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to buy a chaise lounge and a shot of Templeton rye, please”), it re-emerged as a beer garden as soon as Prohibition was repealed.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.