In August, the monthslong renovation at an abandoned former McDonald's near Woodward Avenue and Seven Mile in Detroit was finally completed, capped with a grand opening banner and colorful flags. The mood was festive, with a line forming before the doors even opened. Inside, Hot 107.5 was airing live from a table in the back, hyping the crowd up with Cardi B tracks and lots of plugs for the grand opening of the new store. Outside, the iconic Mickey D golden arches had long been taken down, now replaced with the faux-calligraphic logo of a much smaller yet rising fast food chain: Detroit's homegrown Asian Corned Beef.
Among Detroit's Jewish-style deli scene, Asian Corned Beef stands out thanks to its signature dish: the somewhat self-explanatory corned beef egg roll, or corned beef and swiss cheese wrapped in a crispy Chinese-style egg roll wrapper. They serve other variants, including versions with ground beef, pastrami, steak, and — unique to the store at 19102 Woodward Ave., Detroit — a trendy new lobster roll-style egg roll.
Ranging in price from $1.99 to $3.49, they're relatively cheap and arrive within minutes, crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside, and they've earned a reputation as a distinctly Motor City snack (though not quite at the level of a coney dog or Detroit-style square pizza — yet). This new store even has a drive-through, the ACB chain's first.
Though they're hardly a new phenomenon — Asian Corned Beef first started selling them in Detroit in the 1980s — the snack has grown in popularity in recent years. Last year, while visiting from New York, a writer from the feminist website Jezebel declared the corned beef egg roll to be "the best thing you can eat in Detroit." ("I can only describe the experience of that egg roll as a full-body orgasm but localized in my mouth," she added.) And there's plenty of reason to declare 2019 the year of the corned beef egg roll: Under inventor Kim White's son Hasan, the chain has grown rapidly, now boasting eight locations across Detroit and Highland Park, and even more are planned.
"My mom and dad actually created it," Hasan told us during a brief moment of rest during the store's opening day festivities. "My mom has an Asian background — she likes to cook different Chinese cuisines, egg rolls and things. And my dad, he loves corned beef. So, you know, cooking in the kitchen together, they came up with the recipe. My dad said, 'Here, Kim, put some of this corned beef in the egg roll. Let's try it. See how it goes.'"
Suffice it to say, it went pretty well. Kim started serving the egg rolls at her first Asian Corned Beef restaurant, which opened in 1982 at 13660 Wyoming Ave., near Schoolcraft Road on the city's west side. After growing up working with his mother, Hasan set out to open a store of his own. Following a couple false starts, he opened one on Seven Mile Road in 2004. (That location has since burned down; he later opened another store nearby at 3741 E. Seven Mile Rd.) A decade later, he decided to open another one, located at 14820 W. Seven Mile Rd.
"One store wasn't challenging enough," he says. "I've been doing this since I was 7 years old. At first I didn't like it, but now I love it."
Since 2014, the chain has opened a new location just about every year: 21559 Grand River Ave., 13240 Gratiot Ave., 21639 W. Eight Mile Rd. This year saw the opening of two: Just one week after the 19102 Woodward Ave. location's grand opening, another shop a bit farther south — at 12300 Woodward Ave. in Highland Park — opened in a small strip mall, run by White's other son, Randy.
Like Hasan, Randy also spent his childhood working for his mother — "since the age of 10," he says. "I used to stand on a milk crate to reach the cash register, and ride my bicycle to work."
The Highland Park store is the first Asian Corned Beef he's run. Unlike other, bigger fast-food chains, ACB stores don't have a cookie-cutter design. Randy's store boasts a bright red interior and funky wooden accents in a cascading pattern along one wall. (When we meet him, he wears a T-shirt featuring the work of street artist Hebru Brantley.) Like the other Woodward Avenue location, Randy's store has an aquarium with live fish in it, which has become another part of Asian Corned Beef's branding.
Since Asian Corned Beef originated and proliferated in Detroit's predominantly Black inner-city neighborhoods, the two new openings signal a major milestone in ACB's trajectory. Now with two locations along one of the city's major thoroughfares, closer to its revitalized core, the chain is poised to cross over to new audiences. Hasan says he's even working on plans to expand to the suburbs, eyeing potential locations in Royal Oak and Warren.
"It's doing a lot better," Randy says of the chain. "It was really small for so long."
There’s plenty of reason to declare 2019 the year of Asian Corned Beef: The chain has grown rapidly, now boasting eight locations, and even more are planned.
It might be easy for some to write off a fusion dish like Asian Corned Beef as a chintzy example of "cultural appropriation," but its origin story happened in an organic way. In many ways, it's an all-American snack.
And anyway, that would lack a basic understanding of American culinary history. It's worth noting that egg rolls are already an American take on Chinese spring rolls, believed to have been first invented in New York City in the 1930s. And corned beef took off during the British Industrial Revolution, with Ireland producing much of it using beef imported from France and Spain, then exporting it around the world in the Atlantic trade. In the United States, Irish immigrants began to purchase a similar salt-cured brisket from Jewish butchers in New York City, an inevitable exchange between two cultures living in such proximity to each other. There, corned beef sandwiches became part of the Jewish delicatessen tradition (which itself was borrowed from Germany), taking off here in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century.
Similarly, Detroit's corned beef egg roll comes from a natural blend of two different cultures living together.
Kim White meets us at MGM Grand Casino, where she likes to spend her Sundays doing a little gambling — a tradition she's held for more than a decade. She's dressed in a flowing blouse, with a green Buddha necklace — "from my home country," she says.
