Dearborn's Arab American markets offer a diverse taste of the Middle East

If you want to pick up some chicken shawarma for dinner, or perhaps some falafel and fresh-baked pita bread, chances are you're contemplating a trip to Dearborn. 

Arab Americans make up 42 percent of the city's population, according to U.S. Census estimates. The city is also home to the Arab American National Museum and has a rich Arab American history that stretches back many decades. And that cultural heritage has translated into a diverse array of ethnic eateries across the city.

Arab Americans first came to the Metro Detroit area in the late 19th Century, working at whatever jobs were available—with some making their living as traveling vendors. In these early days, Arab immigrants came mostly from the area we now call Lebanon, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire, and most were Christian. Immigration picked up in the early twentieth century with the rise of automobile manufacturing.

"When the auto industry developed in Metro Detroit, Arab Americans heavily congregated around automobile plants. Discriminatory policies against African Americans meant there were plenty of jobs at auto plants for European and Arab immigrants," Mason Christensen, an archivist with the Dearborn Historical Museum, tells Metromode.

At first, a small Arab American community developed around Highland Park, the site of Henry Ford's first auto plant. And that's where the first mosque in the U.S. was built. When the famous industrialist finished constructing the first phase of his legendary Rouge Plant in Dearborn in 1918, however, the Arab American community followed him there.

"For most of Dearborn history, Arab Americans largely lived in the area known today as the 'Southend.' This is the residential area around Salina school and Dix Avenue. The area was close to the Rouge Plant, full of small houses, and full of different nationalities."

"More than 50 different languages were reportedly spoken in the neighborhood through the 1950s. As the decades went on, the Arab population of the Southend gradually increased," he adds. "By the end of the 1930s, Shia and Sunni mosques were operating in the neighborhood."
Civil unrest and wars in the Middle East during the '60's, the '70s and '80s led to another wave of immigration, primarily of Lebanese Shia Muslims and Yemenis, as well as Chaldean immigrants to Northern Detroit. Towards the end of the '70s and in the 1980s, Arab Americans began moving to the east end of Dearborn as well, a turn of events that resulted in the development of the Warren Avenue business district where many popular Arab restaurants and markets are located today.

To further shed light on the history and diversity of Arab American cuisine in the region, Metromode visited three Middle Eastern markets located in the Warren corridor: a bakery, a meat market and a supplier of spices, nuts, coffees, candies.

Shatila Bakery

Looking for a bite of baklava on Warren Avenue? Shatila Bakery has that and a whole lot more. Founded in 1979, Shatila is a Dearborn institution dedicated to supplying its customers with plentiful varieties of Middle Eastern sweets, ice creams, and French pastries. 
Tania Shatila, who owns the sweet shop with her mother and two sisters, says Shatila's Middle Eastern offerings stick closely to Lebanese sweet traditions.  She adds that the shop is best known for its baklava, a sweet pastry made with many thin layers of dough.

Rasmieh Saab. Photo by Doug Coombe.
"Everyone has their own little spin on it, the filo dough with nuts and the syrup," Shatila tells Metromode. "We have different kinds of fillings. We have cashews, and we recently started doing almond, and then we have the traditional pistachio filling as well."

The shop's homemade ice cream comes in a variety of flavors, including chocolate, vanilla, mango, pineapple, coconut, and pistachio. There are also cakes, including wedding cakes, and homemade chocolates for sale, but don't expect much bread; it's not that type of bakery. The closest is sesame bread that is part of a syrupy cheese pastry called kanafeh. Customers can also order coffee, tea and fresh juices, which they can enjoy along with their pastries in an elegant dining area that features marble tables and a grove of indoor palm trees.

Tania's father Riad founded Shatila Bakery in 1979, not long after he immigrated to Michigan from Lebanon. 

"When he immigrated here, he noticed at that time there was such a small Arab-American population; there wasn't a niche for pastries," Shatila says. "He saw there was a demand for it, but it wasn’t being met,  and it was something that was always interesting to him, so he combined those two things and made it happen." 

In its early days, Shatila was just a small shop at a different location along Warren. After relocating to a spot on Schaefer for a few years, though, the family finally opened the doors to its current spacious Warren location in 2004. Beyond this, the Shatilas also operate a West Bloomfield shop and a Dearborn factory, where their sweets are made. 

Over the years, Shatila has developed quite a reputation, to the extent that they regularly get out of state visitors and ship their products all over the country. Shatila attributes this success to her father, who passed away in 2013.

