By Ron Krueger
FENTON — As go the fortunes of the Detroit Red Wings in the National Hockey League playoffs, so goes the bottom line of Joe & Lewie’s Penalty Box.
“If the Wings make an early exit (from the playoffs), we always say summer starts early,” says Penalty Box co-owner John Todorovsky.
The Central Division champions play the second game of their opening-round series against the Phoenix Coyotes Saturday afternoon in Detroit. The Wings have made the playoffs every year since 1991 and won the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008.
The restaurant’s “Joe” is ex-Red Wing Joe Kocur and “Lewie” is former head coach Dave Lewis. They turned the former Great Fenton Inn into a hockey-themed sports bar in 2005.
Todorovsky and his parents, Diane and Jimmie Todorovsky, bought out the founders last year. Kocur and Lewis live in the area and still stop in from time to time.
Kocur and Lewis inherited a large kitchen, allowing them — and now the Todorovskys — to provide much more than munchies and sandwiches. The smoke-cooker out back turns out ribs, pulled pork and chicken.
You can order a New York strip or ribeye, glazed Alaskan salmon, fettuccine Alfredo and even a stir-fry, General Tso’s chicken with vegetables over rice.
Among the 13 sandwiches is the Big Sicilian with smoked turkey, ham, salami and provolone on grilled ciabatta bread. I brought half of it home.
All the restaurant’s burgers are made with half-pound patties of ground chuck. Joe & Lewie’s will cook your burger to order (such as rare, medium or well-done). That’s a seldom-found option these days, given the problems with tainted ground beef. “We know most people won’t eat a burger that’s at all undercooked, but we have no problem cooking it to order,” Todorovsky said.
Joe & Lewie’s offers all the pub appetizers you would expect, including ground beef sliders, which naturally have been dubbed pucks. An amazingly hot new item is battered and fried pickle rounds, which I see on more and more menus.
Wings and potato skins must be getting passé.
For warmer days, Joe & Lewie’s turns out fruit smoothies and a variety of frozen cocktails with premade mixtures. If the Wings make it to the finals in June, there could be a big run on Mango Coladas.
If you have never been in this place and have any interest at all in Red Wing and hockey lore, you will be impressed by the variety of autographed paraphernalia and artwork.
There’s a blown-up photo of Steve Yzerman, Chris Chelios, Brett Hull and Brendan Shanahan taken at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Wings fans love the one showing Darren McCarty taking out Claude Lemieux in a 1997 game, payback for Lemieux’s vicious check on Kris Draper the season before.
But the best thing here is the collage with the mugs of famous Detroit sports figures superimposed on bodies seated around a Cheers’-type bar. Ernie Harwell is the bartender and customers include Barry Sanders, Al Kaline, Chuck Daly and Joe Dumars.
Kocur is portrayed raising a beer to the group.
Todorovsky said the statewide smoking ban that took effect in May has changed the dynamic at Joe & Lewie’s. “The smoking ban and impaired-driving enforcement have combined to reduce our nighttime bar business,” he said. “But that has been offset by an increase in families and groups with kids, such as birthday parties and team banquets.”
The energy index will jump back up on nights the Wings are playing for another Stanley Cup. “Everybody is focused on the action,” he said. “When the Wings score, we turn on four red lights just like the ones behind the goaltender. Everybody will be cheering.”
Now if only the Tigers, Pistons and Lions would figure it out.