Kalamazoo College opened me up to the inestimable value of visiting other parts of the world, yet I rarely spent much time visiting parts of Michigan beyond Kalamazoo. Even though my dad grew up in Hamtramck, a suburb of Detroit, I hadn’t visited the Motor City since the early 60s.
And then, more than a half-century later, my wife, Carolyn Berg ’72, and I visited Detroit and suburban Dearborn, each a feast in its own way.
It was fascinating to see the people of Detroit, a city on the remake, leveraging the aesthetic and financial advantages of properties abandoned when the city’s auto and other industries downsized or closed shop. Young artists, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs are revitalizing places outside the city’s center, and we were knocked out by Detroit’s old-neighborhoods-made-new, especially Corktown, bursting with renewed energy at restaurants, breweries and bars that seemingly overnight mushroomed out in old warehouses and manufacturing facilities.
We were even more eager to visit the Dearborn neighborhood.
About three years ago, the National Report mentioned that Dearborn had been placed under Sharia law. The article said the Dearborn city council “voted 4-3 to become the first US city to officially implement all aspects of Sharia Law. The tough new law, slated to go into effect January 1st, addresses secular law… as well as personal matters …[and] could see citizens stoned for adultery or having a limb amputated for theft.”
The story was, of course, baloney – and intentionally so. National Report is a satire site. One problem with satire is the propensity of some to regard satiric fiction as fact. Sure enough, the Dearborn-under-Sharia-law story was soon repeated as fact in the Conservative Tribune, Human Events and several other publications that perhaps could use better fact-checkers.
The story may have seemed credible to some because Dearborn contains the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States. Many people from Lebanon, Kuwait and other Arabic countries came for good paying jobs. More recently, many Arabic people have immigrated in order to escape conflict zones in the Arab world. The Arab Americans we met seemed very glad to be in the U.S., and we were very glad to visit their community, which offers some of the most wonderful Middle Eastern food we’ve had, in great abundance and variety.
The Arab American National Museum is a good place to orient yourself to the local community and its history. The Museum offers food tours that include visits to local shops and restaurants, a wonderful way to learn about the culinary options available in Dearborn. What follow are a few places we visited—several as part of that tour—along with some suggestions about the wonderful foods you might try.
Baking fresh bread on site, and serving up steaming platters of grilled meat and vegetables, Al-Ameer is a neighborhood mainstay. It is, in fact, a recipient of a 2016 James Beard “American Classic” award, though that honor clearly hasn’t gone to their head. The night we visited, the servers were friendly and efficient. The pricing was downright budget-friendly. We liked the koosa (zucchini squash stuffed with meat), shawarma and ghallaba (a Lebanese stew of meat in lightly spicy sauce).
Shatila is a huge Arab-American pastry palace on a street lined with Middle Eastern restaurants and bakeries. There’s a relatively small section serving their renowned ice creams, including pistachio and rose water (our favorite), and a vast display of delicate French pastry side-by-side with sweets showing more Arabic character. The French occupied Lebanon for some years, and their influence was noticed at a number of Dearborn pastry shops. For example, we enjoyed a croissant, the traditional French breakfast pastry, filled with zaatar, a traditionally Middle Eastern spice blend.
The grocery store Dearborn Fresh Supermarket is a wonderful place to buy Middle Eastern basics at reasonable prices. We selected some sour plums, traditionally eaten with salt to bring out the sourness, as well as several Middle Eastern breads and pickled cheeses. We also took home some dates from Saudi Arabia that were fantastic. Unlike many varieties available in the U.S., these Saudi dates were not soaked in sugar water; they had a naturally caramel-like, deliciously chewy texture. We bought a 4.4 pound case!
Mocha Café is owned by Fawzy Alghazali, who came to the United States from Yemen in 2002. Alghazali specializes in Yemeni sweets, some found nowhere else in the area, including harisah, a savory block of chopped nuts and spices, and araysi, a mango smoothie with chopped strawberry, banana and other fruit, very popular in Yemen’s port of Mocha. Alghazali told us he came to the U.S. with his father, though much of his family remained in the Middle East. “I worked at a gas station,” he said, “and on an ice cream truck, then at Macy’s. I got in partnership with friends and bought a donut shop in Hamtramck.” Today his café operates in two locations, and Alghazali considers himself living confirmation of the American dream.
The Arab-Americans of Dearborn are trying—as did my grandparents and other immigrants who arrived in this country decades or even centuries before—to make a safe home for themselves and for their families in the U.S. For those, like me, who live to eat, the restaurants and sweet shops in Dearborn offer what may well be the broadest, deepest and most concentrated selection of Arabic cuisine in the country. You don’t always have to travel to another country to explore other cultures and enjoy their cuisines.