Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

The on-loan property on which they’ve been urban farming has been sold to a developer who will, literally, put down a parking lot. So, now what? I spoke recently with Padraic Ingle, director of Grow Saginaw about his next move. Read more here.

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Inaugural food truck meetup in Royal Oak brings out thousands; organizers say expect more like them this spring and summer

By John Q. Horn

Want to draw a massive crowd? Park two or three food trucks near one another and wait a minute.

That appeared to be the formula Feb. 8 at the Royal Oak Farmers Market, where Detroit’s food truck elite held court, cranking out their delicious wares, all while supporting local charities.

And if you needed an indicator that speaks to the enormity of the food truck craze, look no further than the gleam in the eyes of the estimated 3,000 who showed up to chow down. That turnout towered over expectations, so much so, that organizers have indicated that you’ll definitely be seeing more food truck throwdowns in metro Detroit.

The event is called Street Eats Wednesday, where some of the biggest food truck names in the area parked inside of the market and got busy. The Feb. 8 event was the inaugural Street Eats Wednesday and was put together by the Michigan Mobile Food Vendors Association.

The hype really began earlier in the day, as links to the event started showing up on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. It generated such a heady buzz, that lengthy lines eventually snaked everywhere inside of the market. Half of the market’s interior space was closed off but the event arguably could have used all of the facility’s 20,000 square feet.

There, food truck all-stars like El Guapo Fresh Mexican Grill, Jacques’ Tacos, Franks Anatra, Ned’s Travelburger, Taco Mama, Concrete Cuisine, Chow Catering and Treat Dreams occupied indoor space among some seating and live music by the Reefermen.

Concrete Cuisine’s truck was stationed outside at the West entrance, because it was too big to get through the doors. We knocked out a couple of their deep-fried pickles. And apparently, we weren’t alone. Being relegated to the outside had no impact on Concrete Cuisine. They sold out of food before the event was done. And they weren’t the only ones. Nearly every food truck vendor eventually sold out.

Evidently, you could park a food truck in a landfill and it would still have a line.

It was painfully crowded inside of the market and as the event continued (it ran from 5 p.m.-9 p.m.), it looked like the flow of people coming to the admission-free event wasn’t about to stop.

We chatted with Basil Loizonopolis, owner of Franks Anatra, the cleverly named hot dog (among other things) truck that is also a beautifully restored 1965 VW truck.

That spotless, aqua blue rig looked pretty nice parked next to the Ned’s Travelburger truck, itself a 1946 Spartan Trailer. We don’t know what looked better: all of that chrome or the food.

Loizonopolis barely left his truck all night, as customers lined up for his meatball sandwiches and Italian sausages. His crew never seemed to stop moving.

“It was fun, man,” he said. “We’re feeling the pain today. It got crazier as the night went on. It’s just a great experience. We reminisce about it the next day, like we were at a wedding reception.

“These types of events give everyone really great exposure.”

Carl Patron, owner of Ned’s Travelburger, agreed that the food truck gathering was something special, and it didn’t need to sell a drop of alcohol to do so.

“It was a neat crowd of people,” he said. “Everyone was calm, patient, smiling, having a good time, people waiting in line for a long time were very patient. Even without alcohol, that was the vibe of the event. People were attracted to the idea of different food.”

Oh, and they had their pick of different food. And if by “different,” Patron meant “delicious,” then we agree. Folks thrilled to everything from pulled pork by Chow Catering to braised short ribs tacos at Jacques’ Tacos; or you could walk a few feet, past the Reefermen’s live acoustic set, over to Taco Mama for some Mexican jambalaya or some jalapeno beef sliders. Treat Dreams had a little tent in the middle of the market. El Guapo’s two truck-mounted flat screen TVs showed the Red Wings-Oilers game.

An estimated 3,000 people came through the doors. Tips were donated to an array of charities, including Focus: Hope, Forgotten Harvest, Camp Casey, the Humane Society and others.

Patron said the association will meet next week to follow-up and plan for the future. Street Eats Wednesday was such a success, threw such an enthusiastic vibe and created such a rich memory for those involved, that he says it only makes sense to keep doing it.

“We are going to meet next week and our plans are to create something every Wednesday, around town,” he said. “Perhaps at the Farmers Market, or maybe other venues.”

He said truck owners will tap into their geographic strongholds as a way to possibly determine future venues. Concrete Cuisine has a strong presence in the Novi-Farmington area, so one might occur on that side of town; Jacques Tacos is more dialed in to Ferndale and Royal Oak, Patron said.

And with more Street Eats Wednesdays hopefully on the way, spring and summer just started looking much better.

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Jacques Tacos

Executive chef comes home; operates gourmet taco truck

By John Q. Horn

Hot, delicious tacos are a wonderful thing. Not having to walk any farther than the parking lot of your work place to enjoy one is even better.

Wesley Holton makes such toothsome dreams possible for RDW readers. Holton is the owner, operator and chef behind Jacques Tacos, a gourmet taco truck making the rounds in metro Detroit.

