Not everyone knows that the Detroit metropolitan area is home to the largest Arab population in the U.S. Indeed, the area is home to the largest concentration of Arabs of any non-Arabic country. And while the story of how this came to be is fascinating, for our concerns, where one finds a dense cultural population, one is also likely to find immense cultural riches. For lovers of Lebanese, Yemeni, Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi cuisines and more, Southeast Michigan is pure treasure.
Whether you’re a culinary adventurer seeking out new destinations, a visitor with an afternoon to spare, or an armchair traveler, we’ve got picks for you. Ranging from restaurants and cafés to butchers, markets, hookah lounges and pastry shops, here is some of the finest in Arab food, drink and confection you’ll find this side of the Mediterranean.
Between feasting, you’ll want to pay a visit to the Arab American National Museum, “the first and only museum in the United States devoted to Arab American history and culture.” Here you’ll discover the story of the many migrations that led to Southeast Michigan’s concentration of Arabs. You’ll find countless contributions not just to the local area but to civilization itself, from early medicine, architecture and musical instruments galore to early nautical advances, mathematics and science. You’ll learn about the early migrations of Lebanese Christian Arabs to Detroit in the late 19th century, the growth of the Arab community via the burgeoning auto industry and of later migrations of refugees, particularly amid 20th-century unrest in the Middle East, and arrive at last year’s emergence from the area of the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress.
As part of its learning-as-you-go motif, much of the adventure of exploring Arab Detroit comes from starting with a destination and getting recommendations from there of where to go next. This approach seems to be low risk as well. From our limited sample, diversions from the original plan led to different but not necessarily better or worse outcomes, and resulted in plenty of satisfying discoveries.
Full disclosure: The photographer and I, Michigan natives, have our own Lebanese local, the Sahara in St. Clair Shores, which from childhood to this day is our go-to when home on visits, and which also has a Dearborn site. We know who runs the place now as we knew their parents who fed us when we were little. As home food can be, this to us is the Middle Eastern food against which all other Middle Eastern food is measured. The true tabbouleh, hummus, baba ghanouj and grape leaves as if made by Mom herself. That said, below are highlights from beyond the home turf.
From our research, word of mouth is the surest route to the best in local Arab cuisine. The standard of quality is such in the community that a subpar establishment wouldn’t survive here. Still, there are nuanced degrees of excellence. We checked with friends and neighbors, teachers and shop owners, and for classic Lebanese, all signs pointed to Al Ajami for where one would find the apotheosis of the standards: lentil soup, shish tawook, lamb chops, fattoush and other salads.
As alluring as this was, however, we detoured, taking on a whim a suggestion from the Arab American Museum bookstore, and brought our full appetites to a Yemenite restaurant called Sheeba. Typical of many of the Dearborn establishments, modest architectural exteriors belied sublime offerings at the table.
What started as a humble order of a shish combo, falafel plate and assorted salads, took a turn for the transcendent upon asking for recommendations. Then came the Yemeni bread, steaming from the tandoor oven, soon followed by seltah, a piping hot stew of root vegetables served in a blazing hot personal-size cast-iron pot with a mysterious side of whipped fenugreek, the server nodding to us with a smile to say, “Trust us.” Our trust increased with the arrival of each successive dish and was set in stone at the arrival of the insisted-upon lamb haneeth, a falling-from-the-bone slow-roasted lamb precisely described as “seasoned and cooked to perfection.” A cardamom “Adeni” black tea with sweetened condensed milk served the final lingering note in this symphonic feast.
Sated, we made our way to Hashems, a roastery and purveyor of coffees, teas, spices, savories and sweets. Offspring of a parent operation in southern Lebanon, here you’ll find a wall of handmade toffees and taffies, chocolates and halawas imported from the homeland, inflected variously with pistachios, hazelnuts, nougats or jellied fruits, each cherishingly wrapped like its own sweet gift. At the counter, baklavas, chocolates, confections and jellies beckon, each with it own transportive quality. Behind the counter a panoply of herbs; to the side, barrels of coffees and teas. The rest a grocer but as if and most likely from another land. The shopkeeps provide generous samples of the wonders behind the counter’s glass pane. We leave with a half dozen or more, and later will determine the jellies to be the house favorite.
