Turns out a sandwich can be made of more than what you find between the bread. These sandwiches are stacked high with history, delicately balanced flavors, and a clever name that tells a tale. If we could hand out awards for quality, flavor, texture, and sometimes just the smile these babies are served with, this selection would get our first batch. Welcome to: The Sammies.
Tuna Salad Sandwich
What is it that makes those sandwiches at the Bronx so darn good? Many say it’s the bread. No, they don’t still get the bread from a top secret Iraqi bakery. (That place burned down about a decade ago.) The bread is made fresh at Traffic Jam down the street, given a bit of unsalted butter, and thrown on the flat-top grill. The tuna salad is made with bits of celery, onion, yellow mustard, capers, and black pepper, and comes topped with a slice of provolone and a bit of spinach for added crunch.
If the ambience of Honest John’s isn’t enough for you (sobriety does suck!) then the sandwiches will reel you in for sure. And one sandwich in particular, the Eastsider, has been a staple and fan favorite. It’s as simple as a Reuben sandwich can be: grilled corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island dressing on rye. But it’s the juicy slices of corned beef and the delicious sauerkraut mixed with the cheeky personality of the bar that make this sandwich scream out the word “Detroit!”
Corktown staple Mudgie’s is famous for churning out wonderful sandwiches, and it received a number of nominations for such creations as the Sho’Nuff, the Madill, the Barrett, the Brooklyn, and the Stinson, but the most popular was the Gutty. Owner Greg Mudge says of this gut-pleasing mélange of meats, “It’s really a simple sandwich: just meats, cheese, lettuce, and house-made garlic mayo. But the way it all works together is awesome.” The corned beef and pastrami are Sy Ginsberg, the roast beef is from C. Roy, the salami is Milano from Creminelli, made from hormone-free meat, and the bacon comes from Wisconsin-based Nueske, where it’s smoked over real apple and cherry woods for 24 hours. It’s all piled high on a brioche Kaiser roll from Golden Wheat in Hamtramck, and on Sundays Mudgie’s heaps it with a fried egg as well for brunch. Mudge recommends pairing it with a Lil’ Griz, a barrel-aged beer from Grand Rapids-based Perrin Brewery, or a house Cab. “It’s just such a big sandwich, you can do a big red wine with it,” Mudge says.
A stone’s throw from Oakland University, Dilly Deli in Auburn Hills has a sandwich so large it’s named for the cartoon creator of huge sandwiches, the Dagwood. It’s composed of ham, turkey, American and Swiss cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, mayo. It’s a big, old triple-decker, on three slices of French bread. There’s no easy way to handle this sandwich: You just have to open up and take a big bite.
8 Mile Grill
Corned Beef Pita
Detroit’s 8 Mile Grill isn’t the only place serving a corned beef pita sandwich, but serves a rendition that was singled out for a nomination. It’s really just corned beef, mustard, Swiss cheese, and a pickle on the side. It’s often ordered with Thousand Island dressing on the side for dipping. You might think this nice-sized sandwich gets ordered at 2:30 a.m., and you’d be right, but the 8 Mile crew tells us it gets ordered all day long, starting at 6 a.m.
Is an arepa a sandwich? Technically, this Venezuelan creation is a sort of flatbread pouch that gets filled with all kinds of goodies, ranging from asparagus and red peppers to bacon and eggs. The most royal of them all is called the Queen, and it’s an arepa filled with “reina pepiada” (roughly translates as “curvaceous queen”), which is a mixture of shredded white meat chicken tossed with avocado and mayonnaise.
Down the years, we’ve known many a person who’s whispered of the sandwiches at the little Italian market in Dearborn called Alcamo’s. They speak in whispers because, though they’re willing to share the secret with us, they’re also leery of letting too many others know. Alcamo’s manager Emily Chimento understands the sentiment, telling us, “A lot of people don’t like telling about us because it means longer waits.” But just because all the lunchmeat on Alcamo’s subs is sliced fresh doesn’t mean you have to wait a half-hour: You can call those orders in ahead. Why is Alcamo’s so popular? Chimento calls it the “original Italian sub shop,” with more than 55 years of history. They don’t hedge on quality, and they don’t gouge people for lunch. They also support local vendors: The Chimento family has used hard-crust Sicilian bread from Italia Bakery up the street for 35 years. Their popular Italian sub comes with real Genoa salami (with just a hint of garlic), capicola, mortadella, cooked prosciutto, and aged provolone. It gets doused with Alcamo’s made-in-house sub sauce, a combination of vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, a splash of wine, and about a dozen herbs and spices. An 8-inch sub will cost you $4, but the $5 version uses practically twice as much lunchmeat, making the kind of sandwich Chimento says can be split between “two hungry women.” “It would cost you $10 anywhere else,” she says, “But our family motto is that we’re here for our customers. We’re not in it for the money, we just love to make our customers happy.”
