The origins of Detroit cult hit Asian Corned Beef

An unlikely pairing

If the rest of America knows Detroit food at all, they'll mention our coneys, our square pizza, our shawarma shops, and maybe (if they're really cool) our slider joints and ham shops.

And then there's the Asian Corned Beef, a westside creation with a specific origin story. The local take-out chain has fed East and Westsiders for nearly 40 years. Its four locations offer corned beef, pastrami, and roast beef served in onion rolls, plus typical sides like wing dings, deviled eggs, and cheesecakes.

But what makes Asian Corned Beef stand out from other delis are its corned beef egg rolls: crispy, fried rolled pockets usually filled with the salted, cured meat, plus melted Swiss cheese or cabbage, and dipped in a kind of mustard vinaigrette or, like the classic Chinese-American egg roll, in packets of duck sauce. They sit pre-rolled, uncooked in a glass display case and are fried to-order — an indulgent mix of salty, gooey, and crunchy.

They sell for between $1.50 and $3. Forget about ordering ahead: Whether you phone it in, stop in at the store's 11 a.m. opening, or at 2 a.m. after the clubs close, you're likely to wait a good 10 to 15 minutes for your order.

This snack is a classic example of "fusion" cuisine that existed long before that term became played out. They were born on Detroit's west side in 1978 in a shop at 13660 Wyoming St., by Vietnamese native Kim White, her son Hasan White tells Metro Times.

"My mom came here in 1974 and her first job was in a corned beef deli," White says. "With her Oriental knowledge and the deli experience, she came up with the idea to use the Chinese egg roll wrappers with the corned beef."

They've since been replicated in similar forms all over metro Detroit, like at Bread Basket and Lou's Deli, but have also inspired the menus of newer establishments. Eastern Market's Stache International, for instance, does a "Bavarian Roll" — smoked ham, dill pickle, and a side of brown mustard.

Stache International co-owner Ray Moses says that while the Bavarian iteration is his own, he can't help but feel that the classic Detroit spot somehow seeped into his consciousness.

We frequent the eastside location at Seven Mile and Conant — miles away from the trendy little pockets that make up Detroit's hyped-up dining scene. There are no Edison bulbs, or artwork commissioned by an edgy street artist — or even tables or chairs. Instead, customers order through a bulletproof turnstyle window and either wait in their cars or in the sparse lobby. What Asian Corned Beef lacks in hip décor though is made up for in its staying power. After all, what Detroiters have always valued most in dining is flavor packed into an affordable vessel.

Asian Corned Beef has three locations in Detroit: 13660 Wyoming St.; 313-834-1819; 14820 W. Seven Mile Rd.; 313-469-9121); and 2847 E. Seven Mile Rd.; 313-893-1650.

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