Wednesday, May 2, 2012

[HOT LIST] Best of Southwest (Cinco de Mayo edition)

Las Brisas. Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.

Cinco de Mayo is this Saturday, and if your idea of Cinco de Mayo celebrations is a mariachi band in a sports bar with the Corona girls giving away free beer and plastic beads, you need to head southwest to see how it's really done. No need to find your passport and book a flight; look no further than Southwest Detroit and discover for yourself some of the lesser-known restaurants and watering holes that make this one of Detroit's most viable, walkable, vibrant neighborhoods.

Southwest Detroit is full of fantastic taquerias, restaurants of various ethnic Latin cuisines, bakeries, cafes and markets (and taco trucks!), but for the purposes of Cinco de Mayo celebrations this list is all about bars. Let's face it, this neighborhood is robust enough for more than one "Hot List."

#1 Donovan's Pub
AKA Southwest Detroit's Official Hipster Bar®. Being just on the other side of of I-75 on Vernor, Donovan's is sort of the Gateway to Southwest and catches what is presumably a lot of Slows spillover. It's hipsterific but the booze is cheap and service friendly and familiar. It's Polish-owned, located more or less in Mexicantown and crawling with men sporting mustaches un-ironically. It doesn't need to make sense; it works.

#2 Giovanna's Lounge
Giovanna's is a small dive bar with friendly service and cheap booze, but the best thing about it is their huge outdoor patio in the summertime. They don't serve food and it's cash only, but the atmosphere can't be beat.

#3 Las Brisas
By day it's a restaurant with a cheap lunch buffet and homemade Mexican and Mexican-American dishes; by night, it's one of Southwest's hottest spots for live music and dancing. The space is huge with separate areas for dining, dancing and a big, beautiful bar. They bring in popular music acts from all over Mexico with hundreds of people forming a line out the door on weekends. Cover and drinks are always cheap and food is served until 4 a.m. on weekends.

#4 Abick's Bar
A true neighborhood bar in every sense of the word (in that it is actually located in a house in the neighborhood, and that it is also a no-frills, divey kind of place where the crowd is mostly regulars and the locals all hang out), this pre-Prohibition bar is loaded with history and character. Grandma Manya (one of the sole old Polish hold-outs this far outside of Hamtramck) isn't as involved as she once was (she's not cooking those huge dinners for family, friends and guests anymore), but the bar is still comfortable and cheap. Manya is relatively sure Abick's is the oldest family-owned, continuously-operated bar in Detroit; no argument here. Stepping inside this place is like stepping back into history, when bars were social and community centers and not places to get who-do-I-need-to-apologize-to drunk.

#5 Mexicantown Fiesta Center/Lounge/El Club
First off, don't let the name fool you - this place isn't actually in Mexicantown. And the only reason this place doesn't rank any higher is because they don't keep regular daily hours (Fridays are pretty consistent but beyond that you may want to call ahead before making a special trip). But if you're lucky enough to catch this place when it's open to the casual passer-by, it's a small but fantastic bar with friendly locals and staff (which includes the owner Dolores Sanchez who also owns El Central Hispanic News, a free weekly paper that is Michigan's longest running bi-lingual Hispanic newspaper) and really cheap booze. If it's nice outside, be sure to check out the backyard. The space is also available to rent for private events and they host salsa dancing classes.

Bubbling under Kovacs Bar, Los Galanes, Armando's Mexican Restaurant, El Chaparrel, Stempien's Sidestreet Lounge, Corner Pocket Lounge, El Zocalo