Metro Detroit's longtime sandwich institutions have always done it right and deserve respect — Mudgie's, Lunch Box, Russell Street, Bread Basket, Lou's, and a few others continue to reign as Detroit's supreme sandwich makers. But sandwiches are everywhere, and — beyond the aforementioned reliable kitchens — the ubiquitous hoagie, hero, panino, sub, sammie, or samuel can feel a little uninspired.
In that way, it's a tough market to trade in, but a new generation of sandwich stackers are adding a fresh spin to the art.
At the weekly Boboville pop-up in Hamtramck, for example, chef Blair Wills is offering rare-for-Detroit sandwiches like his take on the classic French croque madame. It arrives with slices of salty, smoked Canadian maple ham between grilled Milano Bakery farm bread. Strong Gruyère and mild mozzarella ooze from the slices. The béchamel sauce — rich and nutty with a light cayenne heat — keeps the plate moist, and the small stack sits under an over-easy egg that's crowned with black pepper.
For his Cubano, Wills smokes pork shoulder for 12 hours, then stacks it with sliced ham, dill pickles, and Swiss cheese on an El Gloria bakery roll. Similar care goes into the grilled porchetta. The first time we ordered it, it arrived with pieces of bread, meat, and other toppings spread out on the plate. We complained that it wasn't a sandwich. Wills clarified: "It's a deconstructed sandwich."
To prepare the deconstructed porchetta sandwich, Wills rubs a whole pork belly in garlic, herbs, and oil. That's tied and braised slow for four hours, then broiled for 30 to 40 minutes to crisp the skin.
Wills, who started his kitchen by building sandwiches at the venerable Lunch Box, says that his approach is to keep it simple and authentic.
"If I'm putting a sandwich on the menu, then it's a classic that I can't find much of somewhere else in town, like the croque madame, or the Cubano, or even the porchetta — sandwiches that aren't available here that are staples in other places around the world," he says. "I try to do my take on those, but do it how it's traditionally done. And I try to source the best products and use local bakeries, like La Gloria, and get real Cuban roll."
Like Wills, Pat Hingst, owner of M.C. 'Wiches, takes the extra effort in preparing his sandwich meats. Nine of 11 are smoked, cured, or roasted in-house.
Take, for instance, 'Wiches' Reuben. The 8-inch bun holds paper-thin slices of smoked pastrami with crisped edges. 'Wiches makes the 12 homemade sauces that appear throughout its menu, its bread is prepared from scratch, and its cookies and soups are also homemade from original recipes. And that's the type of thought and effort that's missing from similar sub shops.
"We politely point out that you can do better," says Hingst, who recently opened his second location in downtown Ferndale this year.
In Hamtramck, Boostan Cafe opened last year, and it rolls the flavors of Yemen, Egypt, North America, and the Mediterranean into its pitas. It does the standards like shawarma and kebab well, but more interesting is its inventive shish shat — a Tex-Mex-Mediterranean crossover with shredded chicken, tomatoes, pickles, jalapeños, and a tangy "Boostan sauce" (traditional garlic sauce combined with house-made ranch, and a few other spices) wrapped in a pita.
For a brief moment, Corktown's Rubbed traded in the Italian sandwiches, but it fizzled. La Pecora Nera ("black sheep") opened earlier this year, and partly filled the Italian sammy void downtown. It offers sandwiches like the loaded Italiano, which sports five meats — mortadella, salami, capicola, turkey, and ham — plus provolone and Italian dressing.
But the standout isn't Italian at all — it's the Reuben. As Metro Times food critic Jane Slaughter wrote in her review, the sandwich is "lightly toasted for crunch but also because of the excellent red cabbage slaw and house-made Thousand Island. As on the other sandwiches, the meat is piled high, and I thought the corned beef shone best on its own."
There's also the Mexican torta, of which a fine version is prepared by chef Junior Merino at M Cantina in Dearborn, which opened earlier this year. Their carne enchilada with chile-marinated pork is served in a sloppy mix between two pieces of panini pressed teleras.
And let's not forget the Vietnamese and the bahn mi. In Madison Heights, Que Huong's sweet and sticky barbecue pork sandwich comes on crusty 8-inch French bread buns with a forest of cilantro, jumbo slices of crunchy, fresh jalapeño, and thick carrot shreds. It's not on Que Huong's menu, so you'll have to ask the kitchen to make it.
And for what's arguably metro Detroit's most unusual sammie, check out the soba sandwich at Novi's Hipp House — a salty and tangy soba noodle sandwich.