Northside Grill: Breakfast, lunch and oh so much more

A staple in Ann Arbor since 1993, Northside Grill has a long history of serving top-notch breakfast and lunch specialties to their many devoted diners. As the website states, “Approximately 90% of Northside Grill's customers are, in fact, return customers.” And for good reason. The owner, Jim Koli, sat down to discuss the locally loved recipes, along with the initial hard work that went into making his plan for owning a restaurant a reality.

Originally from New York City, Jim came to the Ann Arbor area in 1980 to pursue higher education at the University of Michigan. He majored in Fishery Biology, but when it came time to begin his career he found he was most comfortable in the food industry. Through the years Jim gained experience at many local establishments, including the University of Michigan dining facilities, The Gandy Dancer, and Aubree’s in Ypsilanti, “I worked in dining services and I liked that feel.” Initially, Jim set out to open a tavern near downtown Ann Arbor, but when the old north side Cloverleaf Dairy went up for sale, the opportunity to revamp it into a diner felt right, “I hadn’t thought of a breakfast place, but it made sense at the time. It kind of fell on my lap.”

The inspiration for the recipes come from various sources. Drawing from memories of hometown favorites and notable meals he has enjoyed throughout his life, Jim created the menu Northside Grill has today. However, the true deciders of what Northside Grill serves are the customers, as Jim describes, “We try a bunch of stuff and if the customers like it then we move it onto the menu.” One of the more recent additions being the Huevos Rancheros.

Jim laughs as he describes some of the hits and misses, “Coming from New York, when I first opened the place we tried selling hot dogs, but they wouldn’t sell!” The pancakes, however, are a hit. Their fruit filling is within the cake rather than placed on top. “That is the way my mother made it,” Jim explains. The breakfast sandwiches are also big sellers, with a total of seven to chose from. Options include The Pontiac Trail (two fried eggs topped with bacon, lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise on grilled multigrain), and The Morning Eggdition (scrambled eggs, diced tomatoes and diced ham topped with Swiss cheese and black pepper mayo on grilled Texas toast). Any local will appreciate that a portion of the sales from The Morning Eggdition sandwich goes to support WEMU, the Public Broadcasting Service of Eastern Michigan University. For the full menu visit their website at  http://www.northsidegrill.com/menu.

So what is Jim’s favorite? Although claiming he loves all the choices, he did provide this advice, “If a place is dumb enough to name something after themselves then that is what you should order, and we have the Northsider sandwich.” The sandwich includes grilled ham and bacon, a fried egg, American cheese, mayo, lettuce, and tomato, all on a grilled onion roll. The top seller, however, is a little more basic than that, “two eggs with a breakfast meat.”

Northside Grill has received much recognition throughout the years. As recent as March 1st 2013, AnnArbor.com spotlighted the restaurant as being in the running for the area’s Top Breakfast Joint. The article written by the Community Content Coordinator, Jessica Webster, even describes the welcoming atmosphere, “Walking into this breakfast and lunch joint on Broadway near Pontiac Trail can feel like entering Cheers.” The verdict is still out on the winner, but given its reputation for quality chances are Northside Grill is in or near the forefront.

If you plan on coming for weekend brunch expect a wait. The word is out on this place, and customers flock from open to close to get their diner favorites. Don’t fret too much, as the team works hard to get you in and seated as quickly as possible. The wait is rarely greater than 20 minutes, and there is even coffee out front for you to get your caffeine fix. Plus the buzzer they provide works for long distances, so you can browse St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store located next door while your stomach eagerly anticipates the great food to come.

As The Northside Grill approaches their 20th anniversary on July 31st of this year, it is clear they are doing something right. Experience for yourself what Ann Arbor locals have known for years. Give it a try next time you are craving a hearty, delicious breakfast or lunch.

Chela's Restaurant & Taqueria: Authentic Mexican cuisine where you least expect it

If Mexican style cuisine is what your taste buds crave, you are in luck in Ann Arbor. With many well-known restaurants to try downtown, both new and old, you will never be in want for a taco. However, one of Ann Arbor’s restaurant gems may not have been on your radar.

Located at 693 South Maple Rd., Chela’s Restaurant and Taqueria is serving some of the best authentic Mexican favorites to West Side Ann Arborites. Surrounded by a barbershop and liquor store, this outwardly modest restaurant is making a name for itself. The owner, Adrian Iraola, sat down to discuss the restaurant he has worked so hard to create.

