Digging Into Detroit's Corned Beef Egg Roll

[Photographs: Tom Perkins]

Each afternoon, 30 mammoth hunks of Sy Ginsberg–brand pickled beef brisket are boiled, then lined up for slicing in Bread Basket Deli kitchens across metro Detroit. For those who don’t toil in the cured-meat trade, the 12-pound pink and tan slabs filling up the kitchens are an impressive sight. Bread Basket owner Al Winkler burns through a lot of brisket—around 24,000 pounds weekly, which he says is more than any one restaurant in the nation.

Much of that corned beef will be piled into nine-ounce stacks and set between two pieces of rye or buried in an onion roll. But the scraps and shavings that aren’t pretty enough for a sandwich find a different home—the corned beef egg roll, which is exactly what it sounds like: cured meat bundled up in an egg roll wrapper and deep-fried.

Folding what was once considered waste into those wrappers represents what Winkler calls "found money." But, five years after he wrapped his first egg rolls, shavings alone can’t meet the growing demand, and he’s stocking up on more 12-pound slabs of brisket to keep up.

"I started putting them on my menu four or five years ago, and they took off like a bat out of hell. I sell between 5,000 and 6,000 per week," Winkler tells me.

He’s not alone. Many of Detroit's other old-school, corned beef–driven delis, like Lou’s, Mr. Fo-Fo’s, and D-Dee’s, now wrap their own take on the egg roll. And, though it was invented in delis in largely African-American neighborhoods, you’ll now see versions of it on menus at Irish pubs, bars, and barbecue joints, like McShane’s, Old Shillelagh, Zeke’s, Pop’n Smoked BBQ, and more.

In fact, the corned beef egg roll is generating enough buzz in different corners of Detroit’s food world that there’s reason to believe we might be witnessing the birth of the metro Detroit area’s next great dish. If so, that raises a few questions: What exactly is it? Where did it come from? And, more generally, what does it take for a foodstuff to become a regional dish?

As the name suggests, a corned beef egg roll consists of an egg roll wrapper rolled and folded around a small pile of razor-thin salted and cured beef. The package is then plunged into 350°F oil and cooked until crisp. Gooey, white, mild cheese, like mozzarella, and sour cabbage are typically, but not always, part of the formula. Rolls come in a range of sizes: At some places, the average customer would need two to make a meal; at others, one four-inch wrap stuffed to the seams will suffice. In all its iterations, the corned beef egg roll works because of its simplicity, relying on that old, trustworthy combination of salt and fat.

The first corned beef egg roll was put together in 1978 by Kim White, a Vietnamese immigrant and onetime deli employee. A surfeit of corned-beef scraps might seem an unlikely problem, but in the late 1960s and through the ‘70s, Detroit had a robust corned-beef culture, with Jewish delis and corned-beef shops everywhere. In many ways, White’s creation mirrors the origin story of Detroit’s venerable coney dog: Exactly 100 years ago, in 1917, newly arrived Macedonian immigrants in Coney Island, Brooklyn, ladled a near-flood of thin beefheart chili across a frankfurter and steamed bun, then topped it with a handful of diced onions and a few healthy streaks of mustard. In doing so, they created a food that, when transplanted by Greek and Macedonian diner owners to Detroit, became so beloved that there are now "coney islands"—small, diner-like restaurants that take their name from the iconic hot dog—on seemingly every street corner in the city. Similarly, the corned beef egg roll White made put a little immigrant twist on an already-popular staple.

White would go on to start Asian Corned Beef, which has since grown from one restaurant into a seven-location mini empire, with an eighth location on the way. ACB, as it’s affectionately known, now sells rolls for between $1.75 and $3.50. (The more expensive ones hold corned beef and cheese along with other ingredients, like steak, ground beef, or turkey.)

While the corned beef egg roll is a relatively simple affair, there are important differences among the many variations found across town. The best egg rolls are made to order, densely packed with higher-quality ingredients, and use the perfect ratio of corned beef to cheese, although some places have figured out how to make the concept work without cheese. At their peak, they offer appealing textural interplay between the soft meat, the crunchy shell, the melted cheese, and—if requested—sauerkraut or raw cabbage shreds.

