Coco Villamar and Drew Jablonski eat at the Detroit Street Filling Station Thursday afternoon. José Brenes/Daily. Buy this photo.

Few restaurants in Ann Arbor have received the love that Detroit Street Filling Station has. Locals know that the spot is worth the hype from its community justice–focused team to its iconic appetizer menu. Detroit Street Filling Station focuses on fresh produce and complex plant-based flavors and is transparent about its ingredients. It may not have non-vegans as enticed, but it has engaged a diverse local community inching toward a more plant-based lifestyle, all while supporting social and environmental causes.

Detroit Street Filling Station is a blend of Americana and earthy, and of local, regional and international. They revamp classic comfort foods on a wholesome, exciting and eclectic plant-based menu.

Tables spill out of the cozy, covered patio onto Kerrytown’s busy sidewalks, and the indoor-outdoor flow feels warm and inviting. A mix of pop, rock and indie hits plays softly from the speakers. Every table overflows with colorful dishes that draw in even the most carnivorous bystanders.

The former home of the Staebler-Kempf Oil Company (a filling station), the building has a funky, industrial feel with colorful walls, community event posters, fun lighting and dozens of potted plants. QR code–scanned menus make it easy to dine with a large group and share dozens of dishes. Detroit Street Filling Station does not have the commercial, stoic feel of other QR-coded restaurants, as the servers check in to chat and consistently fill up a variety of homemade drinks.

The appetizer menu features exciting twists on bar food. We went for the Buffalo cauliflower and chili. The dish celebrated cauliflower with a perfectly crispy tempura batter and a rich, biting Buffalo sauce that I could not believe(!) had no butter. Though cauliflower is not comparable to the unbreaded wings invented decades ago as a late-night bar snack, Detroit Street Filling Station created a new bar food classic with the humble, subtly delicious vegetable. The chunky, meatless chili was warming and savory, brimming with tomatoes, sweet potatoes and beans, served with crunchy tortilla chips. Earthy undertones and small kicks of spice built a warm and comforting bowl to brighten the impending winter. Our appetizers were not lardy or buttery, but they were comfort food nonetheless. We were filling up quickly.

We were hungry again in a few minutes, our eyes larger than our stomachs when the entrées came out. We already ordered at the start of the meal, but formulated a long list of “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve,” orders as our eyes darted to other tables.

Jess Stern prepares a cocktail at the Detroit Street Filling Station Thursday afternoon. José Brenes/Daily. Buy this photo.

We decided on some classic-turned-vegan dishes: Buffalo salad bowl, tofu fried rice and a Southwest salad. The Buffalo tofu curls were the closest I have gotten to a crave-worthy Buffalo wing plate in over a decade of vegetarianism. The soy curls pack an umami flavor and hearty texture that soaks up the Buffalo sauce. Fresh tomatoes, onions and celery, a creamy ranch dressing and salty tortilla chips (a topping that should be on more salads) perfectly offset the spice. With all of its fresh flavors, the salad did not even need the New Yorker’s preferred blue cheese. We saved the pickle for last, a local crisp and sour from Eastern Market pickle purveyors. The locally-focused Detroit Street Filling Station sources other fermented goods from The Brinery in Ann Arbor, including the tempeh and sauerkraut on their standout Reubens.

The fried rice was a perfect takeout-style feast, filled with soy, sesame and the satisfying heartiness of an American Chinese classic (minus the egg and meat). The dish exploded with flavor: sweet and fresh vegetables, crispy rice and tofu “egg” with curry, and fluffy fried tofu. The fried tofu swam in a General Tso’s sauce, a New York restaurant creation combining Chinese ingredients with a sweeter American flavor palette. The sticky-sweet sauce brought brightness and even more comfort to the dish. The Southwest salad’s chipotle ranch elevated the salad to a spicy Tex-Mex level, and the cumin lime rice, fresh pico de gallo and guacamole added refreshing flavor. The Cuban black beans, one of the country’s staple side dishes, were filled with mild herbs and warm spices, showing that a flavorful and protein-heavy meal does not require meat.

Detroit Street Filling Station proves it’s possible to make a classic American feast without butter. To test their quality, we ordered one of the most buttery, easy-to-fail/dry-out tests of American cuisine: cornbread. Cornbread originated in early Native American kitchens, developed into a Southern classic in the kitchens of enslaved people and eventually became a divisive signature dish found in thousands of southern American family recipe books. Detroit Street Filling Station’s cornbread is a limited-edition local favorite, celebrating the classically buttery and rich delicacy with maple butter. The cornbread included fresh corn and shockingly moist batter, making the perfect crumble and shiny crust. It was equally savory and sweet. The plant-based maple butter put a Midwestern spin on the classic and transformed the versatile side dish into a dessert. The cornbread is one of many new classics on the menu.

At Detroit Street Filling Station, diners can take a culinary road trip through diverse American family kitchens without leaving their table or eating animal products. We left the busy restaurant and walked into the cold Midwestern air knowing we would be back next weekend.

Daily Arts Writer Kaya Ginsky can be reached at kginsky@umich.edu