Great Lakes and Better Food: The Best Things to Eat in Michigan

Find out where you can go to sample some of the Great Lake State's quintessential eats.

©Joe Vaughn

Photo By: unknown

Photo By: unknown

Photo By: unknown

What to Eat in the Mitten

The state of Michigan can call dibs on a variety of native foods, including Traverse City-grown cherries, a bounty of crisp apples and a smattering of Great Lakes fish. But the “mitten” — so called for its mitten-like shape — is also known for putting its own twists on familiar food, including Detroit-style pizza, double-baked rye bread and Mackinac Island fudge. All this and more make Michigan a state with specialties worth sampling, from fingertip to wrist, or from the upper peninsula down to the heart of Detroit.

Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs

Detroit-Style Pizza

The Sicilian-style square pizza that is making waves across the nation started in Detroit. In the mid-1940s Buddy’s Pizza started making the pie at their original downtown Detroit location, eventually expanding to locations across the state. The deep-dish pizza dough made daily is double-stretched, resulting in a thick yet airy square, topped with Wisconsin brick cheese and a drizzle of sauce. Although a ton of toppings are available, the classic one is pepperoni that’s tucked underneath the cheese to keep the meaty flavor without any charring.

Photo courtesy of Buddy's Pizza

Go to: Buddy's Pizza

Cherries

Come July, Traverse City, Michigan, turns into all cherries, all the time. This “Cherry Capital of the World” holds a national festival in honor of the fruit every summer with a week full of events celebrating the ruby-red fruit. Over 75 percent of the nation’s tart-cherry crop comes from the state of Michigan. Plenty of you-pick farms surround the area, but for a chance to sample just about anything you could imagine putting cherries in, stop at Cherry Republic, which offers cherry barbecue sauce, cherry coffee, cherry sausage, hot cherry salsa and much more.

Photo courtesy of Pure Michigan

Cider and Doughnuts

Apple cider is a big fall treat for Michiganders, and come fall, it’s often pressed and served right on-site at a cider mill. In the quaint town of Franklin, the seasonal Franklin Cider Mill (open from Labor Day until around Thanksgiving) presses and bottles cider on-site with a viewing window for visitors. The mill turns 120 bushels of apples into cider during each pressing, which makes quite a sight. It wouldn’t be a traditional visit without ordering freshly fried cinnamon doughnuts to pair with the cider — and breaking off just a small piece to feed the patiently waiting ducks in the stream.

Photo courtesy of Dane Gussin

Go to: Franklin Cider Mill

Hot Fudge Cream Puff

The history of Sanders Candy and Dessert Shops dates back to 1875, when Fred Sanders opened his first location. He quickly developed a vast following for his thick and gooey milk-chocolate hot fudge. By the 1950s, Sanders was a household name across the state, and their hot fudge cream puff — made with an airy pastry shell with vanilla ice cream and a hearty pour of fudge — had become an iconic dessert. Although today the business is owned by Morley’s Candy Makers, the recipes remain the original ones, and people can still get their fudgy fix at one of the 10 Sanders ice cream and candy shops.

Photo courtesy of Sanders Fine Chocolatiers

Go to: Sanders Candy & Dessert Shops

Pasty

The Cornish created the pasty, but when Cornish immigrant copper miners brought the meat hand pies to Michigan, the dish took on new characteristics. Often found in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.), pasties were later adopted by the Finnish, who claimed them as their own. Regardless of origin, the pasty has become a staple Michigan food for the Yoopers (those who live in the U.P.), who even throw a festival to celebrate it. Some of the best pasties can be found at Lawry's, a family-owned pasty shop that opened in 1946. They still serve the traditional meat variety stuffed with beef, potato, onion and rutabagas, but also offer mini pasties, and garden vegetable versions as well.

