The concept of a food hall, one of the latest national dining trends, isn’t totally new to Detroit — you’ve been to food truck gatherings where customers can browse the varied offerings. But this one, Detroit Shipping Co., is indoors, two stories, and made of repurposed battleship-gray shipping containers, the new cool thing in architecture.
The idea is that a slew of restaurants lease stalls around a common area, and the owners of the space, James Therkalsen and Jonathan Hartzell, provide the marketing, some music, art galleries with rotating exhibitions, a podcast studio, and a beer garden. They’re planning for five food stalls eventually, but started this summer with three plus a coffee shop.
The owners must have thought the concept unfamiliar enough that on a November night, a greeter was on hand to explain. Trust me, it’s not hard.
Operations partner Patrick Drakopoulos says the company wanted chef-driven concepts that could fit together but not overlap — “no cannibalism,” as he puts it — and each add something new to the restaurant scene. All three of the space’s current restaurateurs have been successful someplace else.
The space is loud, seemingly by design. Shipping containers are made of steel, which of course is metal, which conducts sound. Diners eat at communal picnic tables that have been pretty full most of the times I’ve visited. Oversized versions of Connect Four and Jenga are there to be played for those not captivated by the surrounding TV screens; when a kid knocked over a tower, the tumbling blocks echoed through the space. Menus are on blackboards.
Bangkok 96 Street Food is an offshoot of Genevieve Vang’s venerable Bangkok 96 in Dearborn, where Vang, a Laotian refugee, serves a menu that’s mostly different from the Detroit location’s. At the Shipping Co., she’s borrowed from other Asian countries, too.
I think of street food as not just “buy it on the street” but also “you can eat it while walking down the street” — like a hot dog. But that’s not what it means in Asia. Here, for a lot of the dishes, you’ll want to sit down with a firm surface and a knife and fork.
You might want to BYO knife, though. All the stalls use cheap plastic flatware, and if you want a napkin, you will have to tear off a piece of a rough brown paper towel roll.
Cavils aside, I am in love with Bangkok 96 Street Food’s pork belly. Main dishes are displayed persuasively next to the stall, so you know in advance you’ll be getting a large serving. Leaner than bacon in this version, it has a crisp exterior and every bite is an umami revelation. I even managed to cut it with my trusty plastic knife.
Also good, and also with a crisp exterior, is candied beef. It’s well-done and not sweet at all, garnished with cilantro.
A pad thai roll, with chicken or tofu, looks like giant sushi. Pad thai is wrapped in a flour tortilla, or rice flour if you’re GF. It’s spicy and pretty tasty, with plenty of cabbage.
Pork dumplings boast slippery skins, sesame seeds, and sriracha. Pork steak is also on the menu, and grilled chicken with sticky rice. (The chicken is “all white meat,” a demerit in my book.)
All servings are large; consider sharing. For something smaller, I enjoyed the bao bun, a steamed bread roll stuffed with pork, iceberg, and shredded carrots. The bread is about as bland as a food can be, but a lot of folks like that, especially when something more interesting is inside.
Vang also serves tiny veggie samosas, six for $6. I’d skip these; the filling is mostly potato, with little taste.
I regret not trying the pho, usually a favorite; maybe I was hung up on the concept of eating soup on the street.
The one thing my friend and I disliked at Bangkok 96 Street Food was the boba iced tea. We didn’t drink enough to get to any tapioca balls at the bottom; the flavor was assertively smoky, not in a good way. If you’ve acquired this taste, go for it.
I loved the mango sticky rice for dessert, not least because it was warm. A lavish amount of rice is mixed with mango and sweetened coconut milk — comfort food flavors and nursery textures.
Nice bonus: On your birthday, buy one entrée, get one free. You’ve got to show proof, though; beware of those b-day scammers. And Wayne State students and faculty (again, with ID) pay just half the price on Monday and Tuesday, and 20 percent off Wednesday through Sunday.
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