Ginger Brings Sweet Heat to Detroit Restaurants

By: Aaron Cohen | January 13, 2021

In 1862, James Vernor – a pharmacist with a propensity for crafting homemade remedies – left his native Detroit to serve in the Civil War. He also left behind an oak barrel filled with a mixture of vanilla, spices and ginger. When he returned home four years later, he opened the vessel to discover a unique, aromatic tonic that would come to inspire the palate of his city.

To this day, Vernors remains synonymous with the people and culture of Detroit. Perhaps it is for this reason that its defining ingredient – ginger – plays such a vital role in the city’s culinary cannon. Often associated with cuisine of the far-east, ginger presents itself diversely on menus throughout Metro Detroit. Here are a few ginger-inspired dishes in Detroit that will provide some much-needed sweetness, spice and health (sometimes) in the new year.

Custard and Co.

Make no mistake, the Boston Cooler holds roots right here in the D. The name is not derived from Boston, MA, but rather, Boston Boulevard in the heart of Detroit’s historic Boston Edison district. Created by Fred Sanders – founder of Michigan’s legendary ice cream and hot fudge institution – this simple concoction holds rank amongst coneys, square pizza and other Detroit staples. The secret? Well, really, there isn’t one. The Boston Cooler combines Vernors and vanilla ice cream to create something truly perfect. While purists swear by the vanilla scoop, Woodward Avenue mainstay, Custard and Co., crafts theirs with homemade frozen custard. The result is a softer, creamier, but no less simple variation of the classic.

Drought Juice

Everything about Drought feels authentic, wholesome and uniquely Detroit. In 2011, the James sisters (four of them!) moved back into their childhood home, invested in a state-of-the-art, cold-press juicer and founded a company built on the principle of creating delicious, healthy drinks from high quality ingredients. Today, you can find their products at any of four Metro Detroit storefronts, or at dozens of local restaurants and coffee shops that can’t seem to keep their sleek, thoughtfully designed bottles in stock. With easy online ordering and delivery options, it’s easier than ever to integrate this healthy option into your life.

Unlike other preparations, cold-pressing allows the intensity of raw ginger to shine all on its own. The Green NO. 3, ALG (Apple, Lemon, Ginger), Recovery Water and Immunity Potion pack in tons of the good stuff, and that familiar ginger-induced burn will remind you of the favor you’re doing your body.

Red Hook

The Holidays may be over, but that doesn’t mean you have to wait a whole year to get your gingerbread fix. Red Hook’s Ginger Molasses Cookie provides the sweet-spicy flavor you crave without the human-shaped design, so you can feel like a grown-up while getting coffee with your boss. With locations in Ferndale, Downtown Detroit and Indian Village, ginger nostalgia is right around the corner.

Takoi

Few Detroit restaurants have garnered the sort of acclaim that is now commonplace at Corktown’s Asian-fusion hub, Takoi. Founded as an Ann Arbor food truck in 2014, Katoi (note the spelling) opened on Michigan Avenue in March 2016.  Within less than a year, the restaurant received a multitude of awards including the Detroit Free Press’ Best New Restaurant in 2018 and a nod for the James Beard Best New Restaurant. The hottest restaurant in town – literally – Katoi was subjected to arson and burned to the ground in February, 2017. Undeterred, the rebuild commenced the following day and, six months later, the restaurant reopened as Takoi.

Among countless creative and (be careful) spicy dishes, Tony’s World-Famous Short Ribs, marinated in oyster sauce and cola and grilled over high heat, feature a ginger scallion sauce that reminds our palate of ginger’s versatility and nuance. It’s a perfect sauce on a perfect dish at a restaurant that has triumphed over adversity. Something every Detroiter can get behind.

Two James Spirits

If the description above has your mouth watering, you’re not alone. Takoi is not only absurdly delicious, but – during non-COVID times – completely packed. Inevitably, you’ll find your party waiting for a table at one of Detroit’s most popular dining destinations. Don’t fret. Directly across the street, Two James Spirits offers up some of Detroit’s finest cocktails, made from house-distilled whiskey, vodka, gin and mezcal.

Founded by David Landrum, the space is as stunning as the menu itself, which reads so much like an award-winning restaurant you may forget the consequences of ordering the lot.

The mixologists (“bartender” does not even scratch the surface) are remarkably knowledgeable and will guide you to the perfect cocktail. Not in an intimidating way; they’re having as much fun as you are. Even novice drinkers will consider signing up for a tour of their distillery (Detroit’s first since Prohibition) following an experience that proves – without a doubt – that cocktails are, in fact, cuisine.

The Whiskey Sour is second-to-none, done the old-fashioned way with a perfectly whipped egg white. But if it’s ginger that you seek in Detroit, there’s no better place to order a Moscow Mule. 28 Island Vodka, lime, spicy ginger beer. They could add complexity, but why? When the experts say go simple, you trust it. If vodka isn’t your thing, they’ll be happy to suggest a brown spirit that will pair perfectly with the sweet heat that defines one of Michigan’s go-to cocktails.