Did you know that there are supposedly 22 styles of regional American pizza? I know. I totally thought someone was F’ing me with that S. 22? I was so surprised you could have taken a T to my C and L and I probably wouldn’t have noticed. I mean geez, what a B.
Regardless, I am a complete sucker for pizza and I am also a complete sucker for Compare-o-eating™. As soon as I read that Detroit style pizza might be a real and actual foodstuff, I packed up the wife, two friends for additional stomach power, and a whole heap of hungry, then headed off to the big (if slightly depressed) city. Tracking down some real life, high quality examples was a thing what needed doing.
We had heard that Buddy’s was the reigning king of Detroit style pizza. Both the Food Network and GQ magazine among others, have heralded them as a shining example of cheese covered glory. Obviously Buddy’s made our list. With 9 locations scattered around, we decided the original was likely our best choice.
The contender was a one off, family establishment called Loui’s. Yes, spelled Loui’s. I can’t recall how the place first came to our attention, I just know that it got mentioned a lot and seemed to be packing a strong dose of under dog contenderhood.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. What the N is a Detroit Style Pizza exactly? How will I know one when I see it? Will it be clearly identified with legible markings? Perhaps. But failing that, here’s how to spot a bonafide version in the wild:
•It will always be rectangular. Sometimes square but most definitely always rectangular.
•It will have a medium thick crust with an almost fried crispness to the exterior and a nice doughy chew in the middle. Thinner and with more crunch than its cousin the Sicilian.
•It will be cooked in a cast iron pan.
•In exceptional versions the cheese will form a crunchy, toasted, deeply caramelized ridge around the top edges of the crust. Like little cheese-cracklin’ ramparts.
•Most examples will feature an inversion of the traditional topping layering philosophy, with the meats and veggies next to the dough (often twice baked for integrity), followed by the cheese and then capped off with a tomato sauce. Legitimate exceptions to this rule do exist however, as you’ll see in a bit.
We started at Loui’s because, well, because it was closer. From the outside the place looked like a 1960’s cafeteria (though I do seriously love their neon sign.)
Walking in, we got slathered in a full-on bear hug of ambience. Hundreds of empty wine fiascos hung from the ceiling, sporting names and drawings from thousands of past patrons. Strings of red lights glowed warmly, playing off the red and white checked tablecloths. Sassy waitresses ribbed customers, children chased each other around a booth and the pleasant hum of conversation filled the space. You got the sense Loui’s wanted you to be there.
We were quickly deposited at a table and got immediately to work on the serious business of pizza. Well, first we ordered an adorable bottle of Chianti and then we got immediately to work on the serious business of pizza.
We ordered two- one with pepperoni and mushrooms and the other with mushrooms, onions, and black olives.
They arrived after 15 minutes or so and quickly assuaged any doubts I may have had about the legitimacy/bad-assedness of Detroit pizza. They were prime specimens, neatly covering the spread for every item on my assembled checklist.
The crust was crisp and buttery not unlike the bottom of my dad's cornbread, which starts by pouring the batter into a fire hot skillet coated in a pool of molten lard.
More pizza-sutra under the fold.
The cheese had done its job, staying soft and stringy in the middle and then going all dark, lacy and frico-like at the perimeter. And while both sets of topping were nice, the subtle spice and chew from the pepperoni put that pie over the top as my favorite of the stop. In a testament to willpower (and math) I managed to hold myself to just two pieces so I was still quite eager to get my paws on some Buddy’s.
Sold on the basic concept, we paid the check, tricked out our fiasco with some hilariously lame Scream 4 graffiti (yes that says Michigan cinema thug life. Go on, act like you have nothing to be judged for) and headed off to our next feasting.
The evening had segued to dark and drizzly by the time we reached Buddy’s, so I was glad to get inside. Unlike Loui’s, Buddy’s interior wasn’t overly welcoming. While it definitely didn’t seem rundown, it did come off as a bit austere and threadbare. The main dining area is a long, slightly narrow space with concrete floors and a random smattering of booths and tables. It leads down into a lower bar area and then wraps around to a private event space.
If you go, definitely take a walk around. The seriously trippy, psychedelic ‘70’s mural hiding in the back is worth your time and attention. How I managed to avoid getting a picture of it, I’m still not sure. I think it may have erased itself off my CF card with its sheer epic oddity.
Once we had settled in we decided to try the same toppings as before for scientific fidelity. But just before placing our order a house specialty dubbed the Detroiter caught my eye. It’s basically a pepperoni pizza with added herbs on top and in the sauce, but the kicker is in the assembly. Yes, the meat comes on top of the cheese.
That’s right. Detroit pizza, known for having the toppings as bottomings is served at one of the pioneer and definitive establishments, inside out with the toppings actually on top. And they call it the Detroiter. Damned if that isn’t an exception that proves the rule. We had to have it. And to maintain veracity we had them throw on some mushrooms as well.
The pies arrived looking somewhat less perky than our previous round. As you can tell from the photo, the bottom half of the crust is a very light blond instead of the enchanting rich golden hue of a perfectly baked version. The undercooking carried over to the rest of the dish as well. It left each bite a soft uniform consistency with little to no textural interest and undermined the cheese, robbing it of its nifty now I’m crunchy/now I’m stringy duality.
The sauce on the Detroiter was nice, with a kick of heat and a fragrant pop from an oregano and basil blend. The standard sauce didn’t fair quite as well, listing a little toward the watery side although it displayed a bright, pleasant tomato flavor.
While I can definitely get behind the charity aspect, I still found these tomato mustache posters deeply disturbing.
I’m not going to lie and say that the atmosphere didn’t have any effect. The timewarp charm and neighborhood mojo of Loui’s is undeniable. However, even in a blind taste test where the pizza was shoved into my mouth through the small zippered hole of an eyeless bondage mask (preferably the kind with pointy donkey ears) I’d still have to give the edge to Loui’s.
I don’t want to put too fine a point on it though. At the end of the day we had a couple slices from each place and the main difference was in the amount of time they spent in the oven. A different time, a different guy pulling the pies, and who know what might happen. Both are fine, upstanding pizzas and both are a good excuse to make friends with a few thousand extra calories.
The main lesson to be learned here is that Detroit style is real, it’s delicious and it’s out there now waiting for you. Motor City y’all. Get on it.
Loui's is at 23141 Dequindre Rd in Hazel Park, MI.
Buddy's has multiple locations. The one we visited is at 17125 Conant St. in Hamtramck, at the corner of Conant and Six Mile.