For chef Tunde Wey, paradise is chicken feet at Detroit’s Shangri La.
Summer 2017 was my first wedding season. After 34 years of living through weddingless summer weekends, the spring brought a spate of decorative invites pockmarking my refrigerator, inviting me, in fancy script, to be part of a couple’s joy.
Two of my good friends were getting married two weeks apart in Detroit. Though I hadn’t lived in Detroit for two years, it’s always home. I had moved to Detroit from Nigeria 17 years before that, as a 16-year-old boy. I decided to stay in Detroit through both weddings instead of returning home between the two. Besides the fact that New Orleans feels like a bucket of humid, viscous jelly in the summer, the city had never quite been my own. I was forever a mole on its body, foreign but there, sometimes appreciated, often ignored, always under threat of removal. I needed Detroit to remind me that I was living in the most gorgeous city in America.
I crashed on my wife’s office futon for those two weeks. She kept a cozy work space in Midtown Detroit, a neighborhood adjacent to Downtown and Corktown. These neighborhoods together, and the others that were contiguous within a 7.2-mile radius, had coalesced into an enclave of wealth and success in an economically brittle city. The best part of her office was its proximity to everything that was happening. It was also across the street from Shangri La, my favorite Detroit restaurant.
Shangri La is a pan-Asian restaurant in the tradition of immigrant restaurants forced to soften individuality to satisfy American palates. It offers both Cantonese and Thai dishes, as well as sushi, but is particularly known for dim sum. (Strange, that a city so intent on being hip on every other front, had for a long time only one dim sum restaurant.)
Until dim sum came downtown, Detroit was a pretender at a global city—now it had that bit of obscura, of mystery, albeit in a commodified form. In Detroit, I ate chicken feet at Shangri La every single day. I was in heaven.
Pleasure for me is simple; to indulge nonstop and always, sometimes voraciously, like the cookie monster, sending particles of my hedonism shooting through the air; shrapnels of abandon. My pleasure is collagen from chicken feet. Steamed chicken feet, about five of them, arranged five inches high in a death pyre, in a sauce that causes them to go brown and delicious, decorated with spicy discs of peppers, sliced thin, their seeds spilled on the chicken feet beneath. And the place to get them is Shangri La, a dubious paradise in a rapidly gentrifying section of Detroit.
The chicken feet at Shangri La come out hot in a little bowl set in a tin steam pan. Three lean fingers, fused at the palm-like base—if chicken feet have palms. The feet are both lean and fat, glistening and matte. They are impossibly delicious, but they are not an efficient mid-day lunch or a sensible dinner. I have to suck each toe with the right fervor to separate the skin and soft sinew from the flavorful miniscule bones. Then I shave off, with my teeth, the tricky gristle that holds the joints.
If you get the bar seat at Shangri La, you can eat the best way possible: alone and removed from it all, your back to the other diners, whose backs are turned to the glass facade, behind which is the street, specifically, a bus stop where folks wait and wait and wait for a city bus to take them somewhere.
I have to suck each toe with the right fervor to separate the skin and soft sinew from the flavorful miniscule bones.
These chicken feet, silky meat painted on the short phalanges on each digit, are unbelievably succulent, and beg to be paired with a fruity, slightly spicy beer. Final Absolution is on tap at Shangri La. The Belgian-style Trippel goes hand-in-hand with chicken feet.
In spring 2018, I walked into Ideal, a Mexican grocery store in New Orleans, marched to the meat section and purchased 3 pounds of Patas De Pollo—chicken feet. I returned to the small food stall I was operating, and threw those feet into a pot with a collage of bay leaves, negro peppers, calabash nutmeg, ground alligator pepper, fresh thyme and rosemary sprigs, whole garlic, and quartered onions. I ran water into the pot, over those feet, put the pot on the fire, and let the whole thing go.
An hour and a half later I was serving customers Nigerian pepper soup with chicken feet, enough to last about a week. For every bowl I served, I had a bowl for myself. Soon, I had two bowls for myself and two for customers, until eventually I stopped wanting to serving anyone. By the end of the week, I kept all the soup for myself.