Citchen, Rono's, and Jamaican Pot serve the standard authentic jerks, curries, and saltfish and ackee. But as one Jamaican chef previously told me, Detroit's influence can be found in some of the restaurants' recipes, like the barbecue jerk or oxtail. The number of Jamaican restaurants is expanding, and will soon include the vegan- and Caribbean-inspired pop-up Paradise Cafe, which is still fundraising to open a brick-and-mortar shop in Detroit. Meanwhile, Jamaican Pot is building a new location in New Center.
Brown Stew Chicken from Jamaican Pot. - TOM PERKINS
  • Tom Perkins
  • Brown Stew Chicken from Jamaican Pot.

Caribbean Citchen

10500 W. McNichols Rd., Detroit; 313-345-3746

Jamaica Jamaica Restaurant and Bakery

17550 W. Seven Mile Rd., Detroit; 313-534-3226

Rono's Caribbean Family Dining

17550 W. Seven Mile Rd., Detroit; 313-342-4073

Jamaican Pot

14615 W. Eight Mile Rd., Detroit; 313-659-6033; thejamaicanpot.com

Paradise Café & Juice Bar

facebook.com/ParadiseNaturalFoods


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