by Todd Abrams
In lieu of an expedition to Southeast Asia, local food enthusiasts can visit the southwest corner of 13 Mile and Dequindre roads. Inside this nondescript, Madison Heights strip mall, one will discover several doors into the exotic flavors of the South China Sea (and more than one spot where you can get your nails done).
Kim Nhung Super Market is crowded with ingredients for the home cook, including a vast selection of fresh and frozen seafood, sauces, noodles and rice. Juicy roasted ducks and suckling pigs hang within window view at Liang's Oriental BBQ. Pho Hang serves up classic Vietnamese cuisine in a restaurant setting, or you can grab a banh mi sandwich to go. And while all of these establishments are well worth visiting for their unique qualities, your sweet tooth will be most satisfied at QQ Café & Bakery.
Throughout the day, a steady flow of customers parades through QQ's tiny space, filling their trays with pastries and buns, most of which cost between 90 cents and $1.25. In one corner is a collection of shelves where the day's goods either sit beneath plastic domes or are presented individually wrapped. Opposite the shelves are the cash register (QQ is cash-only) and an L-shaped glass case. One portion of the case holds Eastern-style bean cakes, curry cakes and coconut tarts; the other displays Swiss rolls, segments of cheesecake and other Western-style baked goods. Two small tables line the window front and compose the entire seating area. The three interior walls are a vibrant shade of lime green. It's a simple, neighborhood café.
The principal item that so frequently draws us back to QQ is the extraordinary sponge cake. Airy, moist and lightly sweetened, each bite is a delicate morsel that practically dissolves on the tongue. The stuff is addictive and comes three ways. Its basic form is a frosting-free "cupcake" roughly the size of a quart jar. The "cream cake" consists of a fine layer of silky buttercream between two layers of sponge cake — the "real food" version of a Twinkie. The Swiss roll is the tubular presentation of the cream cake, and can be flavored with lemon, chocolate, mocha, taro, coconut and pandan. We especially like the pandan, not only for the mildly nutty flavor of this tropical screwpine leaf, but also for the pretty green color that the chlorophyll imparts to the cake.
They also get a lot of mileage from their mildly sweet buns. There are savory options structured as sandwiches, such as fried pork, cucumbers and mayonnaise, and ham and egg. Some were baked around a filling of taro or roasted pork. Still others are flattened and sprinkled with a mixture of ham and chives. Then there is one overflowing with cream and sprinkled with coconut flakes. They're all appetizing.
Steam buns are filled with chicken, egg and Chinese sausage. Sesame balls are filled with red bean paste. The glutinous rice cake isn't filled with anything. It's just a plain rice cake. The rubbery texture is fun to squash between your teeth. There are even more pastries made with a denser crust, the beef curry being reminiscent of a northern Michigan pasty. These were our least favorite of the bunch, and might have been better after a spell in a hot toaster oven.
The beverage board is full of amusing blended drinks of all types. Banana and strawberry are some of the standard flavors. Some flavors are tropical, such as mango and papaya. And some flavors, such as avocado, are not what you would normally imagine mixed into a smoothie — but it actually works quite well. Even the contentious durian fruit, banned in some Asian resort hotels, and which is said to have such an odor when ripe that it can curl your nose hairs at half a mile, makes a refreshing drink.
You can also slurp a sweet, Thai-style milk tea or choose from a variety of bubble teas loaded with chewy, black tapioca pearls more or less the size of peas. The flavor of the tapioca pearls might be described as vaguely roasted. Their real appeal is in sucking them up through a colorful, oversized straw. Tapioca pearls are an option for just about all the drinks.
Though many of the items differ from others by an ingredient or two, there are so many different combinations to try that you can visit often and still find something new. QQ Café & Bakery and its surrounding food establishments may be nearby in terms of distance but the real journey starts the moment you begin to eat.
Todd Abrams dines for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.