The culinary world’s love affair with Detroit is a complicated one. Like being in love with someone who doesn’t love you back. Someone who is hard to get. Someone who maybe you shouldn’t be in love with in the first place. In the past few years, the city has seen an influx of ambitious chefs and restaurateurs in search of their pipe dreams. Detroit, after all, is filled with abandoned buildings destined to be turned into the next twee taqueria or mason jar-filled taproom. That, according to chef George Azar, is “New Detroit.” His restaurant, Flowers of Vietnam, in the Mexicantown neighborhood, is part of “Old Detroit.”
“This place used to look like it should be condemned. I don’t know how I used to eat here,” Azar says. He’s talking about the former Coney Island hot dog stand where he would visit as a kid when skipping school. It now houses his Vietnamese restaurant, but the shadow of its past life—like the stainless steel counter surrounding the open kitchen and “Vernor Coney Island” neon sign—remain. “When I took over, it was disgusting. When I started pulling out equipment, when we renovated, I found my cousin’s school ID from, like, 1978.”
According to Azar, even though his restaurant is one of the few, if not only, places in the city to serve Vietnamese food, he still has an obligation to “stay in his lane.” That means hiring locals and serving locals, who may not understand or want a $23 plate of thịt nướng bạch tuộc (barbecued octopus). Enter caramel chicken wings. For a more reasonable $9 you can get a plate of the Korean-style wings. They are the menu item Azar and his team use to lure in customers who come in looking for the old Coney Island.
“Hey Preston,” Azar says to beverage administrator Preston Smith. “How many people come in here and say, ‘Where is Vietnamese food from?’ We don’t roll our eyes at it, because it’s people that we grew up with. We’re blue collar as fuck,” he says. “The reason why there are chicken wings on the menu is I knew that no one really understands Vietnamese food as much as in other cities, so here’s an identifiable chicken wing. You know what this is. Try it, now trust me.’”
Much like Azar’s chicken wings, beer is often seen as the great equalizer. It’s something that keeps this particular restaurant, which has been named one of Bon Appetit and GQ’s best new restaurants in the country, grounded despite the pedestal. It helps that, according to Azar, “Vietnamese food works with beer the most.” But I’m not here to eat Vietnamese food, not today. I’m here to bring the Flowers of Vietnam crew and its building, so to speak, back to its roots. I’m here with two bags of hot dogs, from American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island, to figure out how to pair this Detroit staple with beer.
Stillwater and Action Bronson’s 7000
It’s pure coincidence that the first beer poured during our beer and Coney Island experiment is the same beer I was drinking the night before. It’s also pure coincidence that Smith, with his bushy copper beard, could pass for Action Bronson’s doppelganger. “For a sour, it’s insanely approachable. It’s just a dry-hopped sour with Muscat grapes and fuck, is it delicious,” Smith says about Stillwater Artisinal and Action Bronson’s 7000. “This beer goes with everything; I was drinking one while eating cold McDonald’s and it was a great experience.” When it comes to Detroit’s signature chili-topped hot dog, the beer accentuates the baking spice flavors in the chili, a phenomenon Smith attributes to the lactic acid in the beer that “binds your tongue, gets it coated, and opens your buds up.”
“Back in the day, before we had all this good-ass weed, this was it, in a glass,” Azar says about Prairie Artisan Ale's Standard, a dry-hopped farmhouse ale fermented with natural yeast. “I can’t drink it, because I smell it and it fucks me up.” He’s talking about Motueka hops, a New Zealand hop with lots of spice, citric, and herbal qualities. Hops, as we have seen before, can be difficult to pair with any cuisine, especially something as subtle and fatty as a hot dog. Smith disagrees, adding that the garlic and onion in the hot dog are balanced by the fruity quality of the wild yeast, while the bitter hop finish adds an essence of jalapeño and green pepper to the hot dog. Whether you like it or not, hops make for a complex pairing.
There are two schools of pairings: match or contrast. The theory is that when you approach a food and beverage pairing, you can match similar flavors that work together or find opposite flavors that balance each other out. In the case of Delirium Tremens—a quintessential Belgian beer and self-proclaimed “Best Beer in the World”—and a hot dog, we have a match. The beer is loaded with the sweet banana notes you find in many Belgian beers. These flavors work well with the fatty richness of the hot dog and the pastry-like quality of the bun. It might be odd to consider a chili dog sweet, but alongside this beer, it can almost pass for dessert.
Champagne Velvet is a cult Indiana pilsner that was nearly lost to time, before it was revived by the sour experts at Upland Brewing Co. “The only reason I picked Champagne Velvet instead of High Life is because I think High Life gets enough credit for what it is, because it is the best beer in the world,” Smith says. Generally, a crisp, clean pilsner is a no-brainer with or without the presence of food. When it comes to this pairing, however, the pilsner falls short, unable to stand up against the fattiness of the hot dog. Champagne Velvet and the hot dog do have one thing in common, according to Smith: the metallic flavor of beer that blends into the bracing flavor of onions.
As far as IPAs go, Omnipollo’s Belgo is one of the more food-friendly options. “The IPAs we select are more drinkable, crusher sort of style rather than ‘I’m eating ear wax and I love it,’” Smith says. These IPAs rely more on herbal than bitter hop flavors to cut down on the dank quality. By doing so, you have something that can cut through the acidity of Vietnamese food or the saltiness of a hot dog. And while there’s a lot of eye rolling that comes with conversations about pairings, finding one that is able to transform something as banal as a hot dog into something comforting, complex, and conversation-worthy is a truly magical feeling. “Without that feeling, this industry wouldn’t exist,” Azar says.