“Who loves you, baby?”
That’s a representative exchange with Ernie Hassan, one of the most affable men you’ll ever meet. He’s been dishing with customers and making sandwiches at the corner of Republic and Capital in Oak Park since 1968, when he quit a job in the auto industry and joined the family business. There are customers waiting when Ernie opens his doors in the morning, and for good reason. The ingredients are fresh everyday, and in the case of the Monster, the sandwich is huge: a pile of meat — including ham, salami, turkey, chicken, and pepperoni — plus that day’s cheeses, a host of vegetables, mustard, mayo, and “love spice,” Ernie’s special sauce. It’s cash only here, and you’ll find yourself coming back not just for the food, but the back-and-forth with Ernie and the friendly line of customers, too.
Martin & Sons
This Center Line sandwich stop has been at the corner of Van Dyke and Theisen for more than a decade, serving outstanding corned beef. But one panelist singled out the eatery’s “Big Daddy” for praise. It’s a meat-and-cheese-lover’s sandwich, with corned beef and turkey, Swiss cheese, coleslaw, and Thousand Island dressing, served on either rye bread, an onion roll, or Texas toast. It’s one pound in all, perfect for demolishing that hungry-man appetite.
Ricky’s Sub Shop
The Brontosaurus Sub
$5 half or $10 whole
This Dearborn sub shop has been run by proprietor Rick Freij since 1988, and his most popular sandwich is actually the steak sub, made with rib-eye steak cooked low and slow. “We sell 150 pounds of steak every day,” Freij says. “Not bad for a little 1,000-square-foot hole in the wall.” But one of our nominators praised the shop’s “Brontosaurus,” named for the “Bronto Burger” on The Flintstones. The sandwich is made with Carolina brand ground turkey Freij says is “lean and mean.” The grind is half-and-half dark and light meat, flavored with a bit of special seasoning. The sandwich is served on an Italian sub roll from West Fenkell Bakery in Livonia. The most commonly requested topping for the Bronto Sub is provolone, but Freij has white and yellow American, Swiss, shredded mozzarella, and even pepper jack. Heck, he’ll even heap it with grilled onions or mushrooms. But why is it named the Bronto? Freij says he needed to distinguish the ground turkey sub from the deli turkey sub, and the Bronto seemed to work. “Besides,” he says, “when you think about it, a turkey is what’s left of the dinosaurs, right?”
Jim Brady’s Detroit
The “Big Junior” sandwiches at Jim Brady’s are special — in fact, they’re dubbed “the great American sandwich.” They remind us of the tallish creations served at Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh, which are similarly made with crosswise cuts of Italian bread, with fries and coleslaw included in the actual sandwich. (The ones at Brady’s come with tomato too.) They come four different ways, but the Belushi is extra hearty: At its center is a hand-formed, cooked-to-order patty made of locally sourced free-range Black Angus beef chuck topped with melted white cheddar cheese, along with the rest. It’s as bold, classic, and American as John (or at least Jim) Belushi himself.
How do you make a Reuben at Birmingham’s Townhouse? Just like a normal Reuben, except with everything turned up to 11. You use only the finest hand-cut corned beef, and sauerkraut from the lactofermentation experts at Ann Arbor’s Brinery. You don’t simply toast the rye bread — you grill it. After that, it’s just Swiss and Russian dressing.
Uncle Harry’s Deli/Restaurant
The Reuben sandwich at Uncle Harry’s in St. Clair Shores needs little introduction. It has been photographed, written about, and memorialized by writers for years. And it’s because of the restaurant’s commitment to quality, which means the food is either made from scratch or sourced locally. The corned beef is no exception: It’s made by Sy Ginsberg and boiled in-house. The sandwiches are expertly crafted, with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on marbled rye bread. Boss and sandwich artist Rick Meltzer has 45 years’ worth of experience stacking them high. Sure, Uncle Harry’s has only been open 39 years, but Meltzer traces his career in hospitality back to the Oakland Health Club, aka the Schvitz, which was built by his father, (Uncle) Harry, and his grandfather, Charles Meltzer, in 1930. Talk about a well-seasoned career with deep Detroit roots!
