Driving west down Vernor Highway, you may find yourself slowing down at the Clark Street intersection – eager to admire the towering, brightly-colored mural plastering the east wall of the former Vernor Coney Island. While a window-hoisted neon sign still buzzes the name of the now-extinct business, the present occupant requires no such markation.
Since 2017, Flowers of Vietnam has held residency at a nondescript southwest Detroit address. The brainchild of Chef George Azar – who you may recognize as Anthony Bourdain’s personal guide to the city – it is perhaps the area’s most creative response to Detroit’s culinary revolution.
Flowers does Vietnamese food differently. Pho and banh mi are nowhere to be found on a menu that instead offers up a whole fried fish, shredded papaya salad and shell-on prawns the length of your hand. It’s a pursuit of authenticity combining respect for tradition with a fearless challenge to American diners – a challenge Detroiters have risen to over and over again.
The restaurant is fun. Like, hostess dancing to Earth, Wind & Fire in the dining room, fun. Before a menu even hits the table, it’s apparent that this establishment is all about creating an experience that transcends the meal itself.
Maybe you’re not the dancing type. Let’s see how you feel after trying one of their signature cocktails, blending fresh ingredients and specialty liquors to compliment the unique flavor profile of their dishes. We’re talking about lemongrass-infused tequila, snap-pea infused kase shochu. Or go for the cold sake, served in a topless aluminum can as if you had mistakenly grabbed the corn from your pantry. It’s quirky. But so is Detroit.
The menu defies standard operating procedure. It’s up to the individual to determine the course of their meal, knowing that most dishes will arrive within a few minutes of placing the order. While the whole crispy fish, seared pork belly and shaky beef will entice every sort of carnivore, vegetarian options like the fried mushroom, Japanese eggplant and stir-fried long beans will leave meat-lovers wanting nothing.
And then there are the chicken wings. Caramel chicken wings. If you thought the best came from sports bar kitchens, think again. These will blow. Your. Mind.
Presentation is paramount. With a name like Flowers, you’d expect nothing less. Each dish is garnished with complete intention and attention to detail – shocking considering the speed at which the dishes fly out of their open kitchen. In no realm is this more apparent than the desserts. The cheesecake is not like your grandmother’s. Think along the lines of a dense angel food cake that sneakily borrowed the top of a crème brulee. It’s cut into a perfect brick and laid beside a scoop of coconut ice cream, then floated atop a perfectly tart passionfruit curd and drizzled with honey — a perfect marriage of exquisite texture and explosive flavor.
Certainly, we are not the first to celebrate the magic happening at this former coney. After all, the restaurant was named one of America’s Top 50 Restaurants in 2018 by Bon Appetite and listed among GQ’s Best New Restaurants of 2017. But with a few more years under its belt, Flowers of Vietnam continues to awe diners who seek out the best Detroit has to offer. And they won’t be slowing down any time soon.