For now giddy, we make our way to the lauded Yemeni café Qahwah House to stave off any risk of food coma. Here again we enter another world: lofted ceilings, unusual coffee and tea paraphernalia, and an afternoon full house humming with caffeinated camaraderie. We gaze up at the wall of options with names like Sana’ani, Qishr, Mofawar and Rada’ey, then give up and order what the customers at the counter are enjoying. The Adeni chai comes to us in an alembic-type vessel, which on closer inspection is a glass teapot atop a lower glass globe housing a candle. It’s soon followed by a similar but different presentation of the Jubani, “coffee and coffee husks served with cardamom, ginger, cinnamon.”
Through the mists of our steaming beverages, we’re told of how Yemen is “the first source of coffee in the world,” dating back to the 14th century. The owner of the shop is telling us this, and it becomes clear that this family business of his dates way, way back. He and his staff invite us to return in the evening for when things really get hopping. And it dawns on us that the popularity of all the hookah shops, all the cafés, is due in part to alcohol-free lifestyles of many Muslims in the Arab community. We try to ask politely if that’s the case, and the staff smiles and nods that that is part of the reason. Before we depart the lovely young woman refilling our chai insists on what our next destination should be.
Fundamental to Arab food is an emphasis on quality and freshness of product. When researching this story, we knew we would need to find the butchers. We were right to do so, and our barista steered us in a good direction.
It’s a butcher in the front with sit-down barbecue eating in the back. Enter Dearborn Meat Market Finest Meats and Barbecue and you feel you’ve been let in on a local secret, which we have. This lively establishment gets style points, too. The packed front of house (the butchery) and prep room open onto a small back room of café seating with a muraled brick wall on one side facing a captivating wall-to-wall grill where kebabs sizzle and spit as customers gaze on, an atmosphere of awe and joy and conviviality pervading. What’s more, online FedEx ordering of flash-frozen, vacuum-sealed halal meats is available.
Back to our intended route, next up is Ronnie Berry and Sons Halal Meats. Imagine if you can the most loving and quirky display of treasures from the hunt in what is otherwise a stark and bright long room. Deer and moose heads grace the walls, while a taxidermied white mountain goat climbs a small rugged rock. Antlers on the trophy heads double as ledges for saw blades and hooks for sausage machine rings for the sausage maker in the plate window beside the shopping carts. Down the center of the room run a series of butcher cases backed by a half a dozen butchers awaiting your order.
Inheriting the business from his father before him who immigrated in the 1950s from Lebanon, proprietor Ronnie Berry tells how he was actually born in the back of the shop as he smiles for a picture with his two 20-something sons. He relates his hunting adventures in Spain, the native land of much of the fauna around us. Berry’s as charming as they come as he gives us a tour of the meat locker to the side and the seemingly ancient smoker in the back. The halal lamb comes from a Michigan Amish farm, is taken directly to the nearby Eastern Market for slaughter and from there to Ronnie Berry’s for butchering, processing and direct sales to customers. We leave with an excellent sampling of housemade jerky.
It’s time for dessert again, and we go straight to Shatila, the Lebanese patisserie that features on all of our recommendation lists. We forgo the French pastries and opt instead for the celebrated ice creams that come in traditional flavors as well as ethereal Kashta (rosewater), pistachio, Kashta-pistachio and mango. The ethereal wins out and we head back to mission control before our supply melts.
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It turns out the cuisine of Arab Detroit cannot be discovered in a day. We’ve left out Palestinian and Syrian, and we still haven’t stopped in a hookah spot. Determined to be inclusive, we return another day. At Masri Sweets we try their kanafeh, a traditional Arabic dessert of baked dough, cheese and syrup that this Palestinian-owned shop offers in a dazzling array of colorful variations, each of which has a comfort-food quality akin to mac ’n’ cheese if it were a dessert.
For Syrian we go to Al-Chabab to try their locally renowned cherry kabob. We fill out our order with various sides, each of which has an artful quality that stands out from dishes at the other spots. As we take in the whimsical nature murals around us, the chef-proprietor explains he was a master chef back in Syria. We nod, trying to put it all together, though we can’t imagine what it must be like to have to uproot like that and start over. We thank him for our meal.
Last stop, a hookah lounge. Someone has recommended Mangos Café, so we go there. It’s mostly men but there’s also a romantic couple or two. In response to our question, the owner tells us that women, if at all, will usually smoke a hookah at home. We approach a table of young men who gamely offer us tokes. We partake and everyone laughs. Then we engage a bit of an older set, who also cheerfully converse with us. We talk a little about politics and find we support the same politicians.
We never get to make it to Tuhama’s, a hole in the wall with “the best shawarma in town,” or Lebon Sweets, or Roti Max Bakery, and others, but we’re sated and satisfied that these places, too, will live up to their reputations and more.