She says she came to the United States in 1974 after meeting her then-husband while he was serving in the Army in Vietnam. Originally from South Carolina, White's husband, an African-American man, decided they would move to Detroit, following his brother on a business venture. It was here that she was introduced to deli food — and good old-fashioned American entrepreneurialism.
"I didn't know anything about this country, how free it is," she says. "When I got here, I thought I was going to have to find a sugar daddy."
"In my country, they think all American people are filthy rich," she says, looking out at the city skyline. "When I get here... not what people think over there!"
White says she's always loved to cook, and enjoyed trying to cook other types of cuisine. She soon got a job working in the cafeteria at the old Dodge Main plant. Later, she took a job working at Mr. Fo-Fo's Deli, learning how a restaurant is run, but quit after just four months to go her own way. "He was so mad!" she says of her old boss.
She started her own restaurant, the first Asian Corned Beef, on the west side in 1982. At first, she just sold corned beef sandwiches. It didn't go over so well.
"A lot of people say 'Asian Corned Beef?' They were scared to buy a sandwich," she says. "They see the name and they don't trust Asians to do corned beef." After tinkering with corned beef egg rolls at home, she added it to the menu at her store, and it began to catch on.
Soon after opening her first store, White opened two more, one on Woodward and Kenilworth in the North End, and another on Eight Mile Road; she shut down both in the '90s when she found the workload to be too much. In 2000, she and her husband split up.
In the meantime, White continued to work in the kitchen of her original restaurant, where she found solace. "Ever since I got divorced, I got more time to myself," she says. "It was so peaceful. After almost 20 years, I feel so good."
For decades, White honed her craft, serving up her American-Asian take on corned beef sandwiches in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Thanks to the cheap price point and late hours held at some of her locations, corned beef egg rolls earned a following as a great late-night snack, an ideal way to soak up booze after a night out at the clubs.
Those were the circumstances behind a viral 2018 video showing a brawl between employees and an intoxicated customer at the Asian Corned Beef store on Gratiot Avenue near Six Mile Road. The customer, irate because his order was messed up, tried to go behind the counter, causing ACB employees to fight back. A customer caught the action on their smartphone, uploading it to Facebook with the caption, "Asian Cornbeef on gratiot ghetto." Detroit's TV stations ate it up.
Hasan declined to press charges, and is eager to move beyond the headlines. Since then, he's beefed up security at his stores. (When we meet him at the grand opening, he carries a gun at his hip, and has hired two security guards.)
Still, the incident created a hurdle for ACB's expansion. Before securing the former McDonald's on Woodward Avenue, located near Detroit's more affluent Palmer Woods and Sherwood Forest communities, Hasan had been eyeing the former Stanley's Other Place on Eight Mile Road, located near the Green Acres neighborhood — which is also one of Detroit's more affluent. But there, the community galvanized in opposition to the new restaurant.
Writing on behalf of the Green Acres-Woodward Civic Association in its newsletter, resident Nick Lessnau built a case against letting Asian Corned Beef move in, warning of the restaurant's "adverse economic impact." In a community meeting, a Green Acres resident claimed that ACB's customers would loiter and increase "criminal activity," and that property values would plummet. In the end, Green Acres won, as the property was not zoned for a carryout restaurant, anyway.
Nevertheless, the Asian Corned Beef mini-empire grows. Hasan admits he had been apprehensive about expanding beyond Detroit's inner-city neighborhoods. But the rise of dining delivery services showed him there was, in fact, an appetite for corned beef egg rolls beyond them. "I didn't think I would get that much business," he says. "But now since DoorDash and Grubhub and things became available, we've been getting a lot of business from other cities."
In the meantime, the corned beef egg roll began to get picked up by other local deli chains, appearing on the menus of spots like Lou's, Al's Famous Deli, Bread Basket Deli, and even Mr. Fo-Fo's Deli, where Kim White first learned the trade, among others.
But Hasan says he's unfazed by the biters. "Actually, it makes me feel good," he says. "If they can find a way to make a profit off it, great. People are thinking I should be upset about it. I'm like, no, that just means this is a really good product."
Kim White also says she doesn't mind the copycats, though she admits she was trying to copyright her invention with the help of a friend who was a lawyer; that effort ended when he recently died. And anyway, she says, customers know she serves up the original corned beef egg roll.
"A lot of my customers say, 'Yeah, Kim, they sell your egg roll here, but they can't touch you," she says. "You know why? Because I'm here all day, every day. I cook the food myself."
White says she still gets a thrill when customers enjoy her work. "When I cook it and I see people like my food, I feel so good," she says. "I don't know why. It's like I'm on crack or something! That's how I feel. I never smoked or nothing — I just love to see people like my food!" She says she even helped a customer from New York City freeze some up to take back home. Who knows — maybe the snack will catch on in the American city where its inspirations, egg rolls and deli-style corned beef sandwiches, originally proliferated.
Aside from her Sundays at the casino, White is still working hard — "Sometimes I work 12 hours, 13 hours [a] day," she says. She says she has warned Hasan not to stretch himself too thin.
"I asked him to cool it because he's so busy," she says. "It's too much for one person! You go crazy."
But White says she's hoping to retire this year, and is looking forward to the possibility of going back to Vietnam to visit her sister. After living in Detroit for most of her life, she recently moved out to a sleepier suburb.
"It's so peaceful. Nobody bothers you," she says. "If you want [to find] a crackhead, you got to look for one."
Still, she says she loves being part of the community where she founded her first restaurant. "I've been there like 40 years now at that corner," she says. "Everybody knows me. Everybody loves my attitude."
"Half the city of Detroit knows me and my food," she says.
It seems likely that soon enough, the other half will, too.
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