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. Many more groceries and eateries — Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian, Albanian — are scattered along the strip.
“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 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 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, conversations with business owners along this stretch of Dequindre remind us we are still a nation of immigrants yearning for a taste of home.
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 who had 15 years of experience in the business world?”
There was not a lot of business on Dequindre when the family landed, but Ali Sater, who worked at a factory and a hospital after he 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.
“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. 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 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. “
Punjabi mom’s dishes drive family’s fortunes
“Our family business — it’s my mom. She’s the boss of everything. She started it. It’s all her,” said Kulwinder Kaur of Phulkari Punjabi Kitchen.
The family arrived in the Detroit area in 1986 after her father, a minister in the Sikh religion, was brought over to a new temple. The family opened Indo Pak grocery store and video rental in their current location north of 11 Mile in 1992.
“But then slowly video rentals went out, and my mom started making the samosas at home. And they would sell at the video rental place and people loved them,” she said.
Samosas are light, fluffy, fried, stuffed dumplings served all over India, and like most Indian cuisine, the tastes and filling vary by region. In Punjab, typically they are stuffed with potatoes and peas.
At Phulkari Punjabi Kitchen, matriarch Narinder Kaur uses red chili, fresh cilantro and garam masala, a mixture of eight or nine different spices, including cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper and bay leaf, all roasted and ground together. Together with the peas and potatoes and fried dough they give her samosas a distinctive, delicate flavor.
She worked two jobs in the early years.
“She would go at night to the factory, work there 10-12 hours, come home, rest a little bit, and then come to the video store, also the grocery store, and do a little bit of help there, and then go back to work,” her daughter said. Since childhood she has helped her parents at the store. “I remember, we were little kids, my brother — we were sitting there packing little pouches of lentils and masalas. It’s fond memories.”
The restaurant opened as Indo-Pak in 1995 and became Phulkari Punjabi in 2012. Though her husband runs the tandoor grill and her sisters and brother help out at the restaurant,Kulwinder Kaur makes sure her mom gets the credit.
“Right now, she’s still here, and we tell her it’s time for you to retire, and she’s like ‘I’m never retiring. What am I going to do (at) home?’ So she’s our backbone. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think we’d be here.”
‘The pierogi your grandma made’
It’s pierogi assembly time at the American Polish Cultural Center on 15 Mile. A group of women sit in front of trays at two long metal tables, chatting in Polish and English as they deftly stuff balls of sauerkraut into circles of fresh dough. They fold the dough over the sauerkraut and pinch the edges shut, forming little half-moon shaped dumplings that Dorota Bazinska boils up in big pans on the industrial range.
When served piping hot with a large dab of butter, the pierogi balance soft texture and sharp flavor that linger as memory long after they are devoured.
“I think those are the best pierogi in the area, and it’s not because I work here,” said Margaret Wojciechowski, general manager of the American Polish Cultural Center. “Those are the pierogi your grandma made.”
Along with dill pickle soup, the pierogi are among the most popular items served at the Wawel Polish Restaurant housed at the center.
The restaurant is just one of the entities at the center, a huge hall paneled in dark wood with ornate carvings and decorated with memorabilia and costumes from the old country. A stone archway on the corner of Dequindre and 15 Mile, graced with huge Polish and American flags, welcomes visitors.
The building houses a banquet hall, the American Polish Cultural Society, which started in 1985 and has about 800 members, and the Polish American Sports Hall of Fame. Two walls next to the dance floor are lined with display cases holding memorabilia of athletes of Polish descent, including Mark Fidrych and Alan Trammell of the Detroit Tigers.
Wojciechowski came to the Detroit area from Poland in 1996. It was a big leap for a young woman.
“Before I moved here, I used to live with my parents, so I really didn’t know what does it mean to be on my own,” she said. “It was like jumping into a deep ocean.”
Wojciechowski says she has seen the Polish community migrate from its traditional center in Hamtramck since she arrived in 1996. Across the street from the center a thriving Polish market anchors a shopping plaza. There is a Polish pharmacy and medical center nearby.
“It’s definitely like a new Polish community up here,” she says.
Comfort food for immigrants
The move to a new country and culture is not easy.
Life in America was lonely at first for Kamilia Dous, who came here from Egypt in 1985 when she married Malek Maatouk, a Lebanese immigrant who opened Mid-East Pastry Delight bakery, across Dequindre at 15 Mile from the American Polish Cultural Center.
All of her family was in Egypt. “In our country, we are used to live together — the mom and dad, the kids, the aunts, the uncles, the cousins ,” she said. “And when I came here I was by myself. It was hard, very hard. But after a while, I got used to it … and now when I go to Egypt to visit, I feel just for a month or two, and then I want to come back here. My life is here now.”
The rich smell of butter and syrup wafts out the door as a steady stream of customers comes in to her bakery to buy the Lebanese-style baklava and other assorted pastries, which are made with ghee, a clarified butter, flaky phyllo dough, different syrups, some of them flavored with rosewater, and pistachios or walnuts.
“Every Arab house, or Egyptian or Lebanese house, usually around 5, we have the sweets with tea or coffee. Almost every house over there, every day,” said Dous.
And, she says, her most loyal customers are Indian. Some have even suggested she open a store in India.
Kulwinder Kaur of Phulkari Punjabi Kitchen, four miles south on Dequindre, says she regularly shops at the Mid-East Pastry Delight. “We Indians love our sweets,” she said, noting there are similarities between Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine, such as the use of ghee and the fact that the pastries are not overly sweet.
