For much of the past several decades, Detroit, like numerous other cities throughout the Rust Belt, has been a convenient and frequent punchline. Beyond the general economic decline that has plagued the entire region, the former mayor with the sensationally loose morals, the plummeting inner-city population and resultant glut of abandoned housing and the hapless professional football team have variously been ripe light-night fodder. It’s all fair game, I suppose. But with a winning football team, a revitalized auto industry, a pretty nice fellow in city hall and having come to grips with the new normal, the Motor City is forging ahead into a different, slightly less industrial future with civic pride as strong as ever. And in a town where the relics of the past are as revered as they are here, it is no surprise that the highlights of the sandwich scene represent equal parts present and past.
Curiously, the closest thing Detroit has to a signature sandwich, the one that is nearly omnipresent, available on virtually every block in every neighborhood in the city, is named for an amusement park located more than 600 miles to the east. Why exactly the Coney Island, essentially a hot dog drowning in chili and topped with diced onions, mustard and various other dressings, became a staple of no-frills Detroit cuisine remains something of a mystery. This much we know: The first Coney shops were established downtown in the early 1900s by a Greek immigrant family; Coneys are now available at nearly every type of eatery imaginable, at wedding receptions, in the airport; they’re universally cheap and delicious; and everyone in the city has a favorite. My fiancée’s family being devoted loyalists of National Coney Island, my experience has been limited to that particular chain, but significant variation among competing shops is unlikely. Regardless of where you’re eating, my recommendation for newcomers or the otherwise uninitiated: Get two.
Being a native of the Buckeye State and, ipso facto, a supporter of The Ohio State University, for my entire life prior to the last two years rarely did a mention of Ann Arbor, Michigan, go unaccompanied by some manner of disparaging profanity. Truth be told, having last month made my first visit to the home of the University of Michigan, roughly 45 minutes outside Detroit, I can report it’s a genuinely lovely town. What’s more, it’s home to the criminally unknown Arbor Brewing Company and, more relevantly, Zingerman’s Deli, one of Southeast Michigan’s most storied sandwich destinations. To call Zingerman’s a sandwich shop doesn’t do it justice. Although the massive list of delectable deli creations is undoubtedly the establishment’s claim to fame (and the direct cause of the line that winds around the corner of Detroit Street and Kingsley Street at lunchtime), there’s plenty to love here. During the 20-minute wait for my J.J.’s Pastrami Special, which comprises house pastrami and oven-roasted onions on rye, I indulged in numerous samples of bourgeoisie favorites: free-trade coffee from Columbia, anchovies from Portugal, balsamic vinegar from God knows where. The sandwich itself was unsurprisingly fantastic. But this is a college town, and considering the $13.99 price tag (and this for the more modest “nosher” size; the larger option is $15.99), one can’t help but wonder how many students could actually afford to eat at Zingerman’s. Yes, the sandwich was great, but I’d be lying if I said it was worth 15 bucks, also known as 60 Keystone Lights.
The New School
In his twin Travel Channel vehicles, “Man vs. Food” and “Best Sandwich in America,” failed soap opera actor and professional glutton Adam Richman, to his credit, introduced to a national audience a bevy of truly fantastic sandwiches that might otherwise not have gotten the attention they deserved. Among the new classics highlighted in the latter was the Yardbird from Slows Bar BQ, which earned runner-up honors in the recently-wrapped contest show. Although Slows, a high-fashion barbeque joint set in the coolest and oldest of Detroit’s old neighborhoods, had been popular among locals long before The Travel Channel plug, it was perhaps not as well known for its sandwich offerings. The exceptional Yardbird, which comes on a choice of kaiser roll or Texas toast, features smoked, pulled chicken breast smothered in mustard sauce, tossed when mushrooms and cheddar cheese and topped with applewood bacon. I’m occasionally rough on Richman, and usually for good reason, but if the guy knows anything, it’s food. The Yardbird is a winner, even if it only finished second on his show.
Save for Washington, D.C., there is nowhere I’ve spent more time during the past two years than Detroit. To say that I’ve grown to love it wouldn’t be accurate; in truth, I loved it immediately. Yes, the city has seen better days. To pretend otherwise would be pointless. The tangible relics of the boomtown era, though occasionally beautiful in their decay, are many. But Detroit has the feel of a city on the rise, and there is a general belief that a second golden era could be on the horizon. Who knows? I’m not an economist. I’m just here for the sandwiches, and on that front I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.