Madison Heights, the Asian food capital of metro Detroit

This is the latest piece in Metromode's ongoing coverage of the Asian food scene in Madison Heights. Revisit Nicole Rupersburg's 2011 piece for more context on the development of this local food culture.

If you live in Southeast Michigan and are in search of high quality, authentic Asian food, look to the suburbs. Madison Heights, a small city in Oakland County, has quietly become the Asian food capital of metro Detroit. There you will find dozens of restaurants specializing in cuisine from practically every country in Southeast Asia, as well as a handful of specialty grocery stores offering spices, produce, and a variety of dried goods that can't be found anywhere else in the region.

What may come as a surprise is that much of Madison Heights' vibrant Asian food culture has developed within the last decade.

Dat Duong, who co-owns Vietnamese grocery Saigon Market with his sister, remembers a very different Oakland County when he was a child. "When we first moved to America, this didn't exist," he says. "There was one tiny Chinese market in Royal Oak. It was the only place my mom could get fish sauce."

Henry Tran describes a similar experience when he came to Madison Heights in 2007 to become the floor manager at his father-in-law's restaurant, Pho Que Huong. "The Asian community was not too big then," says Tran. "There were only one or two Vietnamese restaurants around here. But it's grown a lot."

Today, in a strip mall at the corner of John R. and Whitcomb streets, all but one of 14 businesses specializes in Asian products. Hanzi (Chinese) characters are just as common on business signage as the Roman alphabet. In Madison Heights, this is not an uncommon occurrence.
Dat Duong Saigon Market

In recent years, Vietnamese food has become popular in practically every major American city. Two Vietnamese dishes in particular have caught the attention of American foodies: pho, a noodle soup, and bahn mi, a baguette-style sandwich. That increased exposure has been good for Asian food businesses here in metro Detroit, whose patrons are increasingly diverse.

So how did an unassuming suburb become a hub for Asian food?

According to Duong, it's no great mystery. His family moved to Michigan from Vietnam in hope of finding a better life. His father took an engineering job with an automaker before striking out as an entrepreneur and opening his own dry cleaning business. Pioneers like Duong's father, many of whom were also attracted by automotive jobs, helped the Vietnamese community gain a foothold, and others soon followed. As the community established itself, food businesses soon followed. After all, there's nothing like traditional food to help people feel at home in a foreign land.

While the plurality of Asian food establishments in Madison Heights are Vietnamese, the city is also a destination for some of the region's best Chinese, Japanese, and Thai cuisine. You will even find Malaysian food at
Satay House.

In 2012, Ka Chai and his family moved to Madison Heights at the urging of an uncle who owns QQ Cafe and Bakery, which specializes in Asian-style drinks like bubble tea and baked goods like stuffed buns. The family soon opened Satay House, where the young Ka Chai claims no title. In the family-run business, the only necessary titles are mother, daughter, and son.

Authenticity is a common refrain amongst Madison Heights' Asian restaurateurs and market owners.

Ka Chai's father, Satay House's de facto head chef, cooks the exact same way in Madison Heights as he did in his home country. "We haven't changed anything to make it fit a Western style," says Chai.

In 2014, Saigon Market added a made-to-order bahn mi counter, and everything had to be exact. "At a lot of other places, Vietnamese food is hip and a cool new thing," says Duong. "But I'm a purist -- I like it exactly how it is back in Vietnam."

Citing the importance of freshness in Vietnamese cuisine, Duong cures all the meat and bakes all the bread in house. His sister runs a farm in Ohio where they grow produce year-round, some of which they pickle and put on their sandwiches.

Despite using ingredients that Westerners might consider exotic or intimidating like tripe and head cheese, many of these places attract ethnic food purists as well as curious, adventurous, and eventually loyal patrons of different nationalities.

Duong says he sold over 800 sandwiches last weekend to a diverse clientele. Tran estimates that 65 percent of the customers at Pho Que Huong are non-Vietnamese. Both these businesses have sustained themselves with hardly any advertising or internet presence -- word of mouth and positive Yelp reviews alone have been sufficient to grow their businesses.

With this growing popularity comes its own set of challenges. Greater exposure means more competition, from both those trained in traditional methods and those who offer more mainstream fare. (Duang recently saw a sign advertising bahn mi sandwiches at Cosi.)

"There's lots of competition now," says Tran. "You have to be the best at what you do."

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.

All photos by David Lewinski Photography.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.