Monday, August 8, 2011

[HOT LIST] The Best of Waterford

"Covert" camera phone shooting inside Calabrese's Pizzeria
Waterford. It is the Macomb County of Oakland County, the bastard child of Pontiac and White Lake, the butt of all local hillbilly, redneck and white trash jokes. And yes, Waterford isn't all hoighty-toighty like Birmingham, and the people are decidedly blue collar (however, there is also a lot of money out there on the western and northern borders of White Lake and Clarkston, FTR). The watering holes are exactly that, and the dining scene is pretty humble. But Waterford is also full of natural beauty, with 34 lakes surrounded by forests, several state and county parks, and protected wildlife habitats. The roads all wind around the lakes and the drive is serene; seeing geese, deer, rabbits and all forms of lake and forest wildlife is very common. And despite their simplicity, there are some fantastic restaurants out here (if you can break out of the white tablecloth mindset). From classic American coney islands to Lebanese cuisine, Waterford has a little of everything.

#1 Calabrese's Pizzeria II (4668 Dixie Hwy.)
Is it possible that one of Detroit's best pizzas is way, waaaaaay up here, hidden in Waterford Township in this tiny little pizzeria with about 11 seats all decorated in retro kitsch? For over 40 years, Calabrese's has been one of Waterford's best-kept secrets. The pizza is excellent, without a doubt; but the piece de resistance is the mozzarella bread. "Can mozzarella bread ever really be that good?" you may wonder. It's really just dough, cheese, maybe some butter and garlic salt...surely nothing terribly different from one place to another, right? Words cannot accurately depict the superiority of this humble-looking bread. It starts with the dough - soft, tender, but baked crispy to the edges...just the slightest crunch, nothing dry, just enough. The dough itself is infused with garlic flavor - we know not how, nor do we ask. Surely garlic salt would be obvious but the flavor wouldn't be so infused, and garlic butter would make it greasy...but there it is, defying immediate explanation. Then, it is covered in mozzarella. The mozzarella doesn't bubble and brown: it liquifies, becoming a glassy coat of cheese covering the bread. The flavor: mozzarella-garlic-dough magic. This is not something that can be described. It must be experienced.

#2 Taqueria San Jose (4550 Elizabeth Lake Rd.)
There is no shortage of places in Waterford and Pontiac where you can stuff your face full of Mexi-Merican fare; it's really kind of the Southwest Detroit of the northern suburbs. But places where you can get more Mexican Mexican food are in much shorter supply. Taqueria San Jose is about as fancy as a mess hall, but the food is hands-down some of the best Mexican you will find in metro Detroit. Not Waterford; not Oakland County - metro Detroit, including the city. Tacos come in all the delicious flavors you'd expect from a proper Mexican joint, including tripe and tongue. Order the three taco entree with al pastor (marinated, slow-cooked pork), chorizo (Mexican sausage) and carne asada (grilled steak). They come on corn tortillas with diced onion and cilantro - wedges of limes and radishes are already at your table, as well as homemade tortilla chips and salsas which include a runny, spicy brownish-red salsa made from roasted chiles that is addictive. The entree also comes with Spanish rice and homemade refried beans; even the beans are outstanding. And all that for $6.75. The horchata (sweetened rice milk with ground almond and cinnamon) tastes like homemade rice pudding.

#3 Heroes Bar-B Q + Brew (998 W. Huron St.)
A no-frills family place by day and boisterous bar by night, Heroes serves up hearty Midwestern food like fall-off-the-bone ribs, juicy burgers and steaks, and planked whitefish. Locals love this place because of the consistently friendly staff who will make you feel right at home (they like to say that "you're only a stranger once"), the lively energy (the place is always busy), and the solid food. Nothing fancy, but a reliable stand-by.

#4 Irish Tavern (4703 Elizabeth Lake Rd.)
Nicole remembers when this place opened several years ago; it was the best bar in the area and also happened to be one of the closest to her apartment. She became a regular pretty quickly. The IT has changed quite a bit since it was one of Nicole's old haunts, but all for the better: they added a kitchen after their first couple of years in business, and a recent remodel has made it look more like an Irish bar and less like a Waterford bar. This is simply a great place to go drink, with a more polished feel than most other Waterford dives. (Not that we don't love a good dive, and Waterford's full of 'em.)

#5 Village Place (4710 Cooley Lake Rd.)
What Lafayette Coney Island is to Detroit, Village Place is to Waterford. It's not that the food here is really so outstanding - and people, you really need to start accepting the fact that Lafayette's isn't either - but it's open 24 hours a day and it is a Waterford rite of passage. Anyone who has ever partied semi-regularly in Waterford, White Lake, Union Lake, Commerce Twp. or West Bloomfield has been here at 3 a.m. at some point. It is also located directly next to the IT (don't let the street names confuse you; they practically share a parking lot), so if you're hanging out at our favorite bar you don't have to go far to sober up. Nicole knows this from experience.

Bubbling under 
Hot Pepper Thai Restaurant (4212 Pontiac Lake Rd.), Walt's Original Coney Island (3425 Highland Rd.), Custard Corner (3005 Pontiac Lake), La Marsa (4240 Pontiac Lake Rd.), Sweet Water Bar + Grill (7760 Cooley Lake Rd.), Grand Azteca IV (2505 Pontiac Lake Rd.)

Calabrese's Pizzeria II on Urbanspoon