Holton uses unconventional main ingredients (by some taco enthusiasts’ standards) to create vibrant, delicious taco-inspired fare for hungry customers.

“The taco is a good vehicle for anything you wanted to create,” he says. “I take a lot of time with my specials and flavor combinations.”

And that patience and creativity is generating some of the best tacos around, truck or no truck. Who else is going to serve you up some fresh tacos with braised short ribs (prepared en daube-style with bacon, orange zest, fennel and coriander)? Or a lamb taco paired with goat cheese mousse, pickled radish and candied pistachios and grapes?

“Most taco meat is random cuts and chopped up; for me, it’s too dry,” he says. “This meat pulls apart and melts in your mouth.”

And for first-time visitors who come to the truck expecting greasy ground beef in a corn shell with some cheap, dry, shredded cheese?

“Just try it,” he says. “Just get one. I’ve had people come up who are leery, get just one, sit in their car and eat it, and then come back and get another.”

Holton’s resume is no joke. A Schoolcraft graduate, he has worked high-end kitchens in New York City, Palm Beach, Fla., and most recently, as executive chef at the Wynn in Las Vegas. He is also Michelin-rated (a rating system recognizing elite chefs worldwide).

An executive chef moving here to operate a taco truck? That sounds a little like Dale Earnhardt Jr. moving to downtown Detroit to become a cabbie. What gives?

“Family,” he says. “I got sick of moving from place to place; seeing nieces and nephews grow up and you’re not a part of the family anymore; talking to all of them on the phone on Christmas while you’re working.”

Via Facebook, Twitter and word of mouth, popularity began to spread, after the mid-summer 2010 launch. Business has remained steady, that is, until the snow started flying.

“In the summer, obviously, more people are out,” Holton says. “I’m optimistic. We had a really good start and I’m looking to spring when the weather lets up a little bit.”

Another short-term goal is to expand evening hours. Presently, the Jacques Taco truck is available in afternoons. Holton is hoping to keep bar crowds nice and full after they’re done with a night on the town. Still, his vision remains long-term.

“I’d like to someday open a restaurant somewhere in the Detroit area,” he says. “This was a prelude to that; to get my foot in the door, make a name for myself and hopefully something takes off.”

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Community through sustainability

Royal Oak Community Farm nourishes neighbors

By John Q. Horn

Fresh produce is good for you. Buying it grown in your own city is even better.

The health benefits are obvious. With the region trying to emerge from the economic doom of the last three years, a greater emphasis, in the name of sustainability, has been placed on buying locally. The goal is to spend your money on good produced as geographically close to you as possible.

Royal Oak Forward is providing solutions. The nonprofit, community-minded organization is the positive culprit behind the Royal Oak Community Farm, a tract of land in the city that grows organic vegetables and sells those goods to residents.

The group brokered a deal with the city’s school district to reinvent a lot on 11 Mile into a farm. The property, the former Lincoln Elementary School location just east of Campbell on 11 Mile, now sees rows of earth-grown goodness. There, some 40 different vegetables – with 12 varieties weekly – are organically grown, harvested and sold locally.

On Saturdays during produce season, Royal Oak residents can visit the Farmers Market on 11 Mile and buy any number of items – from basil to zucchini – or whatever is in that week’s harvest schedule. In the truest concept of community farming, these goods are grown, harvested, and transported approximately 1 mile away from the point of purchase.

“It benefits the community,” said David Baldwin, Royal Oak Forward executive director. “It benefits the people so they can buy locally and consume locally grown, organic produce. The only way you can get fresher is if you grow it in your own back yard.”

In 2009, the Royal Oak School District approved a deal that would rent the school property – the building was demolished in 2004 — to Royal Oak Forward on a zero-dollar lease. The arrangement is simple: The farm is welcome to operate, but the school district plans on selling the land. If it does, the farm has to relocate.

The farm sustains itself financially by selling shares to neighbors. Baldwin says a full share is good for an entire growing season and costs $615. That fee provides enough fresh produce for a family of four. A half-share costs $335 and feeds a family of two for the season. Shares for 2010 sold out long ago. A waiting list exists for 2011.

You can help

Still, community support of the farm’s stand at the market – located outside of the south entrance at 11 Mile and Troy – could make the difference between survival and drying up.

“The school district has made their goal clear. They are looking to sell the land,” Baldwin said. “We want to see a permanent farm in Royal Oak, be it at that location or elsewhere. We have not reached our sales goal at the Farmers Market.”

Those interested in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) can buy produce in person on Saturdays at the Royal Oak Farmers Market or at Eastern Market in Detroit. Baldwin noted that some Royal Oak restaurants use the Royal Oak Farm-grown produce in their menu offerings. Those businesses include Inn Season, Café Muse, Lily’s Seafood and Zumba.

“We want to enhance our relationships with local markets,” Baldwin said. “We are looking at working with more markets.”

The farm can remain operational, especially if shoppers spend their money at the booth. It’s not like Baldwin is trying to set people up in a Ponzi scheme. He wants to sell to you fresh radishes grown a mile or two from your front door.

