One quick stroll down Muskegon’s quirky Third Street is all it takes to be completely hooked. Where else can you grab cannoli, a bunch of board games, vinyl records and some of the best fries in the state? (The answer is nowhere.)
The section of Third Street known as Midtown — the area from Muskegon Avenue to Jefferson Street — is a diverse stretch of locally owned businesses, shops and restaurants.
Midtown has seen many ups and downs over the years, but just like its residents, it’s full of character and grit. Previously abandoned, century-old brick buildings are now thriving businesses. And the residents, an eclectic bunch, are proudly invested in revitalizing the community.
“What makes (Midtown) special is that it’s actually in the neighborhood,” said Kiel Reid, owner of The Griffin’s Rest, a retail gaming shop. “Away from my store, there are houses, a community and neighbors. We’re all a part of the same community at the end of the day.
“Businesses are supposed to come in and make things better for the folks who live next to them, and I think that’s a big focus for what a lot of us are doing.”
The backbone of Midtown
Valy Vietnamese Oriental Food, Gifts & Market and Curry Kitchen are the cornerstones of Midtown. These longtime establishments have paved the way for several newer businesses on Third Street.
Everyone takes care of each other in Midtown. And for Nga “Swan” Nguyen, who opened Valy Vietnamese over 15 years ago, that statement couldn’t be truer. Nguyen offers a vast selection of hard-to-find Asian groceries and goods from Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan, China and the Philippines.
When you walk into Valy Vietnamese, you’re greeted with brightly colored paper lanterns, decorative tchotchkes and a big smile.
Nguyen, originally from Vietnam, takes the time to get to know her customers and often helps them prepare authentic meals by sharing recipes from back home. Plus, she won’t let you leave empty-handed — visitors always part with a fun gift.
You can pick up popular Asian staples like mochi ice cream, ramen and dumplings as well as specialty teas, spices, frozen seafood, sweets, jewelry and exotic fruits — no shelf is left empty.
Nguyen also runs a tailoring and alteration business in her store’s back room.
Curry Kitchen, owned by husband-and- wife team Raj and Kismat Grewal, opened in 2012. Originally from India, the Grewals wanted to expand ethnic food options in Muskegon’s community. The restaurant is no stranger to awards, recently winning No. 1 Indian cuisine in Revue magazine’s Best of the West 2019.
After having so much initial success with Curry Kitchen, the Grewals opened another restaurant in 2017. Naan Pizza, located next door, puts a unique spin on the typical ‘za.
Using the same sauces from Curry Kitchen, the restaurant has a flavor-packed pizza menu, including butter chicken, mango chicken, paneer tikka and Indian veggie. The pizzas, made with from-scratch naan dough, are all baked in a wood-fired oven.
In the early stages of the pandemic last year, the Grewals stepped up for their community in a big way. From March to September, they donated 23,000 meals to families in need.
Made with love
There’s no shortage of food (or fun) on Third Street, and you’ll notice that quickly after stopping by Hamburger Mikey.
The no-frills burger joint welcomes you with lots of laughter and genuine hospitality, not to mention some of the best fries you’ll ever eat.
Tim Taylor and his parents, Mike and Mary Jane Burling, purchased a piece of Muskegon history and opened the doors to Hamburger Mikey in 2016. It’s housed in the former Ice Pick, a punk rock club that reached its heyday in 1980s and ‘90s.
“The Ice Pick was the most iconic building in Muskegon,” said Taylor, who manages the restaurant. “(Third Street) was kind of a ghost town, but things were starting to build, and we saw potential.
“Now, it’s definitely the place to be. Midtown is a hot little spot of town — it has a hip feel to it.”
Hamburger Mikey has a huge following and keeps its menu simple: burgers, dogs, fries and shakes. Making everything in-house with a freezer-free kitchen, Taylor wanted to have an approachable and uncomplicated menu. And Hamburger Mikey’s simplicity has paid off — it’s won a handful of awards, including landing in the top 10 for MLive’s Best French Fries and Best Burger competitions.
Each month, Taylor embraces his creative side and collaborates with local businesses to concoct a burger of the month — May’s was the Cinco De Mikey, a collaboration with Gael’s LLC, a local Mexican restaurant in Muskegon. It was made with chorizo and beef, pepper jack cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo, chipotle mayo and crushed Doritos, all on top of a taco-seasoning bun.
