22828 Woodward Ave., Ferndale
Tacos, sandwiches and sides: $2-$8
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily
Husband and wife Perry and Sharon LaVoisne had a nice life in Los Angeles, where they had moved after a stint a decade ago as co-owners of Small's, along with friends and music industry veterans Jeff and Susanne King and Amir Daiza. But as thirtysomething turned into fortysomething, and with the arrival of children, the couple began to contemplate a return to the Detroit area, where they grew up and have family.
As much as the LaVoisnes missed Detroit, L.A. had its perks too — notably for them, its street food. Fulfilling what Sharon calls "a lifelong dream" to open a restaurant, they decided to bring a bit of L.A. back to Detroit in the form of tacos. The LaVoisnes once again teamed up with the Kings and Daiza, found a location (the former Post Bar) in downtown Ferndale, and developed the concept for Woodward Imperial.
For metro Detroiters, the mention of tacos likely brings to mind either a flour tortilla with ground beef, gooey shredded cheese and sour cream, or perhaps (for those who frequent Mexicantown) a simple corn tortilla with roasted or grilled meat, onions and cilantro. The Imperial's tacos take the latter example and gussy it up just enough to be interesting, but not so much as to detract from the purity of the form. Starting with corn tortillas and a generous heaping of meat, they add onions, cilantro and crumbly, salty queso fresco. Most are topped with one of three house salsas. Meats are well-seasoned and tender, and, as a bonus, locally procured. It's difficult to choose favorites, but two that stood out were the al pastor (pork with grilled pineapple and jalapeño-onion pickle) and the papas con rajas (potatoes and chorizo).
Although the menu is meat-centric, vegetarians should not despair; Imperial offers a seitan taco with a green sauce made with pumpkin seeds. Although I'm not a huge fan of seitan in general, the tangy, nutty sauce helped quite a bit. There are also some vegetarian-friendly side dishes: elote (grilled corn with poblano lime cream, cheese and chile), grilled jalapeños, frijoles charros, or guacamole. Chips and salsa are not brought out free, but it's worth paying a few bucks for freshly fried, warm chips. The salsas — salsa verde (thick, almost like chimichurri sauce), roasted red pepper, and chipotle — were all quite good, although I did find myself craving a basic tomato-based salsa.
Tacos are the main attraction on the tiny menu, but there are two other options: a torta (sandwich) with carnitas-style pork, and a Sonoran hot dog, wrapped in bacon. Both were treats I'd gladly indulge in again. The torta is served on a soft white bolillo roll, and the succulent pork is paired with beans, guacamole, slaw, poblano lime cream and jalapeño-onion pickle. I can't say all of those components were individually recognizable, but the whole melded into one hell of a sandwich, incredibly satisfying and with a spicy kick. Although the sandwich seemed a bit small when served, it proved to be plenty filling, and with such intense flavor that a larger size may have been overkill.
The Sonoran hot dog is, so far as I know, the first of its kind in the area (when it comes to things wrapped in bacon, word tends to get around). The bacon is crispy, and the dog has a desirable snap to it that contrasts nicely with the softness of the bun and beans. The whole thing is saucy and decadent — just the thing you'd want to help soak up a few rounds' worth of drinks.
The bar features a craft cocktail menu made up of whiskey- and tequila-based drinks, created by co-owner Susanne King. You won't find classic recipes or a litany of ultra-obscure ingredients (there are other places for that), but juices are squeezed daily, and syrups are made in-house. At $8, they're spendier than a basic mixed drink, but still cheaper than most specialty cocktails elsewhere. The ones we sampled were well-balanced, with interesting flavor combinations that complement the bold flavors of the food. If liquor's not your thing, there's a large list of competitively priced domestic and Mexican beers to choose from (the addition of a few more regional beers would be an improvement).
Service was friendly and attentive each time we were there. A chilled bottle of water is brought out immediately, and we never had to wait long for food or drinks. One small quibble is that silverware was not offered on any of our visits, and we had to ask for it. With tacos it's not such a problem, but the hot dog definitely requires utensils.
Take advantage of nice weather to experience the Imperial at its best — there are 10-foot garage doors in both the front and back of the restaurant, each leading to a patio. On nice days, these are open, contributing to the California feel. The atmosphere reflects the alt-country and rockabilly leanings of its owners, complete with a large painting by Detroit artist Mark Dancey of Johnny Cash, presiding over the bar.
Although you can get great tacos for a buck apiece in Southwest, Woodward Imperial fills a niche that was sorely lacking in Ferndale, despite its many dining and nightlife options: a casual bar with tasty, fresh, inexpensive food, good music and well-made drinks, served open-air. On a warm and breezy summer day, we couldn't ask for much more.
Noelle Lothamer dines for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com