Photo courtesy of Lawry's

Go to: Lawry's Pasty Shop

Double-Baked Rye Bread

Double-baked rye bread is to Michigan as bagels are to New York. Often imitated, this version of rye bread is like no other, and was created in the 1950s by Jack Goldberg, the owner of Stage & Co. Deli. The tradition continues to this day at the West Bloomfield location of Stage, owned by his son Steven. The seedless rye bread is baked about 80 percent of the way, and then baked again, resulting in a golden, crunchy crust with a soft yet sturdy center. The rye bread is also cut thicker than standard bread so it can stand up to being piled high with corned beef and other deli meats. The bread became so popular that other delis started to adopt Stage’s ways, and now you’d be hard-pressed to find a good Michigan deli that doesn’t follow the late Mr. Goldberg’s technique for baking rye bread.

Photo courtesy of Stage Deli

Go to: Stage Deli

Greek Salad

Detroit’s Greek immigrant population is large, so it’s no surprise that Greek diners — often referred to as Coney Islands — are abundant throughout the state. They once served primarily hot dogs, chili and fries, but they grew their menus, eventually spawning another Michigan classic: the Greek salad. Different from the no-lettuce version you’d find in Greece, the Michigan favorite tops freshly chopped lettuce with crumbled feta and beets (both major distinctions in the Detroit version), peperoncini, cucumbers, garbanzo beans, olives and tomatoes. Michiganders create their own variations adding grilled onions, gyro meat or grilled chicken on top. Each Coney Island takes its own stab at a Greek dressing. Leo’s is an oil-and-red-wine-vinegar-based topper with Greek spices; some varieties lean more toward the creamy side.

Photo courtesy of Alan Klein

Go to: Leo's Coney Island

Paczki

This Polish doughnut is popularly known as the sweet treat of Fat Tuesday, but in Hamtramck, a largely Polish town outside Detroit, the devotion to paczki — pronounced “punch-key” — is taken to a new level. Lines form out the door from the wee hours for these decadent doughnuts traditionally stuffed with rose hip or stewed plum jam. Some of the well-known paczki bakeries, like the New Palace Bakery, have introduced their own variations, such as Strawberry and Chocolate, filled with strawberry glaze and milk chocolate drizzle, and the Red, White and Blue, with creamy custard, strawberries and blueberries. The town of Hamtramck celebrates Fat Tuesday with a big paczki parade, as well.

Photo courtesy of River Myers/Thrillist

Go to: New Palace Bakery

Boston Cooler

A Boston cooler actually has nothing to do with the city of Boston, and everything to do with the city of Detroit. Vernor’s — the delicious ginger ale born and bred in Michigan — is mixed with vanilla ice cream to create the ultimate float. The cooler gets its Boston name from Detroit’s Boston Edison district. The smooth, fully blended float is the perfect balance of gingery spice and creamy vanilla for a summertime treat best enjoyed from a classic seasonal walk-up ice cream window like the 20-year-old Dairy Mat in Bloomfield Hills. 

Photo courtesy of Alan Klein

Go to: Dairy Mat

Sliders

Sliders may be wildly popular across the country, but there is something different about a traditional slider found in the mitten. A favorite among the late-night crowd, these thin patties made from freshly ground beef are pressed extra-thin to soak up some of that grill grease. They’re then tossed with chopped mini onions and served on a lightly toasted bun (mustard and ketchup optional). The classic spots haven’t changed their way of doing things in eons, and still maintain the greasy-spoon ideal with stainless steel counters, swivel bar chairs and a white-tile exterior. A favorite among locals is family-owned Greene’s Hamburgers in Farmington Hills.

Photo courtesy of Greene's

Go to: Greene's Hamburgers

Chipati

People outside Ann Arbor (where the University of Michigan is located) may not embrace the Chipati with the same enthusiasm as locals, but this simple salad – lettuce, mushrooms, cheese, peppers stuffed in a thick, oversized freshly baked and still-warm pita — has a cult following. The secret is in the sauce, which is served both as a dressing and as a dip for the bread. A bright orange, zingy, creamy concoction, the sauce is rumored to be a combination of hot sauce, ketchup and ranch dressing, but nobody has confirmed it. The stuffed salad was introduced in the 1970s at Pizza Bob’s and became an instant hit with the to-go crowd. The opening of Pizza House in the mid-1980s allowed people to dine in and get their Chipati fix.

