From Thai to tacos, these dishes ruled in 2016

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Some of the most interesting things I ate around town in 2016 include a hamburger with a $55 price tag (Townsend Hotel’s Rugby Grille), spam sushi and literal ants on a figurative log.

From exotic to comforting, here are my favorite things that were put on my plate over the past 12 months.

Easily considered one of the most auspicious restaurant openings of the year, Katoi debuted Thai dishes to Detroit’s historic Corktown neighborhood in March. Of all the things that traveled from chef Brad Greenhill’s open kitchen to my teeny-tiny two-top, the crispy spareribs and thrice-cooked sweet potato dishes were what made me want to return as often as possible.

Katoi, which opens at 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, has been the star of this seasons year-end lists, including Thrillist’s national of the year’s best restaurants nationwide.

Months before Rock City Eatery (4216 Woodward) made its September leap from its 1600-square-foot Hamtramck restaurant to a more high profile Midtown location twice the size, I had a bowl of dynamic chef Nikita Sanches’ comforting ramen with some friends after their nearby band practice. A Russian-born chef serving a Japanese dish to a table of musicians in a neighborhood populated predominantly with Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants — that’s Detroit to me.

While Sanches has retired the ramen, his winter menu does include a Korean-inspired hot pot. Unfortunately the aforementioned “ants on a log” dish that featured reconstituted dried ants on pickled celery had to go, too. I was told that importing the ants became impractical.

Let’s move on to less exotic fare.

Detroit is one of the top pizza cities in the country, in my admittedly biased mind. Pie-Sci’s opening at 5163 Trumbull in Woodbridge over the summer only encouraged this philosophy. They offer a dozen specialty pizzas with red or white sauce and a build-your-own option. Whatever you do, don’t forget to add the drizzle. Choose from herb mayo, a vegetarian mayonnaise (vegenaise), Sriracha, buttermilk ranch or balsamic glaze.

While not new, Hamtramck dive bar Kelly’s (2403 Holbrook) has upped its culinary offerings this year with the help of local chefs. Punk rock musician and artist Tim Lampinen serves his soft corn tacos on Wednesdays, and recently added service on Tuesday, as well. A recent offering was an al pastor taco topped with pickled onion and grilled pineapple. At just $2.50 each, these tacos have one of the best flavor-to-price ratios in the city.

Another musician and chef, Blair Wills gave Hamtramck more breakfast options with his stellar — and popular — Saturday and Sunday brunch service that he started at Kelly’s this fall.

Another total-package dining experience this year was Mabel Gray (23825 John R, Hazel Park). That’s no secret, though, and my move has been to sneak onto a bar stool either when the restaurant first opens or after the dinner rush. Otherwise, tables can be hard to come by, especially the week Mabel Gray was taken over by chef Omar Ramirez, who turned it into taqueria for a few weeks in September while chef James Rigato was cooking in Italy.

Hospitality is top notch, and the ever-changing menu from affable Rigato and staff doesn’t disappoint. One time after ordering a fried chicken and watermelon dish we were told they were out of chicken. Would duck breast do? Yes, did it ever.

Other superb dishes I devoured at new restaurants this year: the chop salad and antipasti plate at Pop’s for Italian in Ferndale; a cheeseburger egg roll found on the late-night menu at the Peterboro in the Cass Corridor; the hearty meat and cheese board at Kuhnhenn Brewing Co.’s new 45,000-square-foot taproom; a shaved Brussels sprout salad at La Dulce in Royal Oak; the cole slaw at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken in Cass Corridor; and the Hawaiian fare, including spam, at GoGo’s, which replaced Bucharest Grill inside Park Bar (you may remember we kicked off 2016 with that whole dust up).

It wasn’t just the food that made news this year, either. It was an active year for local beverages. The city celebrated Vernors ginger ale’s 150th anniversary, and beer fans saw the return of a Detroit-made Stroh’s Bohemian-Style Pilsner to shelves and bars.

Craft cocktails continued to trend on my restaurant bills, too. With a list of 50 cocktails and as many seats, Standby in downtown Detroit and its sister restaurant, open-air lounge the Skip (both in the Belt alley between Broadway and Library streets), were considered hot spots in 2016. Just recently Capitol Park saw the debut of Bad Luck Bar (1218 Griswold), which has an unmarked alleyway entrance and cocktails that price up to $80. (One drink is $28 and comes with a spoonful of caviar for an additional $12.)

One of the most memorial cocktails I had this year was served to me at Grey Ghost (47 E. Watson). Made with gin, caper-infused dry vermouth, sesame oil and black pepper — they named it “Heroic Intention” — this drink is for those, like me, who prefer something sturdier over sugary, sweet drinks. It is a next-level martini.

Another stand-out drink I enjoyed was the pineapple cider crafted by Cellarmen’s (24310 John R, Hazel Park). Cider has been huge the past few years, and I found this to be a welcomed twist.

Sadly, one of the overall satisfying dining experience that I had earlier in the year, eve in Ann Arbor, is no more. Chef Eve Aronoff had to to close in September due to a flood that caused too much water damage. Aronoff (who also helms Frita Batidos in Ann Arbor) is looking for a new home for her restaurant. I hope when she returns she puts the macadamia-encrusted salmon with coconut ginger rice and lemon-scented mayo on the menu again, because I’ve been thinking about it all year.

Cheers to whatever may come our way to eat and drink in 2017.

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Twitter: @melodybaetens