At first he was nervous about the location, “Many said don’t go there, many restaurants have failed.”

However, as more factors began to fall into place for him to own a restaurant he felt the timing of the open space was too fortuitous to pass by.

So Adrian and his wife, Lori, used a lot of “elbow grease” to bring their vision into fruition. Much of the décor was purchased from the old Parthenon restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor. They took the chairs and painted them a deep yellow to give off a Mexican vibe. The booths received extra love, as Lori stitched them together herself.

As for the food, Adrian had to conduct many taste tests among friends and family to guarantee it turned out exactly how he wanted it. When asked about the origin of the recipes he replied, “The food itself is very common. It has been in existence for hundreds and hundreds of years. Tamales are consumed by millions every morning in Mexico City. We have used that same approach but made it healthier. We don’t deep fry items, nothing is processed, and we make it fresh everyday.”

He did admit his own taste buds prefer the spicier options, but he had to tone down some of the recipes so that his food would appeal to all of his customers. He makes fresh salsas with different spice levels for those “chili heads” like himself.

What Adrian is most proud of is the impact his restaurant is having on the community, “My wife and I are sharing our culture. Many people in the Midwest have only eaten tacos with lettuce and cheese, we try to show them new ways, like with cilantro, onion and lime.” He is especially proud when he sees younger kids expand their palates, “We have a wonderful family that comes and their 10 year old daughter can eat two sides of the super spicy salsa, and she doesn’t flinch!”

Adrian is delighted that the community has embraced his cuisine, so in turn he tries to support the community around him, “We get our bread from White Lotus Farms here on Liberty Road. We believe in enhancing the local economy.”

So what are the top sellers? Barbacoa (beef) and campechana (chorizo and carne asada) tacos. Adrian describes barbacoa as marinated beef baked for three hours in its own juices. They then add special spices and grill it. The meat is used in various dishes, including their famous tacos. The chorizo is also made in-house, as he states “we sell it as soon as we make it.”

The restaurant’s flavors are catching on. Many online review-board bloggers rave about the quality. One popular restaurant rating website gave Chela’s five out of five stars, and raters describe the overall experience as either “excellent” or “very good” (with the clear majority being excellent!). Not even once was it given an average or less.

What else will you find at Chela’s? Classic favorites, such as burritos, tamales, salads, tortas (a Mexican street food style sandwich) and yes, even dessert! For only $2 you can get flan as an after dinner treat.

If the quality won’t lure customers in the prices sure will. Tacos are only $1.85 a piece and come on a warm soft-corn shell. Vegetable tacos are available for the vegetarians of the bunch, and quite honestly they are just as satisfying as their meat counterparts.

The most expensive item is the burrito, which comes with rice, beans, cheese and additional items of your choice, still for only $6. Alcohol is not served, but they do offer fountain drinks and homemade Horchata (Mexican beverage made with rice) and Limeade. To see the full list of food choices and specials visit http://chelas.co/menu.

Chela’s has truly become a favorite among Ann Arbor’s West siders during the past year. Adrian has fulfilled his vision of bringing quality Mexican street food to the Midwest, and it is catching on fast.

Bell's Diner: A blend of Korean flavors with American favorites

In a city abundant with diner hot spots, Bell’s Diner has set itself apart by putting a lot of love, and cultural twists, into their menu.

After relocating from South Korea, former Army chef Ben Kwon was looking for a way to make a living doing something he knew and loved. In 1987 he took over Bell’s Diner in Ann Arbor’s west side, and transformed the eatery into the community favorite it is today.

Initially, Ben focused on classic American style food, like omelets, pancakes and hamburgers. His reputation for quality grew quickly after opening, and it has lasted through the years. Receiving the most notoriety were the pancakes, as one reviewer described them as, “thin and perfectly delicious.” If you ask Ben about the pancakes he’ll smile. He tried many recipe variations until he created the perfect batter, which turned them into one of the diner’s hot sellers.

It was not until later that the now well-known Korean dishes appeared on the menu. Nervous about how his loyal customers would react to the change, he added the new options slowly, “I introduced a few Korean dishes as the day’s specialty to make sure my costumers liked it.” And like it they did! In fact, Ben explains that some of the Korean dishes are just as popular as the classic American favorites, “We serve Bi Bim Bob the most. One bowl has everything in it […] I even make the hot sauce myself.”