Old Carolina Barbecue Company
Big Cue, Carolina-Style, Pig Stand Pulled Pork Sandwich
At Ann Arbor’s Old Carolina, the pulled pork between the buns on your sandwich is always slow-smoked to perfection, awaiting your choice of four sauces. But the decisions can just get more interesting from there. You can get the regular 5-ounce or the Big Cue 7-ounce. You can get it Carolina-style for an extra 99 cents, which means the meat gets doused with coastal vinegar and gets a topping of vinegar slaw. For another 99 cents, get it “pig stand style,” which comes with fresh-fried onion strings. See? You really can have it all.
Who’s Greenberg Anyways?
$12.50 for a nosher, $15.50 for a fresser
Zingerman’s is famous for local sourcing, making stuff from scratch, selecting the best, freshest ingredients, and preparing stuff in-house, and their sandwich No. 1, selected by one of our panelists, is no exception. Take the bread, for instance: It’s hand-sliced Jewish rye baked fresh at Zingerman’s Bakehouse, even with the caraway seeds thoughtfully ground into the bread so you won’t have to pick your teeth later. What’s more, the bread is baked a second time at the deli, to warm and soften the center and crisp the outer crust. The heart of the sandwich is Sy Ginsberg corned beef from United Meat & Deli in Detroit, cooked in-house. Even the house-made Russian dressing — which is essentially simply mayo, ketchup, pickle relish, and seasoning — is made of only the finest of condiments. The sandwich also gets some leaf lettuce and some chopped liver. Why chopped liver? The delicatessen’s Michelle Weiss tells us that, no, there’s apparently no link between the mysterious Greenberg and that culinary stand-in for an overlooked personage: The chopped liver is a flavorful and inexpensive traditional Jewish food that is included to impart a bit of richness, much in the same way adding a slice of liverwurst makes any sandwich more decadent. And who is Greenberg? Weiss says it’s part of the Zingerman’s origin story, and why it’s sandwich No. 1: When they were founding their deli empire in the 1980s, Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig were poised to call the enterprise “Greenberg’s Deli” — since it was a nice, generic, Jewish-sounding name — until they discovered there already was a Greenberg’s. The name of the sandwich is based on their initial harrumph over that discouraging circumstance.
As fans of foreign food already know, Madison Heights is a hotbed of Asian food, with a “Vietnamese triangle” of sorts reaching out at 13 Mile and John R roads. In that vicinity, you’ll find almost a dozen restaurants that serve a banh mi, the French-inflected sandwich that comes on a baguette. But our panel nominated 8-year-old Que Huoung as best, largely due to the quality of Que Huoung’s bread. Chances are the management knows its baguettes give it a decisive edge. (See if you can get anybody to tell you where they get their bread!)
Back in 2005, when you could still just walk in and get a table at Slows Bar-B-Q, this sandwich was how many a barbecue neophyte eased into the low-and-slow phenomenon. Of course, this “sandwich” is so delightfully loose and sloppy, it quickly turns into a fork-and-knife dining experience, but that’s OK. The makings of a full meal are all there: pulled pork, sauce, coleslaw, dill pickle strips. And today, the sandwich that helped build a new business is now a classic.
Stage & Co.
Of course, West Bloomfield’s Stage & Co. offers grand renditions of classic deli sandwiches, but our panelists went gaga for the Camelot, a loaded club sandwich Stage’s Perry Goldberg tells us it is probably from the sandwich menu at the Oak Park location in 1962. Like most clubs, it’s a triple-decker, but even more gigantic, with lettuce, tomato, and plenty of bacon and oven-roasted turkey, all on white toast. Get it grilled, and instead of toasting the bread, they’ll butter it and grill it to add a bit of richness.