“I want people to experience not only good food, but an atmosphere where they feel happy,” Taylor said. “We’re always clowning around. We just want to make sure people feel like they’re our best friends or our family — every single time.”
To satisfy your sweet tooth, head a few doors down to The Only Cannoli.
Owners Brittany Meloche and Bethany Bauer are the newest kids on the block; the friends relocated to Third Street last year after quickly outgrowing their first storefront in Muskegon’s Lakeside neighborhood.
Specializing in Italian pastries and desserts, Meloche and Bauer honor their heritage in every bite.
“Family was the biggest thing for us when starting this business — just bringing people together and being together,” Meloche said.
“I think it’s a joy for us and a blessing in a way that we’re a dessert — we get to be an escape for people, even if it’s just for a little bit.”
It comes as no surprise that cannoli are one of the duo’s most popular treats. There are eight flavors to choose from, including a rotating seasonal one. To put the cherry on top, Meloche and Bauer pipe their homemade cannoli fresh for each customer.
“We like to introduce the things we grew up eating,” Meloche said. “If it’s not a family recipe, we’re just having some fun. A lot of the time, it’s just us throwing something at the board and seeing if it sticks. There’s not much science to having fun.”
In April, the rotating cannoli flavor was honey lavender citrus, and 10% of proceeds went to Every Woman’s Place, a nonprofit organization offering safe shelter, counseling, advocacy and supportive services to women and children surviving domestic and sexual assault.
“Supporting our community is so important to us,” Meloche said. “As business owners, the ability to do something bigger than ourselves is now a responsibility that we carry.
“We care so much about where we can make the biggest impact.”
All fun and games
A once-abandoned, deteriorating building has found new life with the help of Kiel Reid. Reid, a Muskegon native, opened The Griffin’s Rest in 2017 as a place for people to meet, play games and stay out of trouble.
“I got in trouble in Muskegon most of the time when I was younger and thought it would be nice to have a place where kids can hang out and not get in trouble,” he said. “And thus, The Griffin’s Rest was born.”
The Griffin’s Rest is a haven for all things nerdy — its walls are lined with colorful board games, puzzles, miniatures and trading cards. Pre-pandemic, Reid offered in-store gaming and plans to bring it back once it’s safe to do so.
“I have a secret that no one’s willing to say,” Reid said. “You’re all nerds, sorry. Everyone’s a nerd to some degree or another. We just make it OK to go ahead and do it and learn more about it. The people who enjoy the kinds of games that we sell are all over the spectrum of humans. We cater to that.”
Next door, you’ll find Paul Pretzer flipping through stacks of flashy records at Third Coast Vinyl. Pretzer, who opened the record store in 2016, is no stranger to Third Street — he used to frequent the Ice Pick and play there with his band, Jim Jones and the Kool-Ade Kids, back in the ‘80s.
Before opening Third Coast Vinyl, Pretzer was a high school English teacher for nearly 10 years. After experiencing a great deal of sudden loss, he decided his life needed a change.
“I got to a point where I really wanted to do something for me,” Pretzer said. “Money wasn’t my motivating factor — I just wanted to be happy. I feel like if you find something you’re passionate about, and you do it, and you do it well, there’s always a chance you can make a living at it.”
Music has always played a significant role in Pretzer’s life. A self-taught guitarist, he’s played in a series of bands and is a lifelong record collector. He also worked in record stores when he was younger; his musical taste knows no bounds.
“I don’t trust people who only like one type of music,” Pretzer laughed. “I like tons of everything, and people think it’s a cop-out when you say something like that. But if you look at my record collection, there’s plenty of music for everybody. And it’s one of the things I take pride in with the store.”
A vinyl record store brings something special to the Midtown area and just adds to its charm, Pretzer said.
“We’ve got all these cool, niche businesses down here and I’d like to see more of that,” he said. “This is the only area you can go to for all these kinds of stores.
“People come down here and park their cars, they’ll go and order a hamburger and then they’ll stop in and buy a puzzle at The Griffin’s Rest, and then they’ll stop in here and get a record, and then go get cannoli.
“We’re selling an experience — so the more the neighborhood fits into all that, it’s great. We couldn’t be happier.”
Featured image: Mural at the corner of Third Street and Monroe Avenue in Midtown
Credit: Daytona Niles
*Editor’s note: Brittany Meloche from The Only Cannoli left the company after this story originally published in our 2021 summer issue.