Enduringly Midwestern, Evans Street Station in Tecumseh, Mich. will have your heart. The firehouse-turned-restaurant daily carves out a new American cuisine—a proud cuisine—that aptly reflects us as Michiganders, folks with a distinct palate for the freshest and most scrumptious foodstuffs. Surrounded by lakes that pump the richest nutrients into our soil, we’re spoiled that way.
Executive Chef Alan Merhar indulges with seasonal meals made entirely from scratch using locally-grown ingredients. He gets that Midwestern food equally contends with the meals served in New York and San Francisco.
And Merhar does it all humbly and elegantly in the sleepiest of Michigan towns.
“Supporting our local community and knowing where your food comes from is so important,” he said.
Welcome to the heartland.
Snow falls steady. It stacks on the Evans Street rooftop siren, drifts between the seldom-used Southern Michigan Rail tracks that parallel the restaurant’s grounds. The Tecumseh Community Center’s Raisin River waterwheel is shellacked with ice, and I’m leaving town after a hearty meal of Vermont white cheddar mac & cheese and a cup of apple crisp à la mode.
This is comfort food to the max—a bowl of noodles tossed in sharp, creamy cheese and a slice of oat-rolled apples—and it’s largely birthed here, among this expanse of now snow-battered farmland. It’s hard to imagine lush green in the doldrums of February, but picking season makes for an entirely different story.
“Nothing tastes better than when the food’s been picked ripe that day, when it is still warm from the sun,” said Merhar, who’s worked in restaurants since he was 14. “I can tell you that a homegrown Michigan tomato can’t be beat: our apples are crispier and have more intense flavor, and our corn is sweeter than anything else I’ve come across.”
It’s a combination of Great Lakes soil and the hard work of the flinty farmers who tend it, farmers like those at Kapnick Orchards in nearby Britton, that make for those crispy and intense ingredients that we’ve come to love.
“I pick up berries and asparagus—when they’re in season, respectively—among other things at Kapnick Orchards on my way to work,” he said. “I love it.”
The restaurant menu emulates this, and Merhar identifies the food he buys from all over Lenawee, Washtenaw and beyond. Eggs from Clinton. Honey from the Irish Hills. Duck, rabbit, and beef from Chelsea; cheese made in town. Some items he orders are specially grown for Evans Street, like fresh flageolet beans; other vegetables he asks for in a unique twist from the original—white carrots, blue Hubbard squash, English peas and purple cauliflower. This, Merhar believes, will make for one killer meal.
“Food from scratch just tastes better,” he explained. “My staff and I cook for the love of cooking. There’s nothing like working with handmade pasta, gnocchi and spaetzle—we’re showcasing food in its purest form.”
Even beyond the food, beyond the artistic way in which Merhar plates and prepares it, is the community in which it’s served: a town that annually celebrates an ice sculpture festival, hosts a car show and operates a fall color tour by railway. A place that’s equal parts preservation of our pre-suburban roots and expansion of a modern Midwestern food scene that’s damn delicious.
It is Evan Street’s “farm-to-table” philosophy. “We are ideally located in a rural setting surrounded by farms with people who share our passion for great food,” said Merhar. “Some people thought it was crazy to open in Tecumseh back in 2001, remarking that it’s the middle of nowhere. On the contrary, Tecumseh is at the center of the heartland.”
Merhar is a part of a new trend in gastronomy. He’s among restaurateurs like Duc Tang of Pacific Rim and Peter Poulos of Karl’s Cabin, both owners who strive to make our cuisine a blend of the old and new, a reflection of our gutsy character. Take Evans Street’s bar—“Musgrove’s Retreat” is named after Tecumseh’s founder.
“This is something that has been at the core of Evans Street’s cooking and business philosophies since opening in 2001.”
Across the street from J-Bar Hobbies and behind the British Pantry tea garden, the Evans Street crew toils over tickets, stoves and linens. To Brubeck’s “Take Five,” families, businessmen and day travelers from as far as Detroit and Toledo dine on Kobe burgers, monkfish, glazed duck, greens and chowder. A pickup rattles by, sloshing its way south and out toward the farmland. Like Merhar says, “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Like the sound of Evans Street? Curious to whet your buds? Check out Evans Street’s satellite, Glass House Café, located inside University of Michigan’s Palmer Commons.