River’s Edge Brewery
Cuban Missile Crisis
Co-owner Ryan Wiltse tells us that River’s Edge had really wanted to put a Cubano sandwich on the menu, but “we have a super small kitchen.” Without the room to roast large cuts of meat, the next best thing was to create something called the “Cuban Missile Crisis” (Wiltse says, “We felt like we’d be lying to call it a Cuban.”) It’s a fresh take on a Cubano, with all-natural turkey, ham, Swiss, house-made garlic mayo, McClure’s pickles, and Backwoods brand sweet jalapeno mustard on artisan bread from Fenton’s Crust Bakery. The mustard and pickles combine to give it an assertive flavor, and it’s the brewery’s biggest seller. So there’s no crisis after all? “Maybe a bit of an identity crisis,” Wiltse says with a laugh, “because it’s not truly a Cuban, but it’s as close as we could come, and it’s a really good sandwich.”
Six-layer Italian sub
No sooner had we asked what sandwich places people liked than several panelists insisted on Gonella’s. One of our panelists insisted we include the affordable six-layer Italian sub, which comes with turkey, chicken, mortadella, ham, salami, and provolone, and the Italian sauce is like olive oil “with extra love in it.” Best of all: The Gonella’s fan is now an anguished vegetarian who says, “the thought of that thin-sliced meat on their ciabatta makes me question my vegetarian ways and instills a longing for that mouth-watering sandwich.”
Dan & Vi’s
The Deli Slice
When is a slice of pizza a sandwich? When it’s two slices of pizza with the fixings in the middle. It’s the house specialty at Dan & Vi’s, one of the last remaining businesses along a depopulated stretch of Chene Street in Detroit, and has been for a decade. It’s ham, salami, cheese, shredded lettuce, chopped tomato and onion, with Italian dressing, layered between two pizza crusts seasoned with butter and Parmesan. A layer of foil helps keep the innards from spilling out the sides. These days, they even make a few different varieties of deli slice: turkey, club, veggie, and Hawaiian, but the classic is a Detroit original, still offered by the Skinner family on Chene.
PJ’s Lager House
J-Rae’s Vegan Po’ Boy
If you haven’t been to PJ’s lately, you should show up early and try something from their kitchen: There’s more than rock ’n’ roll on the menu. In fact, they prepare surprisingly good vegetarian offerings, notably the Vegan Po’ Boy, made of grilled tempeh patties, grilled onions, mushrooms, lettuce, and a veganaise-based remoulade, on a toasted bolillo bun.
The Dinty Moore is one of those Detroit culinary phenomena, much like the coney dog, the square pizza, and ABC. It’s a three-decker corned beef sandwich, with lettuce, tomato and Russian dressing, all on fresh white toast. And getting it from Bread Basket is always a solid bet.
This Fraser caterer throws one of the biggest St. Patrick’s Day parties in metro Detroit, and serves a corned beef sandwich based on a 75-year-old eastside family recipe during the week of the celebration. During the rest of the year, you can enjoy sandwiches al fresco at the Patio Bar & Grille, including the grilled chicken sandwich and the patio turkey club, which takes turkey breast, bacon, avocado, Swiss, roma tomato, and garlic aioli, and puts them all on a pretzel bun.
Irish Craft Food & Brew
Classic Corned Beef
There are 14 variations on what can go between two pieces of bread at this eastside sandwich destination. At the top of the list is the Classic Corned Beef, with slow-cooked corned beef and Swiss on grilled marble rye. If you’re a fan of combining food and liquor like we are, Irish Craft has two sandwiches on the menu that do just that: the Jack Daniel’s steak wrap and Jack Daniel’s chicken sandwich, both of which are finished with a glaze made from the whiskey.
Bubbling under: Astro Coffee, Athens Souvlaki, Detroit Institute of Bagels, Caprara Bakery, Downtown, Detroit Institute of Bagels, Goodwell’s, Grand Trunk, House of Reuben, La Pita, Lile’s Sandwich Shop, Lou’s Deli, Lunch Box Deli, Mr. A’s Party Shoppe, Noah’s Deli, Rubbed, Russell Street Deli, Second Street Sub Shop, Sprout House, Star Deli.
Serena Daniels, William Hynde, Jack Roskopp, and Dustin Blitchok contributed to this article.
Who doesn’t love an awards ceremony? Nobody: That’s who. In fact, people love awards so much, we figured we could cut right through all the voting and judging and skip right to the glory and folderol. So we grabbed an assortment of random people, deputized them as “panelists,” and then quizzed them on what their favorite sandwiches were. We then chased down the particulars on those creations, wrote them up, and found fascinating stories.