"Honestly, without our father, none of this would have been possible," she tells Metromode. "His hard work and dedication and his strong work ethic... and quality product. He [didn't] skimp on anything."

Al Ameer restaurant and meat market

A mainstay of the city's culinary scene, Al Ameer has offered Lebanese food like shawarma, fattoush, hummus, tabouli, chicken kaftah, and shish kabobs—not to mention more traditional American fare like lamb chops and fried chicken—to hungry patrons for several decades now. Founded in 1989, Al Ameer is one of only a pair of Dearborn Middle Eastern restaurants to remain from a group of five that launched in the 1980s. Today it’s grown into a chain that includes locations in Canton and Dearborn Heights.

And while you might be familiar with the restaurant, you might not know that Al Ameer also has its own meat shop, located at 12732 Warren right next door to the Dearborn eatery. It's  a skinny little market with attractive tilework, a meat counter and a small area designated for making cuts.

Khalil Ammar. Photo by Doug Coombe.
Khalil Ammar, who owns Al Ameer with partner Zaki Hashem, tells Metromode the market offers customers the same high-quality meat that the restaurant uses in its meals; And they're 100 percent halal, a term used to designate meat that's slaughtered and prepared as prescribed by Muslim law.

"Just beef, unless somebody orders lamb," he says of the shop's offerings. "I can sell lamb too."

Ammar, who emigrated to the U.S. from the United Arab Emirates in 1984, tells us he gets the meat from a slaughterhouse up north in Walton Junction, Michigan. Although the restaurant owner has a butcher on staff, he's more than willing to make the cuts himself when necessity calls. Asked for the secret that allowed Al Ameer to thrive all these years, Ammar says it’s simply due to hard work and dedication to making the best food possible.
"I make all the food myself," he says.  "I work seven days a week. I'm behind the counter every single day." 

Hashems Nuts and Coffee Gallery

Hashems Nuts and Coffee Gallery occupies a pretty special spot among the Arab markets of Dearborn. Popular with the public, it also enjoys a healthy fan base among restaurants and markets in the Detroit area and beyond. 
According to owner Adam Hashem, his company is the "number one provider of Turkish coffee in America" and sells spice blends to about half of the Middle Eastern restaurants in the region.

Adam Hashem. Photo by Doug Coombe.

As the name suggests, the shop sells a wide assortment of nuts and coffee, but it also offers a generous variety of herbs, beverages, candies and packaged and bulk food products. Examples of Hashem's offerings include: California Walnuts, Iranian pistachios, dried mangos, Turkish delight candies and Aleppo pepper, a very rare spice. The spices are salt-and-preservative free and (along with the coffee) are ground right in Michigan at Hashem's processing facilities.

"We are  provider of unique, high-quality items from around the world," says Hashem, who describes his shop as offering a "boutique-style product" at "bulk food prices."

The story behind the market is a fascinating one, with an origin that can be traced back to 1959 when Hashem's grandfather, a village healer who lived in Bint J Bail, Lebanon, opened the family's original store. 

"People started coming more and more for common ailments," says Hashem. "He started with the herbs and treatments, and then he decided to open up a shop [that sold] herbs, spices, nuts, coffees, candies. Basically, the traditional stuff, where if anyone was to be a guest in your home, you greet them with all these items."

Later his grandfather,  Abu Ali Sheik Theeb, expanded his business and began roasting coffee and nuts. Hashem's father, Al,  came to Michigan with his mother in the 1970s to escape the war in Lebanon and eventually decided to continue the family business by opening his own shop in Dearborn in 1985.
Since that time the operation has grown from a 900-square foot building that accommodated both retail and processing facilities, to four stores (another Dearborn location, a Livonia shop and a Dearborn Heights flagship store that also sells meat) and two processing facilities encompassing 30,000 square feet.

With all this going on, it would be easy to stick to the business side of things, but Hashem tells Metromode he also believes his shop serves a vehicle to encourage cultural understanding in the region.

"We're not just a store that sells products, we are a provider of knowledge and information," Hashem says. "We always introduce people to the Arab culture and to the Muslim traditions. And anything that you have a question about, there’s an open forum here. It's something that we take pride in!" 
This is part of a series on Metro Detroit's rich tapestry of ethnic markets. We're looking at how these centers of our cultural heritage reflect and celebrate the history and diversity of our region. 
We hope you enjoy reading about these places as much as we enjoy visiting them. Read more here.