Michigan's Foodie Nation

Hold the ketchup – the foodie nation has risen! With the Food Network's 66 shows devoted to the pleasures of the palate and Technorati's website listing of over 23,000 food blogs, no one is immune to kitchen sprawl. That includes Ann Arbor's own edibles extraordinaire, Lisa Leutheuser, the Kitchen Chick, whose savory blog is laden with inventive recipes, travel and tasting notes, and musings on an array of delights from Middle Eastern Burghul Mufalfal to Dan Dan noodles from the Sichuan province of China.

No need to rush to a restaurant or order out for dishes like these, however. Striking and flavorful ingredients abound at the many Detroit-area gourmet and specialty ethnic food purveyors – solid community fixtures that present an appealing alternative to Kroger.

A zest for the best

The national spotlight has long beamed on an early entrant to the local foodie scene – Zingerman's Delicatessen, established in 1982. Complete with its own top-shelf mail order operation, bakery, and restaurant, the Ann Arbor institution has long since grown to be the elephant in the room. Today, however, the field is wide open for newer connoisseurs.

Enter Morgan & York of Ann Arbor, where co-owners Matt Morgan and Tommy York turned an old party store into a fine wine and specialty food emporium in 2001. The shop's team searches Western Europe for small high-quality producers to fill its 4,000 square feet, but York is also excited by heritage Thanksgiving turkeys and local treasures like Needle-Lane Farms squash and rich hand-made truffles and toffees from chocolatier Sweet Gem Confections.

Today's food movement harkens back to simpler, more connected times, he believes. "It's pretty grounded, and it's pretty square in a lot of ways, you know. It's sitting around and cooking and working hard. [And you're] smiling away because you know the person who made this wine is all the way in France. That wine is on your table, and you know the people who grew the squash, the people who raised these birds …. we're winding back the clock in a lot of ways here."

Morgan & York counts among its most popular items over 100 cut-to-order cheeses, the salamis of artisan producers Paul Bertolli and Armandino Batali, olive oil and vinegar, and small production wines. And there's a high bar – all prospective items undergo brave taste testing. "Chocolate truffles stuffed with anchovies are something you should never put in your mouth. I've done that for you so you don’t have to," York offers.

Additionally, the food and wine shop boasts well-attended cooking classes and wine tastings. "You have to be patient and do a lot of educating. It's no different than being a farmer in a lot of ways. You just plant the seeds and instead of water you use good quality products and service, attention to detail and being an active part of your community," he says.

York's commitment to culinary education is evidenced by years spent teaching local schoolchildren how to make nourishing treats, rather than cookies and cupcakes. He also promotes the virtues of less processed foods, featuring ingredients meant to be consumed fresh like cane sugar sweetened Mexican Coke, small batch beers and bourbons, and hand-made cheeses galore.

There is one spot where concerns about corn syrup simply don't apply, however.
"There's this candy room where we have just horribly processed, hideously horrible things" like Willy Wonka Bottle Caps™, Lick' Em Sticks™, and 18 different flavors of rock candy, he reveals, laughing. "Sometimes you've just gotta have a handful of blue gummy sharks."

Carting the globe

For an Asian sensation, motor down to Ypsilanti's Hua Xing market, housed in a former car dealership. The 25,000 square foot kingdom is the largest of its kind in the area – a veritable Wal-Mart of Far Eastern foods. Manager Steve says Hua Xing opened in 2005 with 2,000 items and now stocks around 10,000 – primarily from China, Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan.

The owner, Mr. Wang, would like to serve everyone with a special need, Steve adds. "That's one of the primary reasons why he likes to open a big store rather than a small or mediocre store," he explains. "We are still building up our inventory."

Hua Xing's 30-plus sections are an absorbing maze of goods to peruse – including holiday specials like moon cakes made with duck egg yolks and red bean paste, and everyday items: dumplings, bubble teas, Chinese herbs and plants for curing diseases, and a slew of rice cookers, sake bottles, and woks. If you're boggled by little choices, check out a bigger curiosity: tanks of live fish, lobsters, turtles and eels.

To really pack metro Detroit's universe of eatables into a shopping cart, add Mediterranean Market and Bakery in Farmington Hills to the list. Don't interpret the name too narrowly, though – alongside the specialties of Turkey, Greece, Albania, and Israel lie cuisines from a polyglot of nations whose shores aren't lapped by the Mediterranean's waters – Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, India, Pakistan, Russia, and Bulgaria among them.

Owner Zahi Fakhouri, a food scene fixture since 1976, also highlights the bakery's signature meat, eggplant, and spinach pies. And the Middle Eastern platters of hummus, baba ghannoush, grape leaves, and "a beautiful recipe of tabbouleh" are house-made.

A plum vision

Specialty stores don’t always corner the market on finds, but this doesn't mean having to haunt another gloomy general grocer. The area's newest addition to upscale food retailers, Plum Market opened this year in a 21,000 square foot Bloomfield space, reviving a former Kroger into a bright, modern full-service supermarket. The store lives up to the owners and fourth generation grocers Matt and Marc Jonnas' vision of supplying everything from gourmet and natural, healthy food and body products to daily staples in a comfortable community environment.

Most customers live within three to five miles away, but "especially on the weekends for wine and See's Candies we get destination shoppers from outside the five mile radius," Matt explains. Marc chimes in: "We're the only store outside of California that has See's Candies. It's amazing; we're very persistent."

For those in the know, the store is replete with high-quality Piedmontese beef, heirloom Duroc pork, and pyramids of produce, with an emphasis on the Michigan-grown. In deciding what to serve, the Jonnas look to their best information source: "The customers," Marc offers. "We think in the area we've selected in Bloomfield we have some of the best traveled, most educated customers in the world and they dictate to you the quality of the products." They'll soon be hearing from an expanded clientele; next February, Plum Market will appear in Ann Arbor, with a Royal Oak base following in 2009.

Unique outlets for discerning gourmets – and the rest of us – are essential for hip, diverse communities. "Cool doesn't come up and sit in our laps …. It's not at the head of the table," York asserts. He figures individuals' dollars will either make their towns unrivaled, or just like any other place. "I see young people doing farming and cheese-making and making beer, or keeping the cider mill going that they've inherited from their father," he says. "It's gratifying to see food and wine growing; hopefully it's a positive commentary on the work we're doing."

For a list of other foodie-friendly emporiums check out our noncomprehensive and highly subjective list here. Feel free to email suggestions, additions or grievously neglected favorites to metromode's editor.

Tanya Muzumdar is a regular contributor to metromode. Read her previous metromode article Michigan's Great Indoors.


Fish tank at Hua Xing Market- Ypsilanti

Wine room at Morgan & York's in Ann Arbor

Jarred olives at Morgan & York's

Chinese okra at Hua Xing

Matthew Jonna at Plum Market - Bloomfield

Photography by Marvin Shaouni
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.