Bi Bim Bob is a fresh, light dish that includes sautéed vegetables (spinach, bean sprouts, cabbage and carrots), marinated meat or tofu and a fried egg all placed on top of a bed of warm rice. It can be tailored to individual tastes and appetites by adjusting the meat or vegetable portion. The best part is, it is not just for breakfast. The flavors are just as satisfying at lunch and dinner, and with Bell’s now open until 8:30pm Tuesday through Saturday that is a possibility six days a week!

Although the list is plentiful, other Korean favorites include Jopche (potato noodles with vegetable, egg and beef sautéed in soy sauce), and Kah-soo-Dong (broiled chicken, beef, shrimp or pork with vegetables and an egg). One cannot forget the Kimchi, a spicy side order that completes any meal. This national dish of Korea has been growing in popularity at even the most prestigious restaurants, but at Bell’s you can get a high-quality version for only $1.99. Although Kimchi originally is made with cabbage, Ben decided upon cucumber to set his recipe apart. The delicious outcome was well received by customers.

Along with an eclectic menu, Bell’s Diner has established themselves as an important part of the community. If you become a returning customer, they will likely have your favorite beverage and booth ready once you walk through the door. The decorations are quirky, as you look up and see a shamrock border mixed with Korean décor, but that just adds to the appeal and quite frankly puts a smile on your face. Bell’s Diner truly is a local favorite.

For diner prices and a diner atmosphere without the average diner flavors, give Bell’s a try.

Location: 2167 West Stadium Boulevard, Ann Arbor, MI 48103

Hours: Monday 6:30 am - 4 pm
Tuesday through Saturday 6:30 am - 8:30 pm
Sunday 8 am - 8:30 pm

Telephone: 734-995-0226

MD Bagel Fragel: What is a Fragel? Let's find out...

What is a Fragel? Well, if you are not originally from the Ann Arbor area, the name might as well be in a foreign language. However, to many local residents, the word alone makes mouths water.

As the saying goes, everything is better fried. Imagine raisin packed dough that is fried, then covered in cinnamon sugar. THAT is a Fragel. Essentially, it is a bagel, donut and cinnamon roll all brought together, and it has been satisfying sweet cravings in the Ann Arbor area for over 30 years all thanks to MD Bagel Fragel.

Michael Rockette, a manager and the “M” in MD Bagel Fragel, described how the treat earned its name, “The original owner had a contest to name it after trying something new, then it caught on quickly. The Fragel has been a staple at the store since then.” Until this day, it remains the top selling item.

The store began as the Bagel Factory, located downtown on South University, but as high rises and student housing began to develop the decision was made to relocate to north campus. The store itself has changed owners and names over the years, but it has continued to produce high quality items throughout the transition.

Of course, savory sandwiches are a specialty too. Michael points out his favorite to be the Hickory Bacon breakfast sandwich, “I eat that pretty much every morning. It’s eggs, cheese and bacon all cooked together on a buttery bagel.”

For the vegetarians in the area, they also various meatless options, including the Veggie Pesto that contains smoked mozzarella, mayo, presto, tomato and red onion. All in all, there are 8 breakfast bagels and eighteen lunch bagels to choose from. Prices are excellent; a Veggie breakfast sandwich costs $3.35 (and is much more filling than a sandwich you would pick up at a drive thru!).

The bagel that holds the sandwich together is of your choosing. From the hardy Everything bagel, to a sweeter Cherry Almond, and even a Spinach Feta bagel; Fragel Bagel has over 30 varieties of bagels to choose from. Like most customers, you will spend the first ten minutes deciding on the bagel flavor before even moving onto your sandwich choice (until you become a regular, of course, and develop your very own favorite combination).

Even the classic pairing of bagels and cream cheese isn’t so classic when you are faced with deciding between 20 different cream cheese flavors. If you really want to kick your sandwich up a notch try the Habanera cream cheese on the Jalapeno bagel…just be sure to order a drink to go with it!

Whether you are on your way to work or are lucky enough to have the morning free to relax and enjoy breakfast, MD Bagel Fragel is one place that will have you coming back again. The only caveat is you have to act fast! Although store hours typically run from 6am until 4pm, seven days a week, if they run out of bagels you run out of luck. Give this Ann Arbor favorite a try!

Website: http://www.mdbagelfragel.com/index.html

Telephone: 734-332-1020

Address: 1760 Plymouth Rd, Ann Arbor, MI 48105

Hours of Operation: 6am to 4pm, Seven days a week