Mark's Carts and the Black Elks
by Lee Lawrence
Spring sprang early this year, hurtling us into the season with a jackrabbit start. Restaurant tables usually stored until May began dotting sidewalks in March, and diners regularly populated them for lunch in April. Ann Arbor's outdoor dining season is in full swing now, and this year we have some new spots to consider.
Taking advantage of the early spring, Mark's Carts opened at the end of March with an altered, expanded lineup from last year. Eat, of course, now has a brick-and-mortar shop on Packard, but several outfits--Darcy's Cart, Debajo del Sol, the Lunch Room, Hut-K Chaats, and San Street--have returned, along with three new ventures. Cheese Dream features grilled cheese sandwiches, the Beet Box healthy options, and Ann Arbor Pizza Pi mini-pizzas.
Looking over Cheese Dream's list of sandwiches in April, I wished for a more imaginative selection of cheeses and spreads. Of course tradition requires the Old School, made with gooey American cheese slices, but the other options didn't stretch beyond aged cheddar, Monterey jack, Swiss, and mozzarella, with only slightly more creative spreads (corn relish, bacon, tapenade). That said, I enjoyed the Frenchie, its filling of Swiss cheese and caramelized onions cooked with beef stock successfully imitating French onion soup's luxurious topping.
Zingerman's challah is the bread for all of Cheese Dream's sandwiches. I've always found it rather insipid, but as my companion pointed out, it grills up beautifully and nearly mimics, in a more interesting fashion, the soft bread of an American diner-style grilled cheese sandwich. Still, I would appreciate the option of a crustier, chewier white bread or a multi-grain loaf. Cheese Dream also makes tasty soups, and I trust that, with time, owners Jordan Ceresnie and Afrim Ramaxhiku will broaden their sandwich selection.
Started by a group of U-M students, the Beet Box serves what it calls "Strong Food." From what I could understand from the group's blog, they want to promote local, seasonal, healthy food, prepared simply and tastefully. While I don't
deny the importance of health in selecting and preparing our food, the Strong Food Combo reminded me of the under-seasoned, overcooked "hippie" food my husband made when we first met: chunks of chile-lime chicken breast, tough, dry, and bland, resting on a bed of mushy, vaguely fiery beans and brown rice and topped with kale chips that tasted like burnt paper. The roasted-beet quinoa and roasted "sunrise" cauliflower on the side proved surprisingly bland, despite an avalanche of crumbled feta and dried fruit. The beet lemonade, lightly sweetened scarlet-colored water, left me wondering where the lemons and beets had gone. Beet Box's food wasn't so much bad as boring. After slogging through my combo, I packed the rest to take home to my husband. Then I rewarded myself with a Mexican chocolate cookie from the Lunch Room. Rich, spicy, soft, with a crunchy raw sugar topping, it was fabulous.
Employing a 650-pound, wood-burning oven standing next to his cart, Ann Arbor Pizza Pi owner Nick Wilkinson bakes 8" to 9" cracker-thin crispy pizzas in just minutes. Although not substantial enough alone to satisfy a hearty appetite, these pizzas have a delicious crust and well-proportioned, nicely composed toppings, ranging from a standard Margherita to my preference, the Aroooogula: goat cheese, mozzarella, spicy pepper, olive oil, balsamic syrup, and, obviously, arugula. Of Mark's three new carts, this was my overwhelming favorite.
The James L. Crawford Elks Lodge, a historic African American club on Sunset Rd., has without argument the best outdoor dining spot in the city--a massive stone porch high on a hill overlooking a sloping expanse of shady lawn and downtown Ann Arbor. It's a site you might dream about for a wedding, a family reunion, or a graduation or anniversary party, and three nights a week--Thursday through Saturday--the porch, along with the funky basement bar and recreation room, is open to the general public for dinner and music.
Though friendly and neighborly, the Elks Lodge is a private
club welcoming the community into its home; business doesn't follow a polished Main Street pattern. On our first visit, we followed the stairs leading from the parking lot, entered the building's rear door, and almost immediately encountered the kitchen. After some confusion, we realized we needed to order and pay for dinner--cash only--at the tiny counter inside the kitchen door. (The kitchen operates as a separate entity within the club, so payment is kept distinct from the bar, but the staff graciously delivers your meal to wherever you sit.) The kitchen personnel then directed us down more steps to the convivial basement bar, a trophy of 1950s design, where, from the bartender and the members occupying the stools, we received conflicting information on whether nonmembers could order hard liquor or only wine and beer. Everyone agreed, however, that we again needed cash to pay for the drinks. Across from the horseshoe bar, at the edge of the oddly configured and claustrophobic rec room, more storage area than dining room, a jazz trio played (see Nightspots).
The Elks Neighborhood Kitchen is run by Kelli Harden. Her menu, designed in collaboration with club members, consists of soul-food mainstays: smoky, meaty, barbecued ribs, buttermilk fried chicken, fried catfish, po' boys, beans and rice, silky collard greens, black-eyed peas, tangy slaw, and scrumptious mac and cheese. Harden took great care with all the food, and we found everything fresh and delicious. Our only complaint was that she cut the catfish fillets into smallish pieces before frying, increasing the ratio of crispy coating but rendering the flesh into generic fried food rather than tasty fried fish. We finished dinner with a final highlight, warm chocolate-chip cookies, which Harden bakes to order. (If you don't want to wait, you can order the cookies when your dinner arrives.)
That first night, when it was still winter, we ate at the bar, but on our second visit we enjoyed the ambience of the grand old porch, pulling on our jackets and lingering over our warm cookies as the city's lights blinked on. Once finished, we wandered back down to the bar to listen to that evening's band, appreciating the lodge's hospitality in sharing its lovely home with the community.
211 W. Washingtonmarkscartsannarbor.com
Carts' hours of operation vary widely. Most are open Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2 or 3 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-2 p.m., closed Sun. Some also are open till 6 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., till 8 p.m. Fri., and for lunch and dinner Sat. and Sun.
Cheese Dream: sandwiches $5-$7, soups $3-$4, sides $1.
The Beet Box: snacks and sides $2-$4, entrees $5, combos $10-$12.50.
Ann Arbor Pizza Pi: pizzas $8-$9.
James L. Crawford Elks Lodge
220 Sunset Rd.
Thurs. & Fri. 5-10 p.m., Sat. 4-10 p.m.
Entrees $9-$12, sides and snacks $1-$8. Cash only.
Not wheelchair accessible
[Originally published in May, 2012.]