Photo courtesy of Pizza House

Go to: Pizza Bob's

Detroit Street Brick

The do-it-all Zingerman’s — with an award-winning deli, roaster, bake house, restaurant, candy shop and creamery — is a bastion of Michigan flavor. One of the most-impressive elements of this Ann Arbor mainstay is the cheese selection, featuring many variations made at the creamery. The Detroit Street Brick, which is named for the brick street in front of Zingerman’s, is a citrus-tinged, earthy aged goat’s milk cheese made with flecks of green peppercorns. It’s a fan favorite and a three-time American Cheese Society winner. 

Photo courtesy of Zingerman's

Go to: Zingerman's

Cudighi

A sandwich that originated in Northern Italy, the cudighi quickly became a staple in the Marquette area when Italians immigrated to the Upper Peninsula, bringing their appetites with them. Found in many sub, pizza or pasty shops around the region, the sandwich showcases homemade spicy Italian sausage — often seasoned with hints of clove and cinnamon, as you'll find at Vango's — with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese on a hard roll.

Photo courtesy of Travel Marquette

Go to: Vango's

Bell’s Oberon

Bell's Brewery was started by a college student with a knack for making beer and a 15-gallon soup kettle-turned-brewing vehicle. Now going strong for three decades, the independently-owned brewery produces some of the best beer around. After graduating from Kalamazoo College, Larry Bell stuck around and made the town his home base, not only producing beers there but also opening a general store and a small pub that taps several beers exclusive to that locale. Perhaps best known is the summer wheat ale, Bell’s Oberon, a seasonal favorite with aromas of citrus and a smooth taste. The Cherry Stout beer pulls in Montmorency cherries from Traverse City to add tang to the dark and chocolate-noted malt. 

Photo courtesy of Bell's Brewery

Go to: Bell's Brewery

Mackinac Island Fudge

A trip to old-timey, car-free Mackinac Island isn’t complete without getting a slab of its famous namesake fudge. Walking around, it’s nearly impossible to resist the wafting smells of fresh chocolate as the fudge is assembled on marble tables for all to see. Fudge shops abound on the island, but Murdick’s has the longest history, dating back to the 1800s, when it opened its first candy shop. Now the shop boasts about two dozen flavors, including the original chocolate, the Traverse City Black Cherry and the Michigan Maple Walnut, all available to ship nationwide. 

Photo courtesy of Murdick's Fudge

Go to: Murdick's Fudge

Coney Dog

Trying a Coney dog — a hot dog slathered with chili, drizzled with mustard and sprinkled with onions — is pretty much a must for anyone visiting the Detroit area. Although the selection is abundant across the southeastern part of the state, the true original Coney dogs can be found at two next-door-neighbor hot dog locales: Lafayette and American Coney Island. Try them at both and join the which-is-better debate that native Detroiters have waged for generations.

Photo courtesy of Josh Kallio

Go to: American Coney Island

Chocolate Chunk Cookies

The identity of Tom’s mom is a secret, but the fact that her cookies are a Michigan must-have isn’t. The chocolate chunk cookies, sold in Harbor Springs and shipped nationwide, are made with chocolate chunks cut from 10-pound bars of chocolate and mixed by hand into a secret batter. The cookies are soft and chewy, with the perfect chocolate-to-cookie ratio, making them taste just like Mom’s cookies should.

Photo courtesy of Tom's Mom's Cookies

Go to: Tom's Mom's Cookies

Almond Boneless Chicken (Warr Shu Gai)

Americanized Chinese food may not be traditional Asian fare, but one dish in particular has become a traditional Michigan Chinese-food dish. Almond Boneless Chicken (Warr Shu Gai) — called ABC by native Michiganders — is a dish of deep-fried, crispy boneless chicken topped with a thick, dark brown mushroom gravy, with crushed almonds and scallions on a bed of iceberg lettuce. Although it’s unclear where exactly the dish originated, it has been a staple on most Chinese food menus in southeastern Michigan for decades. A stellar place to grab the dish is Hong Hua. A relative newcomer, the restaurant serves both Americanized dishes and many authentic Chinese dishes tough to find elsewhere.

