Wednesday, June 20, 2012

[EID Feature] Gimme, Gimme, Gimme the Honky Tonk Tacos: Imperial

Photo by Nicole Rupersburg. All other photos from Imperial.

From the very beginning, owner Jeff King has insisted that Imperial is “a community bar with a taco truck on the back, not a Mexican restaurant.” He has insisted that people don’t think of it as a restaurant, but as a bar … with a taco truck on the back (“truck” being, you know, a kitchen).

People pretty instinctively started to refer to this place as “that new Mexican restaurant in Ferndale.” I mean, it’s in a building that was totally worked over from the previous tenant (the Post Bar, if you care). Despite King’s comments, the presence of a full kitchen and absence of an actual truck made people think more “restaurant,” less what he said. It’s definitely a bar, but they serve food, so therefore restaurant.

Except that … no, it’s a bar. With, well … a taco truck on the back (if only in spirit rather than semantics).

Salt & pepper grilled pork belly w/apple, jicama & jalapeño slaw, cilantro & onion
Imperial has been open four weeks now and has been packed since the day they rolled back those Woodward-facing garage doors and welcomed in the public. And people love it.

I noted before that the place is California dreamin’ in the midst of Detroit realties, and that’s really the best way to describe this place. Or perhaps another friend’s description is a little more on-point: “…it’s well-designed, plays drunken alt country, [has] tons of good booze and the bartenders are all tatted-up badasses.” Pretty much.

The space is sparse but slick: tons of natural light and warm breezes come pouring through the garage doors; the booths, tables and floors are all light wood with breezy appeal; the centerpiece of the solid wood back-lit bar is a painting of Johnny Cash flashing his middle finger. It is, and stay with me here, Memphis rockabilly meets hipster L.A. in the way that a lot of people say something is “so L.A.” except that it actually is so L.A. There are community tables, plenty of bar stools and a patio out back. It feels like motorcycles and cigarettes, skinny jeans and cowboy hats, bourbon and blues, hipster and honky tonk, designer and dive.

There are no PBR light-up signs, no Corona mirrors or Miller Lite banners. King says, “I love all of that about a bar but what we’re trying to do is not the status quo. When you think of a ‘neighborhood bar’ you think of that place your grandpa went to … [I want it to feel like that] but not look it. I want it to feel like it’s been here 75 years with a little honky tonk vibe.”

And it works. It works in a way we never knew how much we needed it or wanted it but now that it’s here we’re so happy we have it.

It is correct that they have no taps and no bar guns. It is also correct that they have an extensive selection of tequilas and bourbons, and they also have a few key labels to cater to the craft beer crowd (who’s really gonna say no to AXL Pale Ale?). It is additionally correct that while they do not cater to the craft cocktail crowd, they still mix a mean drink (try the Mezcal Buck) and use all fresh house-made ingredients.

They serve what King calls “L.A.-style street vendor tacos.” No hard shells, no hamburger, no sour cream, no shredded cheese. They make everything from scratch in-house right down to the salsas. “Consistency and quality is a focus,” says King. “It’s all very affordable, [made by a chef] and all fresh, all authentic L.A.-style.”

Chef Brennan Calnin went to culinary school at Kendall College in Chicago then worked in Chicago (under Takashi Yagihashi) then in Milwaukee under a three-time James Beard-nominated chef, then as a private chef on a ranch for a Wall Street president, then under Eric Patterson at the Cook’s House in Traverse City … as King jokes, “This ain’t no line cook.” Through his relationships at the Cook’s House Calnin was connected with one of the other partners at Imperial. “It was a no-brainer to jump on board,” he says.

Carne Asada - marinated steak, red pepper salsa

“I really like the idea of a limited menu because I feel like you’re not spreading yourself thin trying to do a bunch of things,” Calnin explains. “You have the idea you’re trying to get across and [you can] do it very well. It ends up promoting consistency.”

Calnin and King are both very passionate about providing high-quality from-scratch foods made with fresh, locally-sourced ingredients. “Tacos are such an ingredient-driven food and Michigan has so many things to use locally,” says Calnin. “It’s really important [to us] to forge relationships with local farmers … it’s so important for so many reasons,” including the economy and ecology. “We have all these great things – tomatoes and peppers and sweet corn and chicken and eggs and beef and lamb and goat – right here in our backyard.”

Elote Especial - Grilled sweet corn, poblano lime cream, cotija cheese and chilies
King notes, “We’re not interested in someone’s pre-conceived notion of what they like in a taco. We’re trying to present something that is unique to the area. We didn’t reinvent the wheel and want people to experience what the authentic style is.” He explains that they don’t want to muddle down the flavors of the main ingredients. “It’s very fresh and very clean, not diluted with other items. We’re not going to add or subtract things people might not be used to or might not care for [or muddle the flavors down] with a bunch of other stuff. [This is food that] goes great with a beer, and also goes great at 2 a.m. while you’re waiting for a cab and need some food real quick to throw down your throat.”

Eventually they want to have their own mobile truck prowling the streets so the whole “taco truck” joke will become a reality. “We really like the idea of mobile vendors and street vendors,” King comments.

For right now they’re just focused on running the bar in the midst of all the huge opening buzz and the tremendously positive reception they’ve received so far. They’re open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. (the kitchen closes a bit earlier but plans are to have it eventually be open as long as the bar).

 Imperial on Urbanspoon