The Hygrade Deli was recommended to me by former state Rep. Steve Tobocman of Southwest Detroit — and when a government guy tells you to do something, you have to do it, right? Oh, wrong: That's the Obama death panels; sorry, I was confused.
Anyway, Tobocman not only wanted to help out his constituents — the Hygrade has a large ratio of staff to customers — he also appreciates the quality corned beef, 400 pounds of it served each week. It's by far the deli's biggest seller.
You can't walk in without thinking "time warp," what with the diner chairs with their sparkly blue, red and gold seats, the counter with its low stools and the motherly and well-informed waitresses who really do seem to care. Banter among the staff and customers is nonstop. Is the cornrowed counterman good-looking, or not? Fifteen-year veteran waitress Linda Holmes presides over an eclectic crowd that might include an elderly blond gentleman in a suit, a couple of African-American dads with their small sons, lady office workers — no hipsters yet. I ran into a 41-year Chrysler retiree who'd worked at the same plant I did, back when there were still Big Three workers living in Detroit and the Hygrade was thriving.
The Hygrade Deli started 55 years ago in the old Western Market that sprawled across the 18th and Michigan area. It was named after the anchor food operation there, Hygrade Food Products Corp. When Western Market was knocked down in the 1960s to make way for I-75, original owner Nate Stutz moved the deli west to the present location at Michigan Avenue and West Grand Boulevard, where the roomy place prospered off workers from the Cadillac plant and a host of satellite businesses nearby. In 1972, Bernie Litt, who had owned Billy's Deli at Seven Mile and Livernois, bought the business from Stutz, and five years later his son, current owner-cook Stuart Litt, took over.
Thirty-seven years ago, the Hygrade got traffic from downtown as well as the neighborhood. Today Litt says his store is a "best-kept secret."
Let me not mislead you, readers: Not everything on the Hygrade menu is of equal quality. Margarine on grits is a no-go, and the rye bread is pale. I wouldn't order the hot meatloaf sandwich again, with its too-firm, too-bland meatloaf and unnatural gravy.
But if you order corned beef with sauerkraut, or house-made soups, or a traditional breakfast, you won't go wrong. Litt says his Reuben is his most-complimented product.
The corned beef is from two sources, Kelly Corned Beef in Chicago, which also supplies the Stage Deli in West Bloomfield, and Sy Ginsberg's United Meat and Deli a couple blocks away. Ginsberg also makes the pastrami. When you order a Reuben you're asked "kraut or coleslaw?" The kraut is crunchy, the grilled bread buttery, the beef appropriately chewy, the overall effect sweet.
I may like the corned beef hash even better. It sounds odd to say "fresh" about a dish in which the star ingredient is cured in brine and the potatoes were once frozen, but this hash is right off the griddle, the bits of green pepper and onions glistening, and the outcome is light, tossed, moist but not greasy. (Corned beef hash is sometimes too compact.) I ate a huge plate of it and didn't feel stuffed.
There are other ways to get your corned beef, as in the "Deli Julienne" salad or a corned beef and egg sandwich, which sounds wonderful (few dishes are hurt by the addition of a warm fried or poached egg, or even a raw egg slipped into a soup). Corned beef and cabbage is served on Wednesdays.
Breakfast (before 11, or all day Saturday) will set you back $4.15 for eggs, toast, and bacon, sausage or ham; add a dollar for grits or hash browns. I grew up in a grits-eating family, but as a South Carolinian friend reminds, "Grits are simply a means of conveyin' butter-fat to the mouth." No butter (or cheese), no reason to eat grits. Omelets are also available, starting at $4.25 for the onion.
Hygrade French fries are ... high-grade, the right combination of creamy interior and crisp shell. As one might hope, the house-made soups are comfort food. Vegetable is mild, includes tomatoes (a sign of authenticity) and adds noodles for fillingness. Chili is not fiery at all, but a credible American version, as is chicken with curly noodles. Split pea is mild and very thick.
Litt serves entrées, including beef brisket, but he's not open at dinnertime, and most customers go with the sandwiches. The list is long, from a third-pound hamburger to chicken salad or salami and egg. Knockwurst, salami and dogs are kosher-style.
Of desserts, only the rice pudding is house-made, and it's not sweet or soft enough for me — the rice added late in the process rather than simmered forever.
Visit the Hygrade for an economical and filling meal. You will feel immediately at home. If you go more than once, you will be at home.
Jane Slaughter is a food writer for Metro Times. Send comments to her at email@example.com.
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