Asian Corned Beef’s rolls are thick-shelled, and the cheese plays a relatively minor role compared with the rolls sold in other shops, like Mr. Fo-Fo’s, which also serves some of the best in Detroit. For some insight into the finer points involved, Mr. Fo-Fo’s co-owner Otis Lee, who goes by Mr. Lee, recently provided me with a demo of corned beef egg roll assembly. To stress the importance of clean grease, he pulled a roll out of the fryer and cut it open, noting the air pocket between the filling and the top of the casing. If the grease were dirty, he said, the shell would collapse, and the whole thing would end up soggy and heavy. When fried correctly, Mr. Lee told me, the casings are light, crisp, and surprisingly un-greasy to the touch. Indeed, his sample egg roll, for having just been pulled out of boiling oil, felt unexpectedly dry to me, almost like it was covered in peach fuzz. Mr. Fo-Fo’s laces the meat with more shredded cheese than most shops, which, along with the generous beef portions, make these the biggest rolls in Detroit—though they’re also slightly more expensive, at $4 each. Because of their size, Mr. Fo-Fo’s doesn’t label them "egg rolls"—instead, they’re "fried grinders" or sandwiches, because "that’s more what they are," Mr. Lee’s son, Keith, explained.

Mr. Lee nearly shouts when I ask if the corned beef egg roll could be southeast Michigan’s next staple. "As big as the coney dog! It will be up there and beyond, no doubt about it, no question about it! This is big stuff. I’ve got people coming in and they’ll order five, 10, 15 at a time."

To determine whether his prediction may come true, it helps to take a look at Detroit’s other iconic foodstuffs. As brilliant as the invention of the coney dog was, it wasn’t until a number of establishments had replicated it that it became a regional delicacy, one that’s since become a point of pride among Detroiters—something over which we don’t just agree, but bond.

The corned beef egg roll is not yet a Great Uniter. Instead, its current stage of development invites comparisons to Detroit-style pizza, which was invented just after World War II at Buddy’s Pizza, a former speakeasy turned dive bar/pizzeria. In an appropriately Detroit move, chefs at Buddy’s baked the pizzas in repurposed blue steel utility trays designed for parts storage at local auto factories. The best pizzerias in the city today are directly or indirectly linked to that shop, and still use those trays. As a Buddy’s corporate manager once told me, "Detroit-style pizza is actually Buddy’s pizza."

But over the decades, the more ambitious chefs and managers from Buddy’s struck out on their own, launching formidable spots like Loui’s in the early ‘70s. Those kitchens are breeding still more chefs, and even national brands, such as Jet's, offer a fast-food take on Detroit-style pizza. Some argue that the second-generation shops, like Loui’s, are superior due to their more liberal application of Wisconsin Brick cheese, and the fact that it’s cubed instead of shredded, which results in a better melt. Loui’s customers also point out that the dough is lighter, more focaccia-like, but simultaneously thick and sturdy enough as a base to support a pound of cheese. Some say Loui’s is superior because its owners chose not to expand, while the quality of Buddy’s pizza suffered when it grew into a local chain. Though this isn’t the forum for a discussion of which pizza is the best, the ongoing debate over the relative merits and demerits of different incarnations of Detroit-style pizza is the kind that one hears only around a significant regional dish.

We’re starting to hear those discussions around corned beef egg roll purveyors, too. As with the later generations of Detroit pizza makers, you’ll find chefs’ unique imprints on the dish at different spots throughout the area. In some restaurants, they’re referred to as "Reuben" or "Irish" egg rolls. One example of the latter, at McShane’s Irish Pub, includes potato. It’s a minor addition, and it’s still a corned beef egg roll at its core, but it’s clearly a McShane’s roll. And that sort of evolution is a sign that Detroit’s own egg roll is growing into something more than just a beloved local delicacy—it’s well on its way to becoming southeast Michigan’s next regional dish.