In August, Tostada Magazine founder Serena Maria Daniels set out on a mission to taste the Popeyes fried chicken sandwich. The craggy fast-food sandwich debuted in August to increasingly sensational headlines that spiraled into an insatiable viral mania. Customers simply couldn’t get enough of the cultural phenomenon — or the sandwich itself. Daniels went to five branches of the fried-chicken chain to find one, coming up empty-handed each time. Finally, she headed off to a video shoot where, coincidentally, someone had just gotten their hands on the elusive, crispy, bread-wrapped bird. Daniels tried a bite. It was, in a word, “magnificent,” she reported in an August Facebook post just before the sought-after sandwich temporarily disappeared from national menus.
Daniels, who occasionally contributes to Eater, says she went into the mission with a healthy dose of skepticism about the role of fast food in communities of color. However, the experience also led her — and many other reporters — to think about whether any other chicken-sandwich delights in Detroit’s own backyard were worthy of the same level of praise. In December, she found the sandwich that spoke to her: the karaage chicken sandwich at Ima in Midtown.
Within hours of Daniels’s story about the karaage sandwich publishing on Tostada, Detroit Free Press critic Mark Kurlyandchik dropped a story drawing similar comparisons to the Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen sandwich. Soon after, similar headlines touting the sandwich emerged on Deadline Detroit and Metro Times. In fewer than 24 hours following the restaurant’s first service on Cass Avenue, Ima’s dish had become the latest hyped sandwich to emerge out of Detroit in 2019.
Detroit’s food media, and, as a result, its restaurant patrons, went absolutely wild for sandwiches this year. In a city with some undeniably legendary sandwiches — the Boogaloo Wonderland at Chef Greg’s Soul-in-the Wall (whose greatest champion, Allee Willis, died last week), the fluffy egg sandwich at Astro Coffee, the hot pastrami at Hygrade Deli, and the hulking deli sandwiches at Ernie’s Market are just a few of the many that come to mind — 2019 produced more headline-generating sandwich items than any year in recent memory.
Sure, there were the short-lived sandwiches at the Farmer’s Hand, which people sought out in droves a few years ago, and last year’s December breakfast sandwich hit, Iggy’s Eggies, but the sandwich landscape seemed to go into hyperdrive in the past 12 months.
The season of sandwiches got a head start in Detroit in January with the debut of Latido at Joebar in Hazel Park, where Mark Kurlyandchik found a fast favorite in the Cuban sandwich. Then came the nearly simultaneous openings of Eater Award winner Saffron De Twah, with its Moroccan fried chicken and cauliflower shawarma batbout sandwiches, and Ochre Bakery, whose menu features braised lamb sandwich on fresh focaccia.
Summer brought an ovation from Bon Appétit for Marrow’s not-so-secret deli sandwiches and the rival lobster roll takeovers at trend-setter Mudgie’s Deli and Birmingham’s Hazel, Ravines and Downtown. At the same time, ahead of its November debut, Mink was busy tempting future customers with a different type of enchanting seafood-sandwich delight: the restaurant’s marvelously soft and buttery shrimp rolls. In the same spirit as Daniels, city-run site the Neighborhoods rooted out its local contenders in the chicken sandwich wars with entries including Midwest Grille Express, Pack Your Lunch, and Durden’s Catering.
But the true breakout hit of 2019 was a modest Bosnian restaurant that snuck onto the scene in May and soon dominated the food-media conversation. Within weeks of its opening, Metro Times’s critic Tom Perkins gave his nod of approval to Balkan House, noting its particularly tasty German-style döner in a review. Meanwhile, Kurlyandchik — a noted döner devotee — was quietly making repeat visits to the restaurant. The Free Press critic tells Eater he’d been fruitlessly seeking out a worthy döner in the U.S. since having his first taste of the popular European street food on a trip to Germany during graduate school. In 2016, he posted a genuine plea to his Facebook account urging someone, anyone, in Detroit to open a döner shop.
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