Roasted chicken over rice with a Thai cucumber salad is one of the dishes on the eclectic menu at Rock City Eatery in Hamtramck. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)
The Hatch Detroit class of 2012 must have had a 4.0 grade point average across the board.
Each year, budding entrepreneurs submit their business plans to the Comerica Hatch Detroit contest and the public chooses the winners. Even though only one could win the big prize, $50,000, three of that year’s finalists are now up-and-running enterprises.
La Feria, the tapas bar in Midtown Detroit, got the first place cash and opened in 2013, and runners-up Detroit Vegan Soul in Detroit’s West Village and Rock City Eatery in Hamtramck were able to raise enough cash on their own to open their doors.
Rock City, the brainchild of Nik Santches, is the latest to open, after he did a lot of the renovation work himself at the modest storefront on Joseph Campau.
He proudly shows off the results, including one wall peeled back to reveal a pattern of 100-year-old bricks, an open kitchen and a dining room furnished with a flea market collection of chairs, high stools and tables, repurposed wood and industrial lighting in the midst of which is a sparkling crystal chandelier.
That out-of-character chandelier pretty much sums up the eclectic approach that includes the menu itself. There are simply no standard items on Santches’ list of dishes, presented on heavy brown bag-style paper on clipboards. He’s an instinctive, self-taught chef who sees no culinary or national boundaries, using as many seasonal and local ingredients as possible and putting them together as his imagination dictates. And in a pretty amazing price structure, with lunch dishes well under $10 and dinner for much less than $20. And the economy extends to the drinks list, where imported beer is as affordable as the made-in-Michigan brews.
There are at least as many roasted winter vegetables, typified by roasted butternut squash with ricotta and watercress, and curried multicolored cauliflower with raisins and cashews, as meat on the menu, which changes almost daily, although certain staples are usually there, like his mac & cheese.
It’s made with whatever pasta he has on hand, not necessarily the standard macaroni but perhaps penne or cavatelli. His grilled cheese is equally free-form, a mixture of cheeses that might be fontina, mozzarella and taleggio or something else.
He has the nerve to add the Korean condiment kimchi to his all-American fried bologna sandwich, and dish up green beans with almonds, scallions, cilantro and a dash of hoisin; and he does pulled duck with fennel, mushrooms and a fried egg. The Rock City cheeseburger is made with lamb and mideastern spices including za’atar.
Santches’ first culinary effort was pie, and he made something of a name for himself at Ferndale’s Rust Belt Market selling salted caramel and butterscotch/bourbon/pecan pies. Pie, of course, at $3 per slice, is one of the two desserts — bread pudding is the other — offered at the restaurant.
Rock City Eatery is completely casual, with service by a staff that might take a break from prep to double in the front of the house, but makes up in friendliness what it lacks in amenities. Anyone looking for an out-of-the-ordinary dining experience with a real personality will appreciate what the pie man is accomplishing.
Rock City Eatery
11411 Jos. Campau, Hamtramck
Call: (248) 633-3072
Rating: 2½ stars (out of 4)
Hours: Lunch noon-3 p.m. Mon.-Fri., dinner 4-11 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 4-midnight Sat. Closed Sun.
Prices: Lunch dishes $6-$8,
dinner dishes $6-$15, desserts $3-$4
Credit cards: All major
Liquor: Full bar, with an emphasis on beer
Noise level: Moderate
Wheelchair access: No barriers