On Dequindre, adventures in ethnic food

Charlotte Massey
The Detroit News

First in a six-part series.

Ali Sater, left, who moved to Metro Detroit from Beirut in 1974, owns International Foods on Dequindre Road in Sterling Heights. His son Sam Sater, right, manages the store.

Take a trip around the world through the modest strip malls of Dequindre Road, the north-south street that forms the boundary between Oakland and Macomb counties.

Signs in Chinese, Arabic and Vietnamese, as well as English, advertise restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries and butchers. The stretch of Dequindre with Madison Heights and Troy on the west side and Warren and Sterling Heights on the east hosts a feast of international flavors.

The melting pot has not quite melted on Dequindre. It’s a street of family businesses, where food can be the bridge between the Old World and the new. While ethnic cuisine can be found in almost every community today, on Dequindre it’s a mix of not just two or three cultures, but a dozen, a reflection of the many pockets of immigrants that call the area home.

At 11 Mile you can sample the curries and samosas of Punjabi cuisine. The corners of 12 Mile and 13 Mile are home to several Vietnamese restaurants and groceries in an Asian community that extends west to John R. The corner of 15 Mile and Dequindre has Indian, Middle Eastern and Korean restaurants and bakeries on the Sterling Heights side, and mostly Polish businesses on the Troy side. Sixteen Mile has more Indian businesses, as well as a Halal butcher, groceries, an Arab bakery, Mexican and Japanese restaurants and a Coney Island. Seventeen Mile has an assortment of Middle Eastern, Indian and European establishments.

“It’s like a little separate country up here with those little sub-countries,” said Margaret Wojciechowski, general manager of the American Polish Cultural Center on 15 Mile.

Kulwinder Kaur, who manages the family-run Phulkari Punjabi Kitchen just north of 11 Mile, says there are songs written about moving to another country, being homesick, and remembering Mom making maki roti and saag, a dish of corn flour flatbread and mustard greens. It is famous in her native Punjab, a farming state in the north of India near the border with Pakistan.

In their restaurant, her own mother prepares it for the homesick, as well as those in search of new culinary adventures.

At a time when immigration is a hot-button political issue, this stretch of Dequindre reminds us we are a still nation of immigrants yearning for a taste of home.

Come along this week as we tour Dequindre’s food businesses and talk to the families who run them about their lives, their signature dishes and their customers. First up: International Foods.

Need an ethnic ingredient? Look here

The immigrant families on Dequindre stick together and work together.

Sam Sater of International Foods grocery store on 17 Mile at Dequindre was just a year old in 1974 when his father Ali moved his young family from Beirut to the Detroit area.

“We came to the unknown,” said Ali Sater. “We have no idea what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do (it). The only thing we know is the opportunity is here. So we came here and we start working.”

Sam started helping in the store at an early age. “It wasn’t really a choice,” he laughed. ”It’s kind of mandatory when you grow up in the Lebanese family. “

He earned two business degrees before returning to help run the store, and says his experience impressed his professors, “because who do they know at the age of 20 years old who had 15 years of experience in the business world?”

There was not a lot of business on Dequindre when the family first landed, but Ali Sater, who worked at a factory and a hospital after he first arrived, believed that would change. He opened his first grocery store at 16 Mile and Dequindre in 1983 with an eye on the area’s growing ethnic communities.

It was a good hunch. Today, more than one-quarter of the population in Troy and Sterling Heights was born outside the United States. According to Census data, 32,895 Sterling Heights residents were born outside the U.S in 2014, up from 28,837 in 2010. In Troy, 22,782 residents were foreign-born in 2014, up from 18,662 in 2010.

International Foods carries brands from all over the Middle East and Mediterranean, as well as items from Eastern Europe and South America. Many are labeled in English and other languages.

“You’ve got people from India, their ethnicities,” said Sam Sater. “You’ve got people from Pakistan, Bangladesh. You’ve got a huge Polish community, a huge Iraqi-Chaldean community. You’ve got Lebanese. … Everybody knows how good it is to be in this country. They’re always happy to be here, and you can see it on their face — I mean no politics, no war, nothing; just you work hard and you play hard here.”

International Foods, which doubled in size when it moved to the current location in 1995, carries brands from all over the Middle East and Mediterranean, as well as items from Eastern Europe and South America. Bins of rice and dried goods face a halal meat counter, which specializes in lamb, a favorite around the Mediterranean. One can purchase feta from Greece or France, as well as cheeses from other parts of Europe and the U.S. Their fresh hummus made in-house by Ali Sater is a big seller.

The variety of food and nationalities in the area has opened up the Saters to new adventures in taste. “Now we eat bourek (a flaky savory pie popular in Albania and Macedonia), which we didn’t know before,” said Sam Sater. “And Turkish food, and Persian food and Indian food.” He adds with a laugh that “being in this business really expands your waist.”

They know many of their customers, some of whom have been coming for years, on a first-name basis. “We’re not a supermarket where you walk in and you deal with the cashier,” said Ali Sater. “Sometimes we share problems together… we share almost everything. You become like a family."

Coming next in the series atdetroitnews.com/special-reports/:

Monday: Phulkari Punjabi Kitchen

Tuesday: American Polish Cultural Center

Wednesday: Mid-East Pastry Delight

Thursday: Chung Ki Wa restaurant

Friday: Pho Tai restaurant