Malek Maatouk passed away three years ago and Kamilia Dous now runs the shop. Besides in-store sales, the bakery does a brisk mail order business, especially around the holidays. Son George Maatouk manages a second store in Orchard Lake.
Korean restaurateur started with 3 jobs, little sleep
Next door to Mid-East Pastry Delight in the strip mall on the west side of Dequindre and 15 Mile sits Chung Ki Wa, a Korean restaurant.
Owner Joe Yoon, who came to the U.S. in 1983, recalls his early days in Virginia as filled with hard work, low pay and little sleep. “The first time it’s hard,” he said. “I have three jobs. The first one dishwashing, the second as a cashier, and restaurant work. It’s very, very hard. I sleep first time four hours, first week. The second, a little bit better.”
Yoon eventually moved to the Detroit area and opened his first restaurant, Mene Sushi, in West Bloomfield 17 years ago.
The Koreans are not fans of sweets, and the restaurant serves only fresh fruit and ice cream for desserts.
They prefer their food spicy.
The restaurant is best known for its Korean barbecue — bulgogi (marinated beef) or other meats cooked on a tabletop grill. Like many other Korean restaurants, Chung Ki Wa also serves sushi. The Koreans and the Japanese share a taste for raw fish, according to proprietor Joe Yoon.
Another favorite is bibimbap, a dish of rice, vegetables and beef.
“Basically we cook the five kinds of vegetable, the carrot and the spinach and the bean sprout, the radish … zucchini, the kind of squash,” said Daniel Yoon, who cooks in the restaurant. “And then we boil it with salt and red pepper. And after that we put the rice on the hot stone bowl, and we put the five vegetable on top of the rice. We make bulgogi beef on the top of vegetable. “
It’s all topped off with a raw egg yolk and hot sauce to taste. The stone bowl heats the cooked rice, making a tasty crust. The diner mixes everything together in the bowl, cooking the egg and heating the vegetables. It’s served with an array of pickled vegetables, which are also served with the barbecue and other dishes. The assortment varies, but always includes kimchee — Napa cabbage marinated in spicy pepper and garlic for at least five days.
“Kimchee, the smell is terrible, “ Joe Yoon says with a laugh. “But if you start it … Koreans everyday eat it.”
Learning the secrets of Vietnamese cooking
Hien Le and her husband Quyet Phan named their restaurant just south of 13 Mile Pho Tai to bring them luck. Pho is a traditional Vietnamese beef broth with noodles and fresh vegetables. Tai means luck.
They say their luck has improved since they moved their business to Dequindre and joined the flourishing Asian community in Madison Heights.
It also helped that they returned to their Vietnamese roots and the cuisine they grew up with.
They were both born shortly after the Vietnam War ended. Quyet Phan, whose father served the U.S. Army during the war, immigrated in 1997, landing in Seattle. He married Hien Le in 2004. The couple arrived in Detroit shortly thereafter and looked for a business to open.
They bought a Chinese restaurant in Clinton Township, but it was not a success. “Because you know they have a different taste and we have a different taste, “ said Hien Le.
She returned to her native country to learn the secrets of Vietnamese cooking.
Le approached a popular restaurant. “And then we pay money, and they just teach us how to cook,” she said.
“I think the pho is exactly the taste from back to my country. It’s nothing different. So if you come back to Vietnam, the pho here and the pho in Vietnam just the same. “
The basis for pho is beef bone, simmered in water for 14 or 15 hours to infuse the broth with the flavor of the marrow. Then more meat and spices are added.
Once the broth is cooked it is clarified, and different cuts of beef — sometimes cooked, sometimes thinly sliced and raw, are placed in large individual bowls, along with fresh thin rice noodles, sliced raw onions and cilantro. The hot clear broth is poured into the bowl, cooking the beef and onions and softening the noodles. It’s a meal in itself, usually served with a side plate of fresh basil, bean sprouts, slices of fresh jalapeno and wedges of lime that the diner adds to taste.
“Because the broth is a little sweet, that’s why we squeeze a piece of lime in so make a little sour — a little sweet and a little sour,” said Le.
Cross-cultural mixing on Dequindre
The immigrants who live and work around Dequindre do their best to find their feet and fit into their new country.
Hien Le and Quyet Phan have three children, one in high school and two in elementary school. Their eldest daughter was born in Vietnam, but her younger brother and sister were born in the U.S.
“I think the first one, she still understands Vietnamese, but the second one and the third one, they forget all about the Vietnamese language, so at home, they also speak English with us,” Le said, adding with a laugh that her kids are “so Americanized already.”
Margaret Wojciechowski of the American Polish Cultural Center says that recent immigrants like herself try to assimilate quickly to life in America, while those whose Polish ancestry goes back generations try to find more of their history and roots at the center. “They start learning (the) language, even though their parents even didn’t speak Polish. I was always amazed with that.”
There is a fair amount of cross-cultural mixing on Dequindre.
Kamilia Dous of Mid-East Pastry Delight gets her nails done at a Korean salon on 14 Mile and Dequindre. “Over there I meet a lot of different nationalities. … Arab, Chaldean, Korean, American. And we all talk to each other, we know each other. It’s like a gathering place for everybody,” she said.
Up and down the street, there is one common ingredient.
“Nothing brings people closer together than food,” said Sam Sater of International Foods. “It’s always like, ‘Can I meet you for a cup of coffee?’ ‘Let’s do lunch,’ or ‘Can we do dinner?’ So it’s always food that we gather ourselves around.”