Over the past decade, the city of Detroit has undergone monumental change and development. From the construction of the New Center and Entertainment District to the small business boom in Corktown, there’s no denying that present-day Detroit looks and functions differently than the same city only ten years prior.
Despite the continuous refacing, one neighborhood remains largely untouched. For more than 100 years, Southwest Detroit has housed the city’s most diverse, culturally dense communities. Home to Mexican Town, but also large populations of European and Middle-Eastern immigrants, Southwest proudly boasts the rich heritage of its citizens. It’s the only neighborhood in Detroit where you can find a Mexican menu written in Arabic. Or an Italian menu with a mole sauce.
Southwest is one of the last uncut gems of Detroit. Its main thoroughfare, Vernor Highway, features an assortment of small, yet mighty establishments that will remind you why locally-owned businesses ultimately define the character of a neighborhood. Here are a few spots to check out next time you find yourself cruising down Vernor.
You won’t find anything online suggesting that this family-owned Mexican bakery serves the best coffee in Detroit. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Their self-serve dispensers are filled each morning with fresh, hot coffee and cinnamon. No frills here. Fill your Styrofoam cup to the brim and get a chocolate concha (Mexican sweet bread) to dip. Let the Oreos-in-milk process take full effect and taste what happens to your coffee. Be sure to get there early in the morning, when the quesitos (the house specialty: cream cheese-stuffed, sugar-coated, flakey pastry goodness) are hot out of the oven.
Directly next to Chilango’s, Flamingo Vintage provides style and a creative outlet for the community. Featuring a highly-curated selection of men and women’s vintage clothing, the store specializes in seasonal, statement fashion. But it’s not just about retail. Each first Friday of the month, Flamingo welcomes local musical acts, providing a new, unique alternative to the typical dive bar stage (live-streamed during the COVID-19 pandemic). In the summer, they put on artist markets in the adjacent parking lot, deepening their connection to the creative community they call home.
In a neighborhood with a taqueria on every corner, El Rey stands out for its consistent quality and generous portions. While the tacos are exceptional (10 varieties of meat to choose from), they are best known for their marinated chicken dinner, cooked over a 100% wood charcoal grill and crisped to perfection. The dish is served with a choice of adobo or sweet BBQ sauce, and served with a side of rice, beans, tortillas and salsa. Never let anyone tell you that grilled chicken is boring again.
No late-night venture to Southwest Detroit is complete with a stop at Duly’s Place. While it rarely receives the acclaim of Lafayette and American Coney Island, locals swear it’s the best in town. This year, Duly’s celebrates one hundred years of chili-covered dogs, fries, omelets and hash browns. But it’s business as usual for the lifers behind the counter, who crank out Detroit classics twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
While certainly a deviation from the traditional establishments along Vernor Highway, El Club deserves recognition for its commitment to the local community. During normal times, the space functions as perhaps the city’s most popular small/mid-sized venue, but in the wake of the pandemic, it’s taken on a new role: COVID testing center. Every Friday, from 10 a.m.-3p.m., El Club offers free PCR tests in partnership with the Henry Ford Health System. No appointment, insurance or physician referral is required. Just bring your nose, and look forward to the day we can once again pack a concert.