Choosing an eatery in Ann Arbor can be a daunting task, with hundreds of restaurants offering a cornucopia of tasty options. Come nightfall and a somewhat depleted cash reserve, the goal may seem that much harder to achieve. Around every corner, however, is an Ann Arbor gem waiting to be eaten.
Every morning, from summer until snowfall, Chef Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers rises early to prepare a cartful of tantalizing and delicious El Salvadoran cuisine so that promptly at 11 a.m., she and her husband Joseph can open for business at the corner of East University and South University. Come lunchtime, students and faculty alike are lined up for a taste of Pilar’s Tamales. For a mere $6.95 or less, Chef Sylvia will serve up a chicken, pork, jalapeno or vegetarian tamale with a generous side serving of hot black beans and organic brown rice. Unless it’s nearing 2 p.m., the closing time of Sylvia’s cart, diners can also have sweet fried plantains melt in their mouths. Combos also come with a cup of sweet hibiscus tea. Tamales from Pilar’s are unique – steamed in a banana leaf instead of the traditional corn husk – adding to their soft, delicate consistency. By far the most authentic and easy on the wallet, Pilar’s Tamale stand is an ideal lunch spot.
Though hot dogs are served, soup is the true attraction for patrons of Le Dog, one of Ann Arbor’s hidden finest. Le Dog has two locations, each roughly the size of a cruise ship bathroom, so lunchtime diners are best advised to seek out the two stands owned by husband and wife; Ika’s is on Main Street and Jules is at a flashy red cart on E. Liberty. The couple boasts a menu of over 80 different kinds of soup, ranging from potato to Tuscan squash with blue cheese or traditional favorites such as chicken noodle. One taste of their dynamic lobster bisque, available only on Thursdays and Fridays, will make you wonder why you ever even wanted a hot dog, though Le Dog offers beef, Polish and turkey varieties. Five dollars is enough for a hearty soup portion.
Krazy Jim’s a.k.a. Blimpie Burger
South and West Quad residents for years have known Blimpie Burger on South Division to be the ideal Sunday dinner spot when the dorm cafeterias are closed; soft greasy fries and burgers sizzled to perfection turn the cheap to gourmet in one bite. Open since 1953, this polar bear decorated burger stand has offered delicious burgers and thousands of deli sandwich combos to the Ann Arbor masses. An added perk: $10 is more than enough for a filling meal and a drink.
Ann Arbor’s notorious greasy spoon, located at the corner of Liberty Street and Ashley Street, is open 24 hours a day, almost every day of the year, and it’s safe to say diner food doesn’t get much better. This hole-in-the-wall offers typical favorites such as burgers, fries sizzled to perfection and BLTs, but the real reason to swing by Fleetwood is breakfast. Don’t stop at eggs; Fleetwood is renowned for its Hippie Hash, a mouth-watering filet of hash browns, broccoli, mushrooms, onions and tomatoes topped off with an unhealthy dash of feta cheese. Fleetwood is tiny, packed wall to wall with stickers that have been on the wall since its 1949, as well as some of Ann Arbor’s most colorful, pierced, intellectual and argumentative personalities. Sadly, this loveable feature also makes a table hard to come by at peak hours, usually 2 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Remember not to spend all your cash on a cab, either, as Fleetwood does not take checks or credit cards. Luckily the greasy fare is as delicious as it is inexpensive; $10 is usually enough for breakfast for two.
No fuss, no frills, not even a place to sit down inside this Church Street mecca. Backroom, one of the many dollar-a-slice joints in Ann Arbor, cements its place in this veritable pizza explosion by broadening its horizons this year, offering more than just pizza. Now, in addition to floppy slices and soda, diners can line up out the door for unique late-night delights – as Backroom now serves chicken wings, spinach pie and even kosher bagel dogs. No, Backroom is not the best pizza on the block, but any greasy pizza will do at 3 a.m. and Backroom is perfect for that.
True, China Gate on Church Street and South University Avenue is only open until 10 p.m. and rumors have circulated that the Chef Jan legend may or may not be bogus. All the same, hands down, China Gate has egg rolls down to an art form. It will be the best $1.50 ever spent.
Pilar’s Tamales: Corner of East University Avenue and South University Avenue.
Mon. – Fri.: 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Le Dog: 306 S. Main Street and 410 E. Liberty St.
Mon. – Fri.: 11:30 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
Blimpie Burger: 551 S. Division St.
Mon. – Sat.: 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Sun.: 11 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Fleetwood Diner: 300 S. Ashley St.
Open 24 hours
Backroom Pizza: 605 Church St.
Mon. – Sun.: 11 a.m. – 3 a.m.
China Gate: 1201 S. University Ave.
Mon. – Sun: 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.