“We told everyone that if we make a profit it goes back to education,” Baldwin said. “If we profit, it goes back to the school district.” Presently, he added, the venture is operating at a break-even point. Sliding into the red could threaten the farm’s existence.

As a result of patronage, the farm is able pay one, full-time employee. Trevor Johnson is the property’s organic farmer. Patronizing community farms, Johnson said, is about more than supporting a grass-roots effort. We spoke to him on the phone and he wasted little time, or conviction, getting to his point. The commercial food industry is structured to make money first, he said. And that includes large manufacturing plants, tons of waste, and a lot of fuel spent on semi-trucks.

“When a person buys from us, they are not supporting external costs. We’re not leaking nitrogen into the water from one of our plants,” Johnson said. “The small organic grower wants to grow healthy produce to keep people healthy.”

It’s good food that is not bad for you, is grown locally, and is designed to keep your dollar local. So, this type of consumerism is a no-brainer, right?

“It’s a no-brainer to go to McDonald’s, actually,” Johnson said. “I’m sorry, but broccoli does not have the same caloric density as a Big Mac.”

Having an impact

Working full-time on community land to raise organic produce to sell to neighbors is Johnson’s job. He’s down at Eastern Market on Saturday mornings. He’s sweating it out in the sun. He wants the freshest, healthiest food for everyone in metro Detroit. And when he’s not doing all of that, he’s still furthering the goal of stretching the community buck, imploring neighbors to peel back a layer of that philosophy and take a peek.

“When I get paid, I don’t go to Wal-Mart,” he said. “I may go to a local brewery and buy a pint, made here with local ingredients. And my spending helps him …’

That brewer can pay a local wage or take a couple of bucks from his earnings and spend them at a local artist’s shop in downtown Royal Oak. That artist may donate a portion of her income to the animal shelter. That ripple’s breadth and depth is congruent to the size of commitment from the person holding the dollars.

Johnson said the reward can be considerably more significant than just the personal warmth that one can hold, knowing they supported a local business.

“Every purchase has an effect,” Johnson said. “What effect do you want to leave behind? McDonald’s? Or Inn Season?”

The farm’s weekly yield depends on what is at its peak. Baldwin said the forecast changes, based on soil conditions and weather. Still, they try to set out the schedule with roughly a week’s notice. On one week, the offerings may include beans, new potatoes, Swiss chard, basil, and eggplant. The next week might serve up dill, carrots, cilantro, melon, and leeks. The farm’s Web site – www.royaloakcommunityfarm.com — lists the schedule, ways to get involved, and provides general information on CSA.

Published originally at royaloakneighbors.com

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The restaurant bar as charming as its food

By John Horn

It has earned a stellar reputation as a foodie’s paradise, with a menu devoted to upscale yet unpretentious comfort food. But the bar inside of Town Tavern in downtown Royal Oak is as charming and relaxing as the dining experience on the other side of the room.

Centered with a long, marble slate bar and slightly isolated from the rest of the dining room, Town Tavern’s bar is a testimony to proper drinking. However, if you’re looking for multiple taps and draft beer, you’ll notice something different here.

When the Italian restaurant Lepanto closed and Town Tavern opened in its space, owner Bill Roberts said they discovered something unusual.

“There was no draft beer system in there,” he says. “We felt wine was going to be our thing and because we have all bottled beer, it enables us to have a neat assortment of Michigan microbrews.”

Trust us, you’re not going to miss the kegs. Not when you have your pick of nearly 50 domestic, import and Michigan beers. The Michigan microbrew lineup is outstanding, with a strong representation of some of the best breweries in the state.  From Short’s to Michigan Brewing Company to Dragonmead, Founders, Bell’s, Axl, Arbor Brewing Co. and more, your whistle shall remain properly whetted at the Town Tavern.

Settle in for a cold Keewanaw Widow Maker Black Ale from the Upper Peninsula or maybe a Dark Horse Amber Ale from the fine folks over in Marshall, Mich. You win, and you support state business as well.

“We have a good dozen or so by the bottle,” Roberts says. “That’s an area that is growing, in the city and in the state. It’s great. It keeps the money local.”

Not in the mood for beer? How about any number of their custom martinis, or perhaps a Tavern Lemonade, made with Effen Black Cherry vodka, cranberry and Rose’s Lime? The single-malt Scotch menu will make you do a quiet flip. That lineup includes everything from Johnnie Walker Blue to MacCallan 12-year to the Glenlivet, both 12- and 21-year.

Town Tavern’s wine list offers more than 50 varieties, and includes everything from fresh, summer-y white wines to rich malbecs and pinot noirs.

A special bar menu also puts some excellent small plates in front of you, including jumbo lump crab cakes, short rib tacos, parmesan truffle fries and Buffalo shrimp, to name a few.

It is a classic, understated bar with a very relaxed crowd amid a couple of well-placed plasma TVs. Some bar patrons are waiting for a table; others are there simply for the rich drinking experience. Either way, you’ll never leave disappointed.

116 W. Fourth Street, Royal Oak



This article previously ran in Real Detroit Weekly Magazine

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