Up North Dining

Worldly, spicy, hard to find

Northwest Michigan’s culinary scene is increasingly global — but you have to know how to find it.

By Patty LaNoue Stearns, Photo by Brian Confer

Not too long ago, about the only type of authentic ethnic food available Up North outside of a Cornish or Finnish pasty might have been a taco, tamale, chow mein or chop suey, or maybe pizza and spaghetti. All that has changed.

But unlike Michigan’s larger metropolises like Detroit, where Thai, Greek, Polish, Indian, Korean or Middle Eastern restaurants are easily accessible and part of the gastronomic fabric, it takes a bit of hunting to find the real stuff Up North.

Take The Fusion in Frankfort. This serene, contemporary restaurant sits on the Betsie River along Main Street, and thanks to the husband-wife team of Va and Bobbiesee Ku, delivers a rainbow of bright, exotic pan-Asian flavors – from Tom Ka soup to hot Indian and Thai curries to Mongolian lettuce wraps – artfully presented on small plates or in large bowls. Fusion also boasts Michigan’s largest selection of sake.

Another fusion of sorts is Opa! Coney and Grill, a sit-down eatery in Traverse City’s Cherryland Mall that features divine Greek specialties like spanakopita, souvlaki and lamb shanks along with Polish delights such as kielbasa, pierogi (potato-cheese dumplings) with sweet red cabbage and sour cream, and stuffed cabbage. Gyros and Detroit and Flint-style coney dogs round out this surprisingly inexpensive menu from Macedonia-born chef-owner Paul Barbas and his Polish wife, Brigette.

Two more authentic Polish venues are not to be missed: Cross Village’s rambling stone-and-rough-hewn-log Legs Inn, built in the 1920s by Stanley Smolak, whose nephew George, wife Kathy and sons Mark and Christopher keep the home fires burning in this quirky, picturesque spot on Lake Michigan.

The Polish Kitchen, which opened in March on M119 near the Harbor Springs airport, features a huge assortment of traditional dishes from the Bebenek family, which moved to the area from Poland a decade ago. Another out-of-the-way eatery, Hunan Chinese restaurant (no website, 1425 South Airport Rd. W., Traverse City, 231-947-1388), is situated behind a Taco Bell in a strip mall, where owner David Lin offers a typical Chinese buffet, but the best cuisine is on the long, elaborate menu, made fresh, and can be ordered steamed instead of fried. Lin also dons a special jacket as he prepares some of the best sushi in the north. In Petoskey, Thai Orchid Cuisine (no website, 433 E. Mitchell St., Petoskey, 231-487-9900) is the spiciest food in town, often packed with patrons and always with beautifully presented Thai specialties —  satays, soups, cucumber salad, pad se’ ewe – prepared by owner Thomas Vangyi.

Vasquez’ Hacienda, the area’s first Mexican restaurant, sits smack in the middle of an agricultural area, across from Farmer White’s, south of Elk Rapids on U.S.31N. Owners Alberto and Elaine Vasquez opened this popular restaurant in 1974, make their own sauces and keep adding more Mexican specialties like handmade tamales, polo funditas and machaca beef.

In Petoskey, Maria and Jose Lopez opened Jose’s Authentic Mexican restaurant (309 Petoskey St., 231-348-3299) a few years back and the ultra-fresh items like guacamole and zesty burritos with chorizo, steak, pork and chicken are huge hits.

How about Middle Eastern, that wonderful lemony, tangy, spicy stuff – hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, chicken and lamb shawarma — that is everywhere in the Detroit area but was hard to find until only a few years ago in the north? Until this season, it wasn’t a main street entity, but now, thanks to native Jordanian Nabiel Musleh, Zakey’s Middle Eastern restaurant is on Front Street, his second location. His first, next to a Shell Station, at 2101 3 Mile Road N. in Traverse City (231-946-4533),  was not exactly on the way into town, but the loyal and growing following made the second eatery at 149 E. Front Street a happy reality.

To that end, about 25 percent of Nader Saco’s menu at Whitetails Steak & Ale in Kalkaska is authentic Middle Eastern (510 N. Cedar, 231-258-6800). Its sister location, Arizona Steakhouse in Williamsburg, is currently closed but when it reopens, you’ll find about half the menu devoted to the cuisine.

Finally, there’s fabulous French – the real stuff – at Guillaume Hazael-Massieux’s La Becasse in Burdickville near Glen Arbor, where the former Amway Grand executive chef creates memorable dishes like cassoulet and skirt steaks with pommes frites in a cozy Provencal-style bistro. In Traverse City, Eric Fritch just added another large dining room and dinner service to his popular breakfast and lunch spot, Patisserie Amie. Fritch trained in France and delivers wonderful pastries, soups, sandwiches such as Le Croque Monsieur and baquettes lavished with shrimp and garlicky aioli.

The latest French offering is the tiny micro-café called Frenchies Famous, 619 Randolph, 231- 944-1228, owned by Seattle transplant French Clements. Harbor Springs is home to Cornichons and Cornichons Two, the Euro/French-themed sit-down gourmet carryout restaurant.

Bon appetit!

This appeared July 13, 2010, in Northwest Michigan’s Second Wave.