Detroit: one neighborhood at a time

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

As I’ve gotten to know Detroit, I’ve come to understand that just when you find some wonderful part of the city, you cross the next street and find another treasure. Detroit covers approximately 143 square miles, about 100 more than the city of Battle Creek. With 92 different neighborhoods in Detroit, I’m going to have to accelerate my exploration of the city if I want to visit all of them.

I’ve spent time downtown and midtown where most tourists focus. I want to take you further to the southwest, however, and show you more of the “real” Detroit. According to savorsouthwestdetroit.org, Southwest Detroit offers 130 different restaurants, 30 bakeries and 25 markets. Two absolutely great communities in the neighborhood are Mexicantown and Corktown — different, but both built on the bedrock of different waves of immigrants.

With a rapidly growing Latino population, this part of Detroit is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city. Immigrants from Mexico began settling here in the 1920s, and by the 1980s the area had received the moniker Mexicantown. The major thoroughfares are Bagley and Vernor streets, and you know you’ve arrived when the buildings start featuring vibrant colors and hand-painted murals dot their sides.

As a California native, I set a very high bar for authentic Mexican food, and I wasn’t disappointed by a fabulous meal at Armando on Vernor Highway. They have a huge menu with all the favorites and then some. I ordered three tacos — chicken, steak and tilapia. Each had its own perfect flavor and featured fresh corn tortillas and two salsas with varying degrees of heat. The salsa was worth bringing a quart home.

I don’t think you can go wrong anywhere in Mexicantown for excellent Mexican food, but that’s not all you can find. When I need a plantain fix for example, I also love El Comal, which boasts exceptional Central American cuisine featuring Guatemalan and Salvadoran recipes.

If you are counting calories, do not visit La Gloria Bakery. It’s a self-service experience, and I was soon armed with a tray and tongs. My choices included fresh pastries, cookies, breads, empanadas and churros, to name just a few. I really wanted to take home a Tres Leches cake, a lovely squishy dessert sensation, but I resisted.

Since 1991, the purple Matrix Theatre has been an iconic part of the neighborhood arts and culture scene. And don’t miss another much older community hub, St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church. The Gothic revival style church was built in 1886 and has some of the oldest stained glass in the city.

For a different feel in Southwest, try Corktown, one of the oldest parts of the city. Like Mexicantown, Corktown takes its name from the original residents, Irish immigrants from the County Cork who came to work in the emerging industries in the 1830s. Today, it’s a bustling neighborhood filled with places to hang out and enjoy the summer. In 1978, Corktown was listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its brightly colored Victorian townhomes and original Irish businesses.

While it’s not very Irish, Le Petit Zinc is a charming, small Corktown creperie that offers both sweet and savory crepes. This time of year, sit outside on the patio, sip an espresso and enjoy a casual brunch.

Another spot not to be missed is Mudgie’s Deli.

Southwest Detroit — one neighborhood down…only 91 more to go!