5 (more) hidden gems of Washtenaw County's food scene

About a year ago, I set out to find and highlight five "hidden gem" restaurants in Washtenaw County (you can read part one here). Places that were beloved by locals, and that served deliciously satisfying food in a low-key, un-fussy way, but were often overlooked by media lists and food and travel websites.

Not that you could blame those food bloggers too much: given the lack-of-visibility of their respective locations (the back of a shopping center, strip malls, a commercial no man's land off Lohr Circle), all five of these new hidden gems might as well be in the witness protection program. These are all places you have to know about or actively seek out to find; you'd never just stumble upon any of them.

But their passionate loyal fan bases are a testament to the notion that sometimes it's not all about "location, location, location."

Sometimes, it's about "the food, the food, the food."

1. El Harissa Market Cafe
1516 N. Maple Rd., Ann Arbor

My first stop was El Harissa – a strip mall star on N. Maple that specializes in food inspired by the cuisines of North Africa (particularly Tunisia) and Mediterranean Europe. I planned to stop at a few different places this afternoon but my strategy imploded spectacularly as I wolfed down my lablabi (chick peas simmered in warm spices) and chicken chermoula (with Moroccan spices and couscous), then ordered a small cup of the irresistible-sounding Mexican chipotle chocolate gelato to go.

First time visitors should take the "Market Cafe" part of the restaurant's name seriously. Launched in 2013, El Harissa has the feel of a small ethnic grocery that also happens to have several mismatched tables and chairs should you choose to eat there. With items for sale behind a glass display case – terrine, meatballs, lasagna, fish pie, hummus, and more – you'll find enough variety to keep trying new things with each successive visit. 

And that's a plan I feel I can stick to.

2. Nick's Original House of Pancakes
3030 Lohr Circle, Ann Arbor

Opened at the tail-end of 2009 in a fairly hidden space that formerly housed a Big Boy (which won't surprise you in the least when you finally manage to snag a table), Nick's boasts a large and varied menu that includes burgers, salads, sandwiches, and soups. But the eatery's raison d’être is breakfast – which is, naturally, served all day.

With loads of delicious-sounding variations on the the usual morning fare (waffles, french toast, skillets, omelettes, and pancakes), Nick's also offers two seasonal specials menus (one savory, one sweet), which is what I zeroed in on during my weekday lunch visit. 

Though intrigued by the bananas foster stuffed french toast and the pumpkin pancakes, I'm a savory girl at heart, so I ordered a breakfast burrito ranchero, which packed the spicy punch I'd been craving (and was more food by half than I could ever possibly eat in one sitting, even at my hungriest).

While washing it down with tasty coffee served in a thick ceramic mug, I was tempted to just hole up in my booth for the day, getting my cup refilled while making slow progress on my brunch. But as every table and booth around me filled with hungry co-workers, friends, and families, I reluctantly prepared to go.

This lunch hour rush gave me pause about including Nick's in a "hidden gem" story. Plus, I've heard that on weekends, particularly football game days, the restaurant can get pretty crazy.

So clearly the word is out about Nick's to some; but for those (like me) who hadn't heard about it yet, you're welcome.

3. Sushi Time
7050 Dexter Ann Arbor Rd. Suite 100, Dexter

This little strip mall wonder, tucked away in the corner of a Busch's parking lot in Dexter, miraculously caused this lifelong sushi skeptic to change her mind. 

Let me say that again, because it bears repeating: this restaurant made me like sushi. I mean, I left the the place while still in the grip of a spicy crab-induced food-gasm. So, yeah, Sushi Time totally earned its spot on this list. 

Opened as a family business by sushi chef Min Kang in 2014, Sushi Time is one of those long, narrow storefronts with a counter that runs alongside the food prep area on one side, and table seating for about two dozen on the other. The decor is simple but tasteful. 

My edamame appetizer, spicy California roll, and Yum Yum roll arrived promptly during a surprisingly quiet weekday lunch hour, winning me over so quickly that I started planning to try the shrimp shumai and the Mexican, chicken teriyaki, and vegetable crunch rolls on my next visit. (And personally, my husband was thrilled to hear of my food breakthrough. Thanks, Sushi Time!)

4. Ayse's Turkish Cafe
1703 Plymouth Rd., Ann Arbor

My mother-in-law, a longtime Ann Arbor-ite (and a terrific cook in her own right), told me that Ayse's had the best red lentil soup she'd ever tasted in her life – and indeed, after trying a cup of it, I regretted not ordering it myself.

But that's not all the Turkish bistro has to lure you to owner Aysa Uras' secret lair at the back-side of the sprawling Courtyard Shops commercial space on Plymouth. You'll find plenty of delicious-sounding options (written in dry erase marker) hanging on two whiteboards over a glass display case upon entering.

You'll never get a standard menu at Ayse's (which will mark its 25th anniversary this fall). Why? Because freshness is a priority. Uras changes what's on offer based on what's in season and what's available from her butcher and the market. 

On a recent visit, I put in my order at the display case, and then – though the homespun decor of the two-room space was inviting enough – I grabbed a wrought iron table outside. (The advantage of being far from Plymouth Road is that this allows for a calm, quiet dining experience.) 

I "mmm-d" my way through the spicy chicken meatloaf, served on rice, a cup of sweetened Turkish coffee, and kadayif, a marvelous variation on baklava that's topped with shredded phyllo dough. I'd been tempted by the spinach and feta börek in the display case – savory pastries seem to appear on the menu pretty regularly – and the macaroni with lamb, but I ultimately decided these could wait for future visits.

And make no mistake, there will be future visits. If nothing else, who could resist checking what's new on the dry erase boards?

5. Roy's Squeeze Inn
1315 E. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti

Sometimes a restaurant isn't just about its food. It's also about the vibe and the experience that you have when you're there. 

Ypsilanti's Roy's Squeeze Inn – offering burgers, fries, and barbecue pork sandwiches – has made its home along a sparse stretch of Michigan Avenue for more than thirty years, and the cozy eatery makes you feel like you've stepped into Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," albeit a smaller, circular version. With big windows circling the round counter, a woman at a cash register takes your order from the nucleus, and diners "squeeze in" at seats around her like so many human electrons.

On my first visit – after I witnessed a neatly-dressed, kind older gentleman paying for the lunch of a homeless man in the parking lot – I sat at the tiny diner's counter and ordered some cheese sliders. Rookie mistake. Not that they were bad. They were fine. But as a couple of thirty-something men stopped by for take-out burgers (the half pound "Big Squeeze" and "Quarter Squeeze" are the restaurant's biggest sellers), the next dine-in customer that took a seat near me – an older woman who'd arrived on foot – and explained that the barbecue pork sandwich was the best thing on the menu. And though I groaned with love over Roy's seasoned, thick potato wedges, well, the woman had a point.

And just the fact that I ended up having an honest-to-God conversation with this woman I'd never met was part of the pleasure of this nostalgic, throwback dining spot. I'd started the meal tapping away at some work on my laptop – and you could certainly do that at Roy's if you choose. But it's becoming far more rare to take a load off in a place where collegial conversation among strangers, by the venue's very architecture, is encouraged. 

Plus, let's face it. Sometimes a big, fat, juicy burger just hits the spot, too.

Jenn McKee is a freelance writer with a long history of covering arts and culture in the Ann Arbor area. She also has a pair of blogs: The Adequate Mom and A2 Arts Addict.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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