When was the last time you walked into a restaurant and thought, "Holy shit, this place is cool!" Just north of 9 Mile Road on Woodward, one such place exists – a place where artwork featuring Johnny Cash adorns the wall and communal tables are the rule (not the exception). Imperial is that spot.
The interior is as laid back as can be. Imperial is the definition of a hangout – cheap drinks, great food and cool atmosphere. Just because the drinks are cheap doesn't mean they aren't fantastic. There is a huge selection of handmade cocktails, house infused liquors or beers. The cocktails are unique and bold. Try the Uno Mas with Respado tequila, cucumber, agave, Cointreau and lime. It's refreshing and very easy drinking.
Chef Brennan Calnin has developed a simple menu where each item is at the very least good – but most settle somewhere between very good and GREAT. There are around a dozen items on the menu, with most tacos priced at $2.50. As of 9/10, Imperial added a swordfish taco to its repertoire on Mondays (and maybe Tuesdays). Sunday brunch is in the future as well – check their Facebook page for updates.
There are always at least seven tacos on the menu, with specials on Fridays and Saturdays. One week the special is lengua (beef tongue), another week it's portabella mushroom – and during my last visit it was beer braised flank steak. Of the regular tacos, don't miss the al pastor, which is marinated pork topped with pineapple and pickled jalapeno and onions. Sweet, spicy and savory – this is one memorable taco.
Also memorable are the salsas and guac – both of which are made in-house. My favorite is the pleasantly piquant salsa verde (but don't be fooled there's a little heat in there, too). A flight of their three salsas (verde, chipotle and roasted red pepper) plus a side of guacamole is enough for 3 or 4 people to share happily. Tortilla chips are served warm and salted generously as well.
If you enjoy heat, grilled jalapenos are a fascinating side dish. For just $1, three charred peppers covered in queso fresco and poblano lime cream. There's a balance of flavors here between the searing heat of the jalapeno; the tart, cooling cream and the salty queso. Perfect by themselves or quite awesome sitting atop of your favorite taco, this unique side is one I order every time I visit.
Tacos aren't the only "entrée"-type item on the menu. Two other more substantial items, a torta and the Sonoran Hot Dog, grace the menu as well. The torta is a powerhouse of flavor starting with slow roasted pork (different texture from the carnitas but equally as delicious) that is then topped with a series of different items, including pinto beans and pickled jalapenos. Bread is brought in from Southwest Detroit and is fantastic. (One sandwich is enough for a big appetite.)
Imperial brings bacon into the mix by wrapping their Sonoran Hot Dog in it (Sonora must be a magical place). Between this and the torta, I'm not sure which is messier, but both are extremely satisfying and joyous to eat. A bacon-wrapped hot dog is topped with beans, tomato, onion, poblano lime cream and salsa verde. It's a different way to enjoy a hot dog – a revelatory way.
In fact, taking it all into consideration, the entire Imperial experience is revelatory. The ideal mix of cool, fun and delicious. Whether you're just visiting to sip on a cocktail or want to feast on some tacos, Imperial is your new favorite place. | RDW