Photo courtesy of Alan Klein

Go to: Hong Hua

Blueberries

Northern Michigan has its cherries, but the western coast of the state, on the shores of Lake Michigan, is all about the blueberries. At DeGrandChamp’s, blueberries are grown for a large selection of grocery stores, but visitors can come to the U-pick farm in South Haven during July to pluck the sweet, plump fruit straight from the bushes. There is a small farm market on-site open daily for jams and salsas, frozen berries and other local fare.

Photo courtesy of DeGrandChamp's

Whitefish

Surrounded by the Great Lakes, Michigan has an abundance of delicious fish. Whitefish is a regional favorite, often found in Lake Charlevoix, a charming semi-seasonal town in the northern part of the state, where many Michigan residents spend the summer. The freshly caught whitefish can be served fish-and-chips-style, pan-roasted or even made into dip. But the best way to enjoy the fish is probably smoked. John Cross Fish Market smokes the fish whole in-house and sells chunks of whitefish to flake off and eat or to spread with butter on a bagel.

Photo courtesy of John Cross Fish Market

Go to: John Cross Fish Market

Zip Sauce

Filet mignon is a delicious cut of steak on its own, but the owners of Lelli’s, a classic Italian chophouse that opened in the 1930s, took it to a whole new level by adding their own special topping: Zip Sauce. Said to be a combination of butter, Worcestershire sauce and a variety of seasonings, this topping makes the steak extra juicy and goes particularly well with mashed potatoes to soak up any remaining drops. It became such a hit that other Detroit Italian chophouses have adopted the sauce as well.

Photo courtesy of Alan Klein

Go to: Lelli's

Frankenmuth Chicken Dinner

The cute little Bavarian town of Frankenmuth is best known for two things: Christmas and chicken dinners. Frankenmuth is home to Bronner’s, the world’s largest Christmas store, as well as two old-fashioned restaurants that serve heaping chicken dinners that date back to the mid-19th century. At Zehnder’s, which opened in its current location in 1856, the all-you-can-eat meal starts with homemade noodle soup, followed by an appetizer plate with fresh-baked breads, homemade cranberry relish and Zehnder’s cheese spread with garlic toast, among other delights. The main plate is heaped with fried chicken, gravy, buttered egg noodles, vegetables and mashed potatoes, leaving little room for the ice cream finish.

Photo courtesy of Zehnder's

Go to: Zehnder’s

Faygo Pop

In Michigan it’s never soda; it’s pop. In fact, there is a pop brand like no other that started in Detroit, and it’s called Faygo. It all began when Ben and Perry Feigenson, Russian bakers, decided to take their frosting flavors and translate them to soft drinks. The result was a sugary success, with never-before-seen flavors such as Red Pop (a strawberry soda), Rock & Rye (a cream soda variety) and Candy Apple. Today the brand offers all sorts of varieties, and a ton of nostalgia for those who grew up on the carbonated beverage with the funky flavors. 

Photo courtesy of Faygo Beverages Inc.

Dinty Moore

It’s no surprise that Detroit has a deli sandwich that began here, given the city’s history with rye bread and its bragging rights as home to many of the great corned-beef makers. This oversized triple-decker sandwich is piled high with corned beef, slathered with a creamy Russian dressing and topped with crisp shredded lettuce and ripe tomato. At The Bread Basket, they serve a Topor’s pickle on the side — another made-in-Michigan delight. 

Photo courtesy of The Bread Basket

Go to: The Bread Basket

Hummer Cocktail

Detroit’s Bayview Yacht Club is known as a place to sail and to watch regattas, but it’s also known for the creation of a sweet and creamy cocktail called the Hummer. Bartender Jerome Adams, who has helmed the bar for 50 years, created the mix of Kahlua, rum and ice cream on a whim one evening. Legend has it that, two drinks in, a patron remarked that it was so good it made people want to hum, and thus the Hummer was born. Although it has seen various tweaks over the years at bars around the world, it remains Adams’ proud creation and a state favorite.

Photo courtesy of Bayview Yacht Club

Go to: Bayview Yacht Club