Thursday, March 24, 2016

Om Cafe

Om Cafe
23136 Woodward Ave, Ferndale, MI 48220
Vegetarian (Vegan Friendly)
QISA (4, 4, 3.5, 3.5), $11-14, Vegetarian (Vegan-Friendly)

It was a cold, wet, snowy day when I stumbled into the Om Cafe.

Wow. That last sentence reads like Robert Frost smoking pot with the crew of the Firesign Theater. Kids, go ask your parents. I’ll wait.

Perhaps, I should start again.

The Om Cafe is a 31-year old family affair, started way back in 1985 by a Colleen Smiley. The restaurant’s Website describes Colleen as a woman who was “waging a war of vegetables against meat, antibiotics, growth hormones and processed food.” Passed on to her eldest son Jason Smiley, and then eventually passed on to Jessica Norwood, a woman, “whose parents had been bringing her to the Om Cafe she she was three years old,” this hippie hideaway is obviously a labor of love.

Any epicurean establishment started as a political movement runs the risk of being a relic, a testament to a by-gone era. I’ve seen this time and time again, typically with old natural food co-ops that never learned to keep up with the Trader Joe’s, Wild Oats, or Whole Foods phenomenon. I’ve seen it with old vegan lunch spots that never learned how to marry flavor with fervor and that simply crank out food that tastes raw, earthy, and unrefined. Frankly, I was surprised to find out the Om Cafe was as old as it was; it felt like a new entrant into the vegetarian food market.

The interior of the small restaurant was decorated with strikingly colorful paintings by SooMee Lee, a local artist with her own expressionistic style. The alt rock music over the loudspeaker made me think of a particularly trippy Pink Floyd album with violins added in, but in a good way. Needless to say, the restaurant was creating its own modernistic style that leaned toward “in your face” but then fell back toward its own aesthetic groove.

I’d even be willing to go out on a limb and guess that back in 1985, there was a lot more paisley and sitar music, and a lot less trippy modern aesthetic groove with violins. But that’s just a guess.

Even the food has its own artistic flair. I ordered the El Mexicano, a big plate of loaded nachos, which was a crazy flavor mix of beans, black olives, kalamata olives, baked tofu wedges, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, avocado, jalapeno slides, and onion. It was a group think of spicy, salty, chunky, crunchy, and meaty, all vying for the attention of your tastebuds. It was as if the color palate on the walls was bleeding into the food. But in a good way.

The meal was also my first experience with kukicha tea, a tea composed of stems, stalks, and twigs, giving it an earthy, toasty, and slight carob flavor. The tea was served with a slice of lemon, which added even more flavors to the taste palate. The fact that I got free refills didn’t hurt either.

The menu is not very large, but I have to give them points for originality. The loaded vegan mac, for example, adds kale and tofu to the noodles and mac sauce and tops the entire dish with crushed peanuts, cilantro, and lime. It’s macaroni and cheese meets pad thai. The General Tso Dinner is a mix of sauteed broccoli, cremini mushrooms, diced organic tofu, organic brown rice, and black sesame seeds, all covered with their house made sauce of ginger, tamari, and sesame oil. And bottles of tamari and sriracha join the salt and pepper as standard table condiments.

My only complaint was that at times, the restaurant felt a little too much like an art gallery. The waiter, for example, seemed a bit stand-offish and perfunctory in his duties until I asked him questions about the tea. Only then did he engage me in more than the basic level of human interaction.

Maybe this is what happens with any local family restaurant when one’s clientele becomes so local that the restaurant forgets to reach out to the strangers, the travelers, the new vegetarians, or the casual explorers. If so, this just won’t do. Not if they expect to last another 31 years.

Of course by then, a whole new generation will be in charge of the restaurant, and the style will shift again to match the times. The artwork will be neo-socialist retro steampunk and the menu will be inspired by farm-to-table pan-African-fusion cuisine.

I don’t know. Don’t ask me. I’m sure I will need my grandkids to explain it all to me over a shared plate of loaded nachos.

PJ's Lager House

PJ's Lager House
1254 Michigan Avenue, Detroit, MI 48226
QISA (4, 3.5, 3.5, 3.5), $8-10, Vegetarian-Friendly

Sure, we've all heard about Detroit’s dire economic forecast. Stories of high unemployment rates and soaring city debt have created an image of a post-apocalyptic urban sprawl ruled by gangs, mutants, and rodents of unusual size. Whenever I travel there for business, I expect to climb over rubble, leaking pipes, rotting corpses, and a doleful Eminem sobbing into his hands on my way to meet with pulmonologists still trying to improve the lives of patients suffering from pulmonary hypertension.

The reality, of course, is nowhere near this extreme. A drive through the city reveals trees even in the most urban settings, music in the downtown area, and a vibrant restaurant culture. In fact, according to the New York Times, Detroit is in recovery, drawing in developers and entrepreneurs.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that buried in a desolate part of the city, overlooking the intersection of I-75 and Highway 10 near the MGM Grand Detroit, is a friendly little bar with an even friendlier menu. I speak, of course, of PJ’s Lager House.

The building dates back to 1914 when it was a neighborhood bakery and restaurant. Masquerading as a furniture store during prohibition (“I’d like to buy a chaise lounge and a shot of Templeton rye, please”), it re-emerged as a beer garden as soon as Prohibition was repealed. And then it changed, and changed again, and changed again. The current incarnation still looks a bit antique, but the menu is anything but.

I ordered the tofu banh mi, a delicious sandwich of marinated and deep fried tofu triangles, served with lettuce, cucumber/carrot/jalapeno slaw, a homemade peanut sauce, and chopped red peppers, all served on a crusty bolillo bun (basically a Mexican version of French bread). Complementing this were the best sweet potato fries I’ve had in a long, long, long time. They were medium thick cut and fried to a crispy perfection. And of course filled with healthy vitamin A and beta carotene. I cleaned my plate because I needed my vitamins.

Beers ranged from standard boring watery macrobrews to very intriguing bottled and draft microbrews. I opted for an incredibly good porter whose name escapes me (I am kicking myself for not scratching it onto my hand) followed by a glass of Brooklyn Lager on tap.

The bartender was a very friendly sort and seemed to recognize everyone who entered, including and especially the family with the young child. He had a constant smile and patter with the young hipsters and aging hippies decorating the joint. It was definitely a non-traditional neighborhood bar in a non-traditional neighborhood.

I had the good fortune of visiting on a quiet night when the bands were not playing. After a long day at work, I wanted to take in the food and beer at my own pace and let the day’s grind wash away. Still, had I come on one of the more musical nights, I would have gladly paid the cover to hear the Corn Potato String Band (an old timey American string ensemble) or maybe Sleepy Kitty (a two piece indie rock band) or perhaps the Smoking Flowers (a Nashville country rock duo) or even Jason and the Punknecks ("Punk makes nice with Country").

I just don’t think I would have walked home by myself late at night. Come on. This is Detroit, after all.