Ann Arbor on the River

A sunny day in late spring. You grab your sweetheart, buy a sack of cookies from a nearby bakery, and wander along the river. Soon you’re strolling the Argo Cascades, a scenic walkway along tumbling rapids, throwing cookie crumbs to a family of baby geese.

This idyllic moment is brought to you by Sweet Heather Anne and the Cascades project, which were completed within a few weeks of each other last month. Still in her twenties, Heather Leavitt went to art school, then apprenticed herself to Bryant Stuckey (Decadent Delight), Courtney Clark (Cake Nouveau), and Eve Aronoff (eve), in that order. “From Bryant I learned the structural basics, like stacking cakes,” Leavitt says. “When I worked with Courtney, I was on the Food Network [where Clark competed and won several challenges], so we did some very crazy things, and I learned the tricks of the trade for unique cake building. Eve taught me to taste and adjust recipes. That’s where I developed my palate.”

Leavitt mostly makes her living with the kind of fantastical wedding cakes that typically feature either surprising colors and shapes or unexpected artistry and cost up to thousands of dollars, though she says she gravitates toward a more “vintage” aesthetic than Clark over at Cake Nouveau. Her building retains its quaintness, and Leavitt has filled it with vintage and reproduction Depression glass.

Sweet Heather Anne’s cake studio is open only by appointment Tuesday through Thursday. Friday and Saturday she opens her dessert counter to the public. Cake in a jar (a trifle-like concoction eaten with a spoon from a small Mason jar) and Mexican wedding cookies are two of her specialties.

Though the 900 block of North Main is finally inviting and walkable, Sweet Heather Anne is the only true retail store here so far. But the Clean Energy Coalition, a nonprofit in the old Robey Tire building, will eventually operate a retail store selling light bulbs and other energy-efficient products.

Sweet Heather Anne, 920 N. Main, 913-2025. Dessert counter hours Fri. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Cake studio open Tues.-Thurs. by appt.

Mexicantown on Liberty

Liberty between Stadium and Maple is becoming Ann Arbor’s pocket version of Detroit’s Mexicantown. People already fight for parking spaces to pick up their barbecued lamb tacos from Taco King or their organic, antibiotic-free Salvadoran tamales from Pilar’s. Just up the street there will soon be a third choice, a taqueria called Chela’s in the old Kappa Koney.

Five years ago, Alain Beneghil opened the tiny Tienda La Libertad here, selling mostly phone cards. When he bought the old Dragon’s Lair Futon building a few doors down and opened a full-on Latino grocery, he convinced Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers to bring Pilar’s to his old spot.

Tienda La Libertad changed hands quietly a year ago, and in October, new owners Saber and Sihem Naghmouchi closed to rethink the business. They reopened in April with a commercial kitchen.

“Twenty-five inspections” is all Saber wants to say about the long and expensive process that represents the difference between selling and preparing food.

Taco King, as the restaurant part is called, is the kind of simple, unpretentious taqueria you see all along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Besides barbecued lamb, its $1.50 tacos include chorizo sausage, lengua (tongue), tripa (intestines), and two versions of pork, as well as steak and chicken. They also serve breakfast huevos (eggs), burritos, tortas (sandwiches), tostadas, and quesadillas.

Saber Naghmouchi, from Tunisia by way of Ohio, used to sell the phone cards to Beneghil, and his connection to the international community and their communication needs is advertised on large banners pasted to the outside of the building: Envios de Dinero, Vigo Money Transfer, Inter-Cambio Express, Red Pocket Mobile. The grocery half of the store still carries dried chilis, queso fresco, pan dulce, tortillas, and Mexican produce. The basement houses check cashing and a tumble of dry goods–toys, soccer shirts, CDs.

Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers next door describes Pilar’s and Taco King as “apples and oranges.” It isn’t just that her food is Salvadoran, but that her enterprise is firmly rooted in the local-organic, slow-food tradition. Her customers aren’t in the neighborhood to send money home or pick up cheap phone cards, and they’re more likely to have developed a taste for Latino cuisine while vacationing. Pilar’s tamales are from impeccably sourced meat, and her horchata (rice drink) is homemade. “My clientele appreciates that,” she says.

The area will get a third take on Latino food when Chela’s opens around the corner on Maple in June or July. It’s owned by Mexico City-born Adrian Iraola and his wife, Lori.

Iraola is best known as the project manager and main flak-catcher for the Downtown Development Authority’s biggest and most controversial project ever–the underground parking lot next to the Ann Arbor District Library. But according to Lori, he also loves simple pleasures, like Mexican street food, and has always wanted to own a restaurant. They will be opening not one but two Chela’s this summer, the other one at Stone Plaza (see below). Lori says the taquerias will emphasize fresh local ingredients.

“I’ve known Adrian for a long time,” Nolasco-Rivers says. “I really applaud what he’s doing and welcome him to the neighborhood.” Naghmouchi seems a little less enthusiastic about the coming competition, or perhaps he’s just reliving those twenty-five inspections. “Good luck to him. That’s all I can say.”

Tienda La Libertad/Taco King, 2231 W. Liberty, 585-5796. Daily 9 a.m.-10 p.m.

Stone Soup

If it’s Thursday and you’re eating pad thai, there’s a good chance that you live or work near Stone School and Ellsworth. At Bangkok Cuisine Express, the line often goes out the door for the popular $5 all-day special. “It’s scary,” says Desy Ariastini, who works there. “I don’t know when I’ll get a break. You will not get pad thai anywhere else around here for $5. People come in and say ‘I’ll take seven orders,’ so they can bring it back to everyone in the office. Sometimes we have to turn people away.”

A popular weekly special at a restaurant isn’t necessarily news, except that it’s happening at Stone Plaza, a little strip mall on the corner of Ellsworth and Stone School. Owned by the Issa family (see p. 29), the plaza is securely anchored on one end by the Mediterranean Market and a branch of the Issas’ own Ahmo’s Deli. Holding up the center of the mall is Elite Cleaners, Ann Arbor’s only “wet cleaner”–a green sustainable alternative to dry cleaning, popular in Europe.

But the other storefronts have mostly been a revolving door of businesses that didn’t catch on. Now three adjacent new businesses may be turning things around.

Bangkok Cuisine Express, part of a small Detroit-area chain, opened a year ago. It seemed to languish, then seemed to close. But owner Sandy Arpachkinda had just pulled back briefly while she brought up the heavy artillery: she gave the restaurant to her son Dexy (who also owns some restaurants in the Detroit area), and he took on a partner, sushi chef Kadek Widiarta–who is also Desy Ariastini’s husband.

They cleaned, painted, and reopened with a streamlined Thai menu plus sushi. Mindful of sustainability issues as well as the difficulties inherent in offering fresh raw fish at a non-urban location, Widiarta limits his raw sushi to salmon, yellowtail, and escolar. He’s also just added one of his very favorite desserts, which he learned to make while at Troy’s Cafe Sushi: deep-fried cheesecake served with red bean ice cream. With the $5 pad thai as its calling card, Bangkok Cuisine Express is back on its feet.

Next door, the Grow Show just doubled its size for the second time (it opened in 2009 in a tiny spot in the center of the mall), when it knocked down a wall and took over what used to be MisSaigon. Owner Alex Lemerand specializes in indoor and hydroponic gardening but says he’s “a full-service horticultural center, with everything you need for indoor and outdoor gardening.”

At the moment he’s pushing compost tea, an organic fertilizer brewed from compost and sugars. “We have special molasses for compost teas, to make the enzymes and microbes explode in there. Right now we have a sixty-gallon tea brewer on the way to the store. We’ll be brewing and giving away a thousand gallons of tea for free. We’ll be tapping off gallons and saying, ‘Here! Go home and pour this on your plants!'”

Next to the Grow Show, the former Piatto di Pasta (see Closings) will be the second location of Chela’s (see above). Look for this one to open around the same time, though possibly a few weeks later than the Maple Rd. Chela’s. Out of respect for the center’s Muslim customers, says Lori Iraola, this branch won’t be serving pork.

Bangkok Cuisine Express, 4119 Stone School Rd., 975-0277. Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat. 3-9 p.m., closed Sun. Sushi hours Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-9 p.m., closed Sat.

The Grow Show, 4095 Stone School Rd., 677-0009. Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